Constructing, Confirming, and Contesting Icons: The Alan Kurdi Imagery appropriated by #humanitywashedashore, Ai Weiwei, and Charlie Hebdo

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This article argues that appropriations are central to both the production and reception of visual icons. Appropriations are instrumental in iconization processes as they confirm and consolidate the iconic status by recycling the image in question. At the same time, appropriations are vital to their reception as they help shape and delimit the publics and discourses surrounding visual icons. This article draws on existing research on visual icons and appropriations to develop a theoretical framework for how appropriations construct, confirm and contest icons and how personification constitutes the main link between icons and their appropriations. Three sets of appropriations are analyzed of the iconic imagery of Alan Kurdi, the refugee boy drowning in the Mediterranean in 2015. First, the numerous appropriations circulated under the Twitter hashtag #humanitywashedashore. Based on genre analysis of these appropriations, two overall modes are singled out: the appropriations either decontextualize or recontextualize the figure of Kurdi. The two next analytical cases test the limits of decontextualization and recontextualization: Chinese artist Ai Weiwei decontextualizes the Kurdi imagery in a controversial reenactment, while a series of cartoons by French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo insert the photo of the child into contested contexts to critique why and how this imagery was turned into an icon.
Original languageEnglish
JournalMedia, Culture & Society
Issue number8
Pages (from-to)1142–1161
Number of pages20
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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