Controversy surrounding artist Ai Weiwei’s photo is misguided

December 7, 2017 — by Oksana Trifonova

Artist Ai Weiwei recently made headlines when he published a photo of himself lying face down on the pebble beach of the Greek island Lesbos, posing as the 3-year-old drowned Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi.

While the black-and-white image was lauded by many newspaper editors, photographers and art critics, it caused considerable controversy among other contemporary artists, such as Sean Capone and Sally Davies, who called it "egotistical victim porn" and "an opportunist move to hitchhike onto a current tragedy."

When I read some of these offended reactions, I was both pleased and angered.

One one hand, I liked that the photo caused so much controversy, because it drew more attention to the issue. Thousands of photos are taken daily by photojournalists, but few garner as much attention or emotion as Weiwei’s did. The controversial factor of the photo is what makes it valuable: The trending story spread through social media like wildfire and gave more exposure to the crisis than ever before.

I was also angered.

Nowadays, almost everything on the Internet can offend someone, especially if it deals with race, religion or politics. The critics who said that Weiwei trivialized the issue did not take into account that the photo would cause more good than harm.

People being offended by something online often do not know anything about the alleged offender: neither the person’s experiences nor his/her actions outside of the Internet — the things that really matter.

Weiwei contributed more to the refugees than the people criticizing his art ever could. This shot was not a one-time opportunity for fame. Before and after the photo was taken, Weiwei stood on the beach for weeks, providing food, water and emotional support to refugees arriving on the Greek island.

“My moments with refugees in the past months have been intense,” Weiwei said in an interview with the Guardian. “I see thousands come daily — children, babies, pregnant women, old ladies, a young boy with one arm.”

Unlike most of his critics, Weiwei has always been heavily involved in aiding the refugees, both physically and symbolically. His art, also revolving around the subject of the refugee crisis, is simply another way to express solidarity: It meant to aid and not offend.

Instead of crying “foul” at Weiwei’s moving photograph, maybe it’s time for critics to also take action instead of hiding behind a computer screen and berating other people’s efforts to help.