Last week someone tweeted a link to my post about the average length of stay in a refugee camp to the BBC radio programme More or Less, which investigates numbers that are in the news. The “17 years” statistic is exactly the kind of thing they like to get their teeth into.
I duly got a message from the producer, and went into the BBC Scotland studios here in Glasgow for an interview earlier this week. The programme was broadcast on the World Service last night—you can listen to it here.
The image is borrowed from the More or Less programme page (click for link),
and I’m quite pleased that it’s not an aerial view:
An Afghan woman carries laundry in a refugee camp in Malakasa.
Credit: Milos Bicanski / Getty
This is the third in a series of posts about images of refugees. For the first post, click here. For the second, click here.
Photographs of refugees on land often work to make both the refugees themselves and the landscapes they’re walking on interchangeable—so many huddled figures trudging across so many featureless bits of countryside. My last post explored some of the reasons for this: they’re partly to do with the choices that picture editors make, and partly to do with the standard formats of newspapers or news magazines and the cameras, lenses, and film that were typically used to take the photos that appeared in them. (Only rarely do refugees’ own views or choices come into it.) And in the post before that I wrote, more briefly, about the typical news photograph of a group of refugees in flight, burdened with their possessions. The aesthetic roots of that very standardized image go back much further than mid twentieth-century: I traced them back to 19th-century narrative painting, and earlier standard subjects in the European Christian tradition of painting.
But what about the other standard image of refugees, which has been just as common on news websites recently as the ‘overland trudge’—that is, the image of refugees at sea?
This picture shows the Albanian ship Vlora, in 1991. A cargo vessel that had recently returned to Albania from Cuba laden with sugar, the Vlora found itself heading to the Italian port of Bari with many thousands of Albanians aboard, hoping to escape the chaos of the end of communist rule. You can read about it on Migrants at sea, or watch this two-minute film on YouTube, and there’s a longer a documentary about the incident, too. The story doesn’t reflect especially well on the Italian authorities.
It wasn’t as an image from 1991, though, that the picture recently went double-viral. (I read about it here.) On the one hand, it did the rounds of Twitter racists amid claims that it showed thousands of ‘migrants’ in Libya or Syria preparing to invade Europe today. On the other, in black and white, it was circulated by anti-racists on Twitter—and Tumblr—claiming that the people in it were Europeans fleeing to North Africa during the second world war.
Like the Robert Capa photo I discussed in the last post, which appears on the cover of a history book about refugees in France (and on the internet as a picture of refugees in the Spanish civil war) even though it was taken in Israel just after independence, this photo shows us that refugees are interchangeable. You can pretend that a picture of people fleeing the political uncertainty and economic misery of Albania a quarter of a century ago shows Tripoli or Tartus this summer, and some people will believe you (and retweet). Or you can put the same picture in black and white and claim it shows European refugees in the 1940s, and other people will believe you (and repost). One of those claims is intended to provoke hostility toward refugees, and the other is intended to elicit sympathy—but it’s striking that both of them reduce the refugees themselves to silence in precisely the same way. The refugees become ‘speechless emissaries’, to borrow a term from the anthropologist Liisa Malkki.* In one claim, they bear mute witness to the threat of further swarms overrunning Europe; in another, they silently represent the shared human need, and right, to flee from danger. But they never get to speak for themselves. (It’s probably fair to guess that in neither case are the people behind the claim refugees.)
One of the reasons why a single image can be used in these different ways is because the ‘refugee boat’, just like the ‘overland trudge’, is already so well-established as a visual trope. The Vlora of 1991 can stand in for boats in 2015 or 1939 because we’ve already seen refugee boats in 2015 or 1939, and every decade in between. Look:
Let me restate something I wrote about images of refugees on land. The limitations of cameras, lenses, and film, the constraints of publication format, and the aesthetic (and moral) choices of photographers and picture editors all work together to mean that when you see a group of refugees in a photograph, you usually can’t see many identifying features of the landscape they’re walking across. This is even more true for images of refugees at sea: a patch of sea has even fewer identifying features than a patch of desert or hillside–if it is marked by distinctive shapes or colours, they’re changing all the time. The photos above were taken in the Andaman Sea in 2015, Hong Kong harbour in the late 1970s, Haifa in 1947, and (I think) Southampton in 1937. A dockside, if you can see one, doesn’t help much: a quick switch from colour to black and white was all it took to put the Vlora back in the same period as the Exodus 1947, carrying Holocaust survivors to Palestine, or the SS Habana, bringing Basque refugees to Britain in 1937.
When the boat is small and photographed fairly close up, you can make out some distinguishing features of the refugees, but not many: see what a difference the slightly more distant perspective in the first photo makes, compared with the second. Among the Rohingya refugees from Burma (2015) you can make out individuals, and tell adults from children; among the Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong (1970s) you can see individual expressions, distinguishing features—but that’s rare indeed in photos that follow this trope. (Perhaps less so for paintings, and we’ll come back to that in a moment.) When the ship is large, and therefore the photographer has to be further away, even basic details are lost: for example, could you tell without looking closely that almost all the figures in the last of those four photos are children? Details of the vessel itself don’t tell you anything about where it is, either, and only very rough information about when the picture was taken. Ships travel a long way, and have long service lives: the Vlora was built in 1960 and only broken up in 1996. So when you see an image of a boatload of refugees at sea or at a dockside, there’s very little to tell you when or where the image was taken.
All this means that the image of the ‘refugee boat’ is, if anything, even more standardized, even more of a trope, than the image of a group of refugees fleeing on foot over land. Every time you look at a photo of a refugee boat, in a way you’re looking at every other photo of a refugee boat, too—certainly every other one that you’ve seen, and every other one that whoever produced the image has seen. And every time a photojournalist frames an image of one, he or she is in a way taking a picture of all those other pictures too.
Needless to say, it’s impossible for any of these images to tell us much about the enormous variety of different individual stories, individual lives, on a single refugee boat—let alone the range between an Albanian adult on the Vlora in 1991 and a Basque child on the Habana in 1937. The image above was taken in the Mediterranean in 2014. It won the photographer, Massimo Sestini, a World Press Photo award, and in a way it was ahead of its time, seeming to capture the spirit of this summer: that’s why you may have seen it on the Google refugee appeal or, if like me you’re based in Scotland, the new Scotland Welcomes Refugees site. But in another way it could have been taken anywhere, at any time since press photography became a thing. And, like the standardized photographic image of refugees on land, the ‘refugee boat’ picture has roots that go back much deeper than the emergence of photojournalism. Here’s one very influential predecessor:
Jonathan Jones wrote about Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1818-19) earlier this summer, explicitly making the connection with the ‘refugee crisis’. The painting was a media sensation in its time, viewed by 40,000 people when it was exhibited at Egyptian Hall in London in 1820. (I learned about it when I read A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes, twenty-odd years ago; it’s parodied in one of the Asterix books too.) A detailed exploration of the genealogy of the ‘refugee boat’ image would need an art historian, not me, but I’d suggest that this and other paintings of shipwrecks and their survivors, and the long tradition of paintings of Noah’s Ark at sea in the Flood, would be the place to start looking. Here, I’ll just point out once again that a painting can combine individual detail and panoramic sweep more easily than a press photo: Géricault’s painting is a monstrous seven metres by five (!), so the dead and dying figures are pretty much life size, if seen at a short distance.
But they are seen from a short distance, not from the raft itself–which leads to my final point. Even more than images of refugees on land (or of refugee camps), the viewpoint that pictures of refugees at sea adopt is, almost by definition, not that of the refugees. The viewer, like the photographer, is looking at the boat and the refugees from a different and usually safer perspective. The Sestini photograph is a paradigmatic case, taken from an Italian navy helicopter: not so much a bird’s-eye as a God’s-eye view.
I think it’s important to find ways to go beyond this visual trope: it objectifies the ‘refugee boat’ and it objectifies refugees (and I say that without intending to denigrate the photographers or the worthwhile ends to which such photos are often put). These images shape the meaning of ‘refugee’ before we even articulate it in words, and if that means that when we talk about refugees we immediately think of an indistinguishable mass of more or less interchangeable people, there’s a problem. Massimo Sestini seems to recognize this: in the other pictures that form part of the same reportage–here on the Time website–there are photographs of individuals, taken much closer up. But they’re all taken on navy rescue vessels. The refugees have entered the photographer’s world: he hasn’t entered theirs.
For the photographer, then, the challenge is to change their perspective, and to look at things from the refugee’s point of view. (Over a year after he took this award-winning set of photos, Sestini has started trying to locate some of the individuals pictured in the boat, so he may be doing that.) It’s a challenge for editors, too: the choice of the representative image, the one that’s at the top of the story or on the front page of the website, is the one that matters most, whether it’s a news website or a charity appeal.
But the really great challenge to this objectification of the refugee boat will come from refugees themselves. Refugees are more likely now than ever before to have the means of making their own record of their journey, and swiftly making it publicly available. We’ve heard quite a bit, in recent years, about ‘citizen journalists’ using smartphones and social media to create their own record of events. Perhaps we’ll learn to see refugee boats and their passengers differently when the photos we’re looking at are taken from aboard the boat itself, by refugees.
Next post in this series: the image of the refugee camp.
*I’d had this article on my laptop for a while but not got round to reading beyond the first page or two—my friend David Farrier emailed it to me after he’d read my last post, reminding me that I need to go back to it.
It appears to be a developing habit of mine only to write blog posts when something in the Guardian on a Saturday has annoyed me. This one is delayed slightly, as I read the article in question on a train heading out of wifi range for several days.
There are many things to dislike about Michael Bloch’s article ‘Double lives – a history of sex and secrecy at Westminster‘ in this weekend’s Guardian.* A quick survey of homosexuality in twentieth-century British politics, its creepy prurience is very thinly masked by an insincere decrial of the “cruel and illiberal atmosphere” of less enlightened times, and an equally phoney thankfulness that “gay men and women, in politics as elsewhere, can now be honest about their sexuality”. This humbug sits ill with the overall tone of the piece, which is very much in the “And HE was one, too!” line. (Always he: the mention of gay women is too passing even to qualify as tokenism.) No more sincere than the larding of right-thinking sanctimony is the putative analytical argument of the piece—that homosexual men made effective politicians because they were flamboyant yet secretive, takers of calculated risks, etc etc. This is crass, not to mention riddled with homophobic assumptions, but that doesn’t matter: even more than the hand-wringing at the illiberal past and approbation for the more tolerant present, this nonsense is confined to the opening and closing paragraphs and doesn’t relate in any functional way to the intervening text. Bloch damns himself with the disingenuous contortions of his final sentence, part of which I’ve already quoted:
Following the election, Westminster now boasts 32 openly gay MPs and while one must be thankful that, in Britain, official homophobia is a thing of the past, and that gay men and women, in politics as elsewhere, can now be honest about their sexuality, the necessity for homosexuals in public life to hide their nature, though in itself deplorable, did not, perhaps, exercise an entirely negative influence on the 20th-century political scene.
These criticisms could easily be developed by anyone working on queer history or indeed modern British politics, I’m sure. (I doubt Bloch has any more idea what queer history is than the average Sun staffer.) I don’t work on either of those things, though, so I just want to highlight one point that seems to me to be at the core of the whole shabby enterprise.
The 1957 Wolfenden Report, the piece explains, was delayed for a decade after the cabinet that commissioned it refused to follow its recommendation that homosexual acts between consenting adults be decriminalized. “It is ironic”, Bloch says, “that the Macmillan cabinet that resisted implementing Wolfenden seems to have contained more ‘closet queens’ than any other of the century.”
No: it isn’t ‘ironic’. This is the very thing that needs explaining, and the fact that Bloch can’t see it demonstrates why this article, with its hypocritical voyeurism and reheated scandals, is not a history of anything: the failure of historical enquiry here is absolute.
I promise that my next post won’t be about something I read in the Guardian.
*The piece is a potted version of Bloch’s forthcoming book Closet Queens, whose objectionable title tells you more than enough about his perspective on the subject.
No posts on this blog since the middle of January—the first weekend of term. Now that term’s over, I have a minute to think (under the dark cloud of marking), and appropriately it’s another essay in the Guardian that’s prompted this post.
Matthew Beaumont’s book Nightwalking: a nocturnal history of London is just out with Verso, and it’s been warmly reviewed in several places. It has a foreword and an afterword by the crown prince of English psychogeographers, Will Self (the king regnant being Iain Sinclair), and there are kind words from Terry Eagleton, James Attlee, and others.* The Guardian essay is a digested version which claims to be about ‘the city’ a bit more broadly, not just about London. That’s why I read it: I’ve been teaching a class this term on Middle Eastern cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and I thought it might provide some useful comparative material. I’ve also got Disenchanted night on my to-read list for the Easter break.
It’s quite a good essay, as far as it goes, and it’s got some excellent nocturnal photos of mid-twentieth century London. (Interesting to see an illuminated advert for Bovril dominating Piccadilly Circus in 1960—hard to imagine that now.) But something struck me as I read it, and became increasingly distracting as I read on.
Here’s a list, in order of appearance, of the literary and historical figures, and historians, that the essay quotes or mentions:
Ford Madox Ford
Yup: all men. The absence of women from the essay becomes even more striking when it does actually address their experience of walking the city at night:
Solitary women, because of a long history of discrimination and patriarchal oppression, have been especially susceptible to this sort of suspicion. If women appear on the streets of the city at night alone they are commonly portrayed as either predators, in the form of prostitutes, or predatees – the potential victims of sexual assault. In both cases, they are denied a right to the city at night.
Fair enough, but they’re also denied a right to give voice to their own experiences here (it’s to a man, Joachim Schlör, that Beaumont turns to interpret women’s experience), let alone make general observations about the city at night. It’s mere cant to wring one’s hands over ‘a long history of discrimination and patriarchal oppression’ against women if you can’t take the time to read a single thing written by a woman about your subject.
It’s not like it would be hard. I haven’t just written a book about walking the London streets by night, so my bookshelves aren’t crammed with relevant readings. Still, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: a history of walking is there: chapters 11–14 are about walking the city, with chapter 14 entitled ‘Walking after midnight: women, sex, and public space’. Some of the people Solnit draws on are men—she even borrows a quote from Schlör—but some of them are women too.
I also found myself thinking of the description of walking in London during the blackout in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human voices—a novel, but Fitzgerald had lived through the second world war in London. I couldn’t find my copy of that, but thinking of it put me in mind of several other books: Sarah Waters’s The night watch, whose characters walk through the city as well as driving ambulances; two stray teenagers trying to get to shelter at Charing Cross underground during an air-raid in Jill Paton Walsh’s Fireweed (a children’s book still in print over forty years after it was first published)—in my memory that extraordinary scene lasted far longer than the four pages it actually occupied, even though it’s only a few months since I reread it; or Nenna’s nighttime walk across early 1960s London in Fitzgerald’s Offshore, when she leaves her purse behind after a disastrous attempt at reconciliation—as funny as it is painful to read—with her estranged husband and has to set off home to Battersea Reach on foot, in shoes that aren’t up to it. When she stops to try and fix a broken strap a creepy man approaches her and asks if she’s fixed up for the night:
Nenna did not answer. She was saddened by the number of times the man must have asked this question. He smelled of loneliness. Well, they always moved off in the end, though they often stayed a while, as this one did, whistling through their teeth, like standup comics about to risk another joke.
He snatched the shoe out of her hand and hurled it violently away from her into the Kingsland Road.
‘What you going to do now?’
She escapes, barefoot, and carries on down the Kingsland Road, past ‘a group at the end of Cremers Street who stood laughing, probably at her… I expect they think I’ve been drinking’. Eventually she’s rescued, feet bleeding, by a taxi driver. Taxi drivers in fiction are threatening more often than not, especially towards women—think of Elizabeth Bowen’s The demon lover—but this one is kind, in a paternal(ist) sort of way, and when Nenna dozes off in the back of his cab ‘he stopped and had a cup of tea himself, and explained to the Covent Garden porters, who wanted to know what he’d got in the back, that it was the Sleeping Beauty’. (Fitzgerald’s descriptions of 1960s Covent Garden by night in At Freddie’s are also drawn from personal knowledge.)
These are all from the twentieth century, you might say, and Beaumont’s book stops in the nineteenth; but then, the essay doesn’t (and nor do the pictures accompanying it). They’re also drawn from a quick scan of one non-specialist’s bookshelves, picking only novels that are about London. If I can do that in five minutes without even going to a library, surely Beaumont (and his editor) could have done better?
*The gender politics of who gets asked to review which books are too depressing to go into here, but it’s striking that only one of the reviews mentioned on the publisher’s website—Suzi Feay’s in the FT—is by a woman.
If ever a piece of writing were going to turn me into a thoroughgoing cultural Marxist, Pico Iyer’s article about ‘slow travel’ in today’s Guardian is it.
Travel and mobility have always been a crucial part of political and economic life. Serfs and peasants unable to leave their masters’ domains; chattel slaves shipped across the Atlantic, or bonded labourers transported around the Indian Ocean or Pacific rim: systems of economic exploitation clearly have an interest in the mobility or immobility of human bodies. For almost everyone who now enjoys it, and plenty of people still don’t, the right to move—or rather, to control your own movement—has been hard won. It’s still a privilege as much as a right: in the last two centuries, the liberal principle of free movement of labour has been offset by states’ increasing monopolization of the ‘legitimate means of movement’, through border controls and immigration legislation. If you want to gauge your place in global hierarchies of wealth and power, with all their gendered and racialized complexity, just try crossing a border into a rich industrialized country.
So it’s not surprising that travel and tourism have also been crucial to cultural processes of class formation. The grand tour was part of the education of the eighteenth-century British aristocrat: a chance to acquire the cultural knowledge and aesthetic tastes, as well as the objets d’art and other material trappings, that marked upper class belonging. The nineteenth-century Parisian bourgeoisie understood France and their place in it through travel, guidebooks, and postcards, learning to see their country and its inhabitants—their rural compatriots and the urban poor alike, not to mention the French empire and its colonized peoples—as a collection of ‘scenes’ and ‘types’. Actual and mental travel of this kind was part of what it meant to be a bourgeois. Cultural historians have shown the role that travel and tourism have played, in all sorts of times and places, in the formation of various kinds of ‘subject’: gendered and raced, imperial or national, aristocratic, bourgeois, or proletarian. Where you go, and what you do there, is who you are. (Not many aristocrats buying saucy postcards on Blackpool beach.)
The subheading of Iyer’s article says it ‘extolls the virtues of mindful travel’. It doesn’t, of course: it catalogues instances of privilege, in the author’s life and those of his friends. What it describes—desert trekking in Namibia, skiing trips in Kashmir, ‘digital detox’ packages in five-star hotels; ‘westerners walking to Mount Kailash, or a film producer going to the Seychelles just to read books with his daughter’—is not mindful travelling, but the self-indulgent tourism of a globalized elite. Anyone travelling mindfully would notice all the forms of labour exploitation and resource extraction that make this kind tourism possible. ‘Mindfulness’ wouldn’t make it any easier for a Namibian to go trekking in the Yosemite national park, or a Tibetan to walk the Camino de Santiago. (I won’t even start on the appalling conflation implicit in the words ‘The essence of holidays, and therefore travel…’.)
This is late industrial capitalism’s commodification of the very solitude and quiet that it destroys. Iyer’s piece is a celebration of that commodification, and a contribution to it.
‘Emptiness and silence are the new luxuries’, indeed.