Images of refugees, part 2: refugees on land

My last post was meant to be free-standing, a quick riff off something I’d been teaching that day. But it sparked a couple of conversations on Twitter that have prompted a few more thoughts.

Gérard Noiriel, Réfugiés et sans-papiers, paperback of the second edition

‘Refugees’ appear to be interchangeable, visually speaking, provided that you—the photographer, the picture editor—present them in a particular way. In my next post I’ll talk about one example that’s recently been doing (and re-doing) the rounds on the internet. But this post will focus on an example that’s been on my mind since I noticed it a while ago, when I bought a copy of this book.

Gérard Noiriel is one of France’s foremost historians of immigration, racism, and national identity. Réfugiés et sans-papiers, originally published under a different title in 1991, is an important study of how modern France has dealt—or failed to deal—with refugees and clandestine migrants, in law, politics, and other areas. I’m not taking issue with Noiriel, here, but with the design team at his publisher, Fayard. Have a closer look at the photo on the cover. More cheerful than many images of refugees, it nonetheless has much in common with the pictures in my last post: a road, a pair of refugees trudging down it, one of them carrying a heavy burden (which is, perhaps, metaphorical as much as literal in images like this).

Gérard Noiriel, Réfugiés et sans-papiers, cover, close-up
A closer look

The problem is that this photo has nothing to do with refugees in France. Taken near Haifa in 1949-50, it shows two recent arrivals in Israel: they had probably come from one of the Displaced Persons camps that continued to dot Europe for a decade after the end of the second world war. It’s by Robert Capa, who made three trips to Israel between 1948 and 1950—the first to cover the war of independence (or first Arab-Israeli war), the second and third concentrating on how the new state incorporated the large number of Holocaust survivors flowing into it. You can find it on the Magnum website.*

You see the problem. The image of ‘the’ refugee is so generic, such a standardized trope, that one set of refugees can stand for another, regardless of time and place—even when the specific picture is taken by one of the most renowned photographers of the twentieth century, and is famous enough for photography websites to include it in sets of images intended to inspire or instruct would-be emulators. This picture is all over the internet; when I searched Google Images for ‘Robert Capa refugees haifa’ one of the first (of many) results was a Pinterest board that lists this photo as showing refugees during the Spanish civil war.

Kosovar refugees
Could be anywhere

In my last post I only discussed the appearance of refugees themselves in these generic images: trudging masses, rarely distinguishable as human figures. But on further reflection I realize that it’s worth thinking about the landscape they’re set in, too. This is another point of difference between twentieth-century news photographs of refugees and the nineteenth-century painting I included there, despite their clear family resemblance. The size of Gruzinsky’s painting not only allows individual figures to emerge clearly: it also permits the painter to include a great swathe of mountain landscape behind them. There’s a balance, in other words, between the panorama and the close-up, which results partly from scale and partly from the (slow) speed of composition. Fine art photographs might manage this, but in news photography it’s unlikely.**

Mexican refugees going to Marfa, 1910, Library of Congress
Could be anywhere

News photographs were and are taken to be reproduced at a relatively modest size: even a double-page spread in a 1950s issue of Life would make a pretty small poster. The equipment used to take them reflected this intended result. For most of the twentieth century, this would be a relatively small-format film camera, with a lens whose angle of vision may have been a bit wider than normal—that is, non-peripheral—human vision, but not a lot: the classic lens for Magnum-style photoreportage had a focal length of 35mm.✝ That gives an angle of vision a little wider than humans’ non-peripheral vision, which helps account for the sense of heightened realism that the Magnum house style conveys: you see a bit more of a scene in a photo taken through a 35mm lens than you would if you were just looking at it with your own eyes, but not so much that it’s obviously unrealistic. But this equipment, and this size of reproduction, place constraints on what one photo can achieve. For human figures in an image like this to be clearly individualized, like the woman and child in the Capa photo, the photographer has to be so close to them that the landscape disappears: in this picture we just get a bit of road and the edge of a field, with a nicely dark barn to contrast sharply with the woman’s sunlit dress.

5 Refugees leaving Libya
Could be anywhere

Look again at the photos of refugees on foot in my last post and you’ll see that in all of them, including the selection returned by a Google image search, the landscape is too sharply cropped for any significant features to be visible. Give or take a tree, East Prussia in 1945 could be Stalingrad in 1942 or Palestine in 1948—or, if that image were in black and white, DRC in 2008. Even when the photographer’s perspective is far enough removed from the group of refugees to reduce them to anonymous figures, too little of the landscape comes into view to be identifiable beyond the most basic distinction (arid desert; grassy hillside). The same goes for the images I’ve interspersed here, which are from Macedonia in 1991, Mexico in 1910, and Libya in 2015, and come from sources as varied as the UN website, the Bain photographic agency archive at the Library of Congress, and a Counterpunch article.

The balance of panoramic landscape and individual human figures is very hard to strike in photography if you don’t have a large-format camera and a lot of time to compose the picture. One of the images I found for my most recent lecture does actually come close, but it’s an exception to prove the rule:

Everything destroyed and burnt. Men only remained = Tout était déruit et incendié. Les hommes seuls restaientThe panoramic format here allows the photo to take in a sweeping view of the landscape, while the very deep depth-of-field means that one of the refugees (they’re—probably—Serbian refugees in Albania, in 1915) is close enough to the camera to be clearly distinguished as an individual figure while remaining in focus. But this is a little while before the invention and popularization of 35mm film cameras in the 1920s. News photography as it developed later in the century wouldn’t generally use this letterbox format: this picture—it’s in the Library of Congress—is mounted on an awkwardly long postcard, and would fit even more awkwardly in a magazine or newspaper format. And the one figure who stands out from the huddled mass remains huddled and anonymous: hooded, and too dark against the pale background for any individual detail to appear in his clothes.

This is what refugees are reduced to by the highly standardized visual tropes that are used to depict them: essentially interchangeable people trudging with their possessions across what are—in photos, at least—essentially interchangeable landscapes. When it becomes so generic, the image of the refugee is doing part of the job of making refugees something less than fully human. Some of my students worked this out in class today, when they reflected on their own surprise at finding images of visibly prosperous Belgian refugees fleeing the German invasion in 1914: these stolid bourgeois in frock-coats or dresses looked like people, not ‘refugees’. Thinking through their own reaction, they understood for themselves what that says about how strongly stock images of refugees shape our understanding of what a ‘refugee’ is. (Racists on Twitter, arguing that Syrian refugees can’t be proper refugees if they’re carrying smartphones, share the surprise—but none of the critical self-reflection.)

It is possible, I think, to break out of this dehumanizing trope. Photographers don’t always stand well back from ‘refugees’ and visualize them as an amorphous mass in an unspecific landscape: they may work with individual refugees to document their experiences, close-up; they may situate them in specific rural or urban landscapes. (Some refugees are themselves photographers, too, professional or amateur—and in the age of the smartphone that can be a lot of people.) The problem is that when there’s only room for one image—on the newspaper homepage, on the cover of the book, on the NGO website—picture editors and publicity departments reach for a generic one that really obviously says ‘refugees’. That decision isn’t usually taken by a refugee, and for that matter neither is the photo. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’ll end this post with an example of a visual depiction of refugees that starts with a panoramic (indeed, cinematic) view of a landscape but then gradually shifts its focus through different scales, so to speak, to concentrate on individuals—who, by the end, are no longer refugees.

Poles in Persia, British Pathé newsreel
Poles in Persia

Poles in Persia is a British Pathé newsreel from 1943. I’d read about the group of Polish refugees who trekked overland from Poland to Persia during the second world war, but I only saw this newsreel when a friend tweeted me a link after reading my last post. It would be a mistake to view this as straightforward reportage: it’s very much a staged piece of film-making, produced as Allied war propaganda. But visually it is very interesting, and powerful.

It begins with distant figures approaching across a parched mountain landscape, Lawrence of Arabia-style—though more than fifteen years before that film was made. They come closer, still as a typical trudging mass, burdened with infants and baggage. But then the camera is in among them, and the sonorous voiceover introduces us to a family, the Kowalskis. (Whether they were a real family or not, I have no idea.) Arrived in Persia, which was effectively under Allied occupation in 1943, the refugees are settled, cared for, clothed and fed. But more than that, they stop being refugees: the Kowalskis join the Allied war effort—’The Poles know where their duty lies… they’re not people to hide behind the efforts of others’. Father and grown-up son and daughter all volunteer for military service; mother busies herself with agricultural labour around the refugee camp, and looks after the two younger children, who go back to school.

It’s propaganda, to be sure, and it’s striking that no Persians cast so much as a shadow in the film—the reintegration that matters here is into the Allied war effort, not into the more or less unwillingly occupied host society. Still, it’s a demonstration of how a set of visual tropes that had already been well established for decades could be first adopted and then transcended in a five-minute newsreel, to turn a group of refugees from a destitute mass into individual human beings with lives and a future.

Next post: refugees at sea.

Stacy Fahrenthold asked me to think about what scale
is doing in images like these and Michaël Neuman told me
about the Poles in Persia newsreel—thanks to both.

I scanned the Noiriel cover from my own copy (fair use, I think?);
for all other images, click for source.

*As you’ll see if you click through either of these cover images, this photo is not used on the book’s current edition—another quite generic ‘refugee’ photo is, instead. I wonder if the new one actually shows refugees in France, and whether the change of image resulted from any pushback from readers or author, or just from Magnum upping their rates or something.

**Compare Gregory Crewdson’s giant composite photographs: on a gallery wall, they probably would let you step out to take in the panorama of an entire street, or in to peer through one shop window. But these are produced by a team resembling a film crew, over several days, and printed in a format that’s more than one metre by two. The reproductions here—it was the second of these three photos that I particularly had in mind—are also reductions to almost miniature scale.

If anyone’s interested in the technical details of this I can discuss them in the comments…

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