North Head quarantine station

Forest Monarch

Among all the past and present sites of detention that I visited on my trip to Australia last month, in some ways there is most to say about the old quarantine station at North Head, Sydney. But in other ways there is least to say, because so many excellent scholars have already written so much, and so well. Compared to Alison Bashford, who has been going there regularly for nearly twenty years, or the historical archaeologists on the Quarantine Project who spent months on the site uncovering and documenting over 1,600 inscriptions on the rocks there and investigating their stories through archival research, my own experience of the site is fleeting indeed.

To get to North Head you catch a fast ferry from Circular Quay in the very heart of Sydney, tucked between the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. There’s a slower ferry too, but I took the fast one, a low-slung catamaran that moved across the water faster than any other boat I’ve ever been on, I think. As it draws away from the quay, you begin to get a sense of the size and complexity of this enormous natural harbour: to aft you can see under the bridge, where it continues deep inland, while on either side you pass urban coves and inlets—to starboard, Farm Cove with the botanical gardens surrounding it, then the deeper Woolloomoolloo Bay where an aircraft carrier is among the grey-painted naval vessels at the wharf, and these are only the first two you pass. Soon you can see down the harbour, too. The ferry scuds over the waves across the mouth of North Harbour (the northern branch of the main harbour), and you can see the destination: the steep sides of North Head, overlooking the harbour mouth and beyond it the Pacific.

Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 14.21.53
Port Jackson, with the skyscrapers of central Sydney visible bottom centre

Like the quarantine station at Point Nepean, the one at North Head—which was founded a couple of decades earlier and remained in operation until a little later—is just inside the mouth of a natural harbour, where a port city had developed further inland. It isn’t as remote: Sydney Cove, where the European settlement began, is only a few miles away across the water (Melbourne is forty miles away from Point Nepean on the other side of Port Phillip), and even with the circuitous route over two bridges and around the northern coves and inlets you could drive there from central Sydney in under forty minutes if the traffic wasn’t too bad. But, just as Point Nepean is as for from Melbourne as you can be while still being close to Melbourne, North Head is as far from Sydney as you can be while still being in the city.

Hospital area
A covered walkway in the hospital area

The sites are similar in other ways, past and present. The national park at Point Nepean begins at the edge of the plushy weekend resort of Portsea, and is dotted with old fortifications and facilities for the coastal defences of Port Phillip. The national park at North Head begins at the edge of the plushy suburb of Manly, and is dotted with old fortifications and facilities for the coastal defences of Port Jackson (the official name for Sydney Harbour). The quarantine stations and their grounds, on your right as you enter the national park and facing the harbour, not the sea, were added to the parks more recently in both cases, because maritime quarantine restrictions survived a bit longer than coastal artillery batteries. Long-range bomber aircraft (and, later, intercontinental ballistic missiles) made the latter irrelevant by the middle of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t till a little later that mass civilian air travel did the same for the former. In 1963, the year the North Head fortifications fell permanently out of use, the teenager Johannes Hendrikus Jacob van den Berg emigrated to Australia from Holland by ship with his family and changed his name to Harry Vanda en route.

Echidna
Echidna

And although it’s much closer to the city than Point Nepean is to Melbourne, North Head feels remote and isolated. It’s been much more ambitiously developed as a heritage destination (‘Q Station‘) than Point Nepean, and no doubt at certain times of day and year it’s busy with visitors—you can stay there, in the restored accommodation blocks, and the ghost tours on offer include one that lets you stay overnight. But it was quiet when I walked around the large site: on the way in I saw a masked lapwing nervously pacing about the lawn, its yellow face bright in the sunshine, and on the way out I passed an echidna rummaging its snout in the sandy soil by the road, but I didn’t see many people. Like Point Nepean, the scenic walk out to the head and the old fortifications seemed to be attracting far more visitors, though a school group came through as I sat in the visitor centre by the wharf.

The station is spacious, spread out on the slopes that rise from Spring Cove, and in its time it was rigorously segregated. Accommodation areas reproduced the class hierarchies, and racist hierarchies, of the passenger ships that arrived: the first class passengers in their comfortable accommodation were protected from mingling with second class residents by high fences and a stretch of ‘neutral ground’, while third class passengers were elsewhere again and ‘Asiatics’ were housed in crowded dormitories with an external communal kitchen. Obliged to stay at the station in 1930, the golfer J.H. Kirkwood found the segregation insufficient:

I am an Australian, and I always thought that this was a white man’s country, but when I have seen Chinese, Indians, and Fijians with the same bathing and toilet facilities as white men in this quarantine station I have not been able to help feeling disgust. However, we are resigned to our fate.

The Argus (Melbourne), 6 March 1930
http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/4073060

For residents suspected of carrying disease, or showing symptoms, there was an isolation zone at one end of the site; for those who became ill there was a hospital, and in the final necessity a burial ground.

Spring Cove beach and wharf
Spring Cove beach

The visitor centre is down by the wharf, where a steep-sided little valley runs down to a beautiful beach. At the top of the sand a line of trees, their branches bare but for large flame-red flowers, played host to a busily feeding squadron of rainbow lorikeets. There’s a set of buildings nearby that were familiar to me from Point Nepean: a boiler house with a tall brick chimney, and a disinfecting room where luggage was steamed in enormous cast-iron autoclaves. The visitor centre, with a couple of rooms of historical displays and a somewhat gloomy café, was adapted from the old luggage store—the boiler house is now a restaurant, but that’s only open in the evening.

On the road down to the wharf you also pass the most visible remaining inscriptions, carved into the sandstone: one of them is shown at the top of this post. The Quarantine Project has produced a beautiful book about these (I bought a copy in the visitor centre, and read about Kirkwood as I ate my lunch) as well as many academic articles. Some of their most fascinating work, for me, is on the inscriptions that weren’t carved into exposed sandstone by nineteenth-century sailors and emigrants, but were scratched or scrawled onto the internal walls of the building on the site that was used as an immigration detention centre in the 1960s and 70s, as the quarantine station’s operations wound down. Although the building has now been adapted into a wedding venue (!), many of these are still to be seen in backrooms and above head height. I didn’t locate this building, A20, though I suspect that it may have been one that I peered into as a site employee touched up the external paintwork by the door. Inscriptions and graffiti are a kind of source that I should think about in my work on refugee camps: they’re omnipresent, as photos from formal and informal camps show.

Gough Whitlam at North HeadA final similarity with Point Nepean isn’t mentioned anywhere on the site, or not that I noticed. In 1999, Point Nepean briefly accommodated several hundred humanitarian evacuees, Kosovo Albanians evacuated from Macedonia during the NATO air war against Serbia: even humanitarian evacuees needed to be confined in some way and ‘distanced’ from the rest of the population. Something similar happened in 1975, when over two thousand five hundred Vietnamese children—some of them the children of US servicemen—were evacuated from Saigon in what was known as ‘Operation Babylift’. About three hundred were brought to Australia, mostly to Sydney, in the midst of bitter recriminations over the country’s participation in the war and responsibility for Vietnamese refugees. Like the main ‘Babylift’ to the US, the available scholarship on this subject is mostly interested in its implications for international adoption, and doesn’t—as far as I know—say much about the experience of the evacuation itself. But the quarantine station at North Head was one of the centres that received evacuees (there’s a helpful Tumblr about it compiled in 2015 by an undergraduate student in history at the University of Sydney, who only gives her name as Stephanie): this picture from the Sydney Morning Herald shows prime minister Gough Whitlam visiting them.

Unlike the Kosovo Albanians nearly twenty-five years later, the Babylift evacuees mostly stayed in Australia, and that was the intention from the start. And surely it was in part simple pragmatism that meant they were accommodated at North Head, where the quarantine station was already being decommissioned and there was medically equipped accommodation for a couple of hundred children and their carers. Once again, though, I found myself struck by the isolation and confinement, at a site then mostly used as an immigration detention centre, of people displaced for humanitarian reasons.

*

Sydney from North Head
Sydney from North Head

 

Thanks to Meighen Katz for telling me about ‘Q Station’ and its history

All images taken by me (CC BY 4.0) except the Google Map
and the photo of Gough Whitlam (click for source)

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Twilight of the saints

Vale of Nablus 1890s

This is a book review I wrote for the American Historical Review, which I’m republishing here with permission (and some pictures). A full citation for the published review follows at the end. As ever, I’m struck by how the formal tone of an academic review jars in the context of a blog, but there it is.

JAMES GREHAN. Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. x, 341. $74.00.

In 1747, when a plague of locusts threatened the harvest, the Ottoman governor of Damascus dispatched a delegation of Sufis to an enchanted spring in Persia. The water they drew there, carried carefully back to Syria, would lure a magical black bird – the samarmar – to consume the locusts. Their return was greeted with parades and popular celebration.

Well of the Samaritan 1890s
The Samaritan’s Well, Nablus, 1890s

The bird never appeared. But the fact that everyone thought it would, including Ottoman state officials and urban religious elites, is the starting point for James Grehan’s richly detailed historical ethnography of everyday religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. Grehan argues that histories of religion, especially in the Middle East, have focused excessively on textual traditions. They have overemphasized the salience of religious difference in everyday life, and the ability of religious institutions (the main generators and guardians of textual sources) to determine everyday religious practice. Attempts to go beyond this by studying “popular religion” have only helped up to a point: the dichotomy between “popular” and official religion still grants normative status to text-based orthodoxies, and cannot account for the prevalence of “popular” practices among educated urban elites.

Grehan sets out to offer a more nuanced account of what he terms “agrarian religion”: everyday religious practice in a predominantly rural and illiterate society, where “even the towns” – and their literate elites – “were sunk in an essentially agrarian milieu” (15). His local and western sources include topographies, travel narratives, memoirs, and (for the later part of the period) Ottoman statistical surveys. The scholar and Sufi Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (1641–1731), whose writings figure often, is a particularly genial guide.

Nablus, new mosque 1940
The new mosque at Nablus, 1940

Common to all religious traditions in Ottoman Syria and Palestine was a weak infrastructure of sacred buildings and educated personnel outside the towns. Ottoman state surveys from the late nineteenth century show that mosques, churches, and synagogues, ulama, priests, and rabbis were all concentrated in towns; where villages had them, they were large ones like Jenin or were close to larger towns. Having established the weakness of institutional religion, Grehan explores the everyday religious life of the population through five thematic chapters looking at saints, tombs, sacred landscapes, the spirits that haunted the land, and the magic of blood and prayer. The chapters focus on the countryside, but return often to the towns and cities whose own religious culture was profoundly connected to that of the rural hinterland. Sunni Islam provides the richest body of evidence for Grehan’s account, but there are frequent references to other Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities. These furnish ample material to support his argument that the lines of sectarian difference, however sharply defined in normative religious texts, were blurred to the point of indistinctness in daily life.

Saints, living and dead, were venerated by everyone. It was not uncommon for a holy man to be revered beyond his own faith community: Christians as well as Muslims would stop to kiss the hand of Ali al-Umari, a renowned Sufi in nineteenth-century Tripoli (63). In a landscape where religious buildings were rare outside towns, the tombs of saints provided a focus for religious practice, both as social institutions – places of sanctuary or mediation – and sites for worship. Different religious traditions often shared the same sites, though they sometimes disagreed over the attribution of the tomb, and even educated townsmen like al-Nabulsi saw no contradiction in reporting uncertainty over the identity of a tomb’s resident saint while praying at the site. Tombs were important in towns, too, like the shrine of Ibn al-Arabi in Damascus: there was no doubt about the identity of the person venerated there, though the actual site shifted over time (113).

Joseph's tomb 1930s
Joseph’s Tomb, Nablus, in the 1930s

Tombs belonged to a sacred landscape where stones, caves, springs, and trees were also imbued with religious meaning. Caves often became the nucleus of a church or mosque; saints’ shrines often featured holy trees, but whether the tomb or the tree was the original focus of veneration remains moot. Sacred sites generated scriptural justifications to domesticate them within one tradition or another, but nature itself was “more compelling than scripture” (116). The spirits that haunted these landscapes were familiar to all: talismans, charms, or icons could mediate human interactions with them, and dreams and visions grant more direct access to a spirit realm. Blood sacrifice and prayer offered ways of gaining saintly intercession, and not just for peasants at the limits of the state’s reach: when the Beirut–Damascus railroad was opened in 1895, “religious officials presided . . . with the usual sacrifices” (174).

Agrarian religion “pervaded everyday piety, paid only lip service to orthodoxy, and casually embraced customs and beliefs that had no warrant in scripture or law” (165). Grehan’s argument for dispensing with notions of “popular” religion is persuasive; his argument against the salience of sectarian divisions deserves to be taken seriously, too, particularly in public rather than historiographical debate, though in regard to the latter, more explicit engagement with recent scholarship on sectarianism (189 n. 126) would have been welcome. There are other points of criticism: Grehan argues that agrarian religion’s “immense stability” also permitted “discreet adaptation and invention” (16), but – because he explicitly decides not to reconstruct these patterns of change – the picture presented here is one of timelessness, though it covers two and a half centuries. Gender is not considered in any depth, nor is the survival into the present (as I have witnessed myself) of many of the beliefs and practices Grehan describes. On the editorial side, a list of images would have made the fine illustrations more accessible.

Nonetheless, this is an evocative, thought-provoking, and richly textured work. Grounded in the comparative history of religion as well as the history of the Middle East, it deserves a place on a wide range of postgraduate and advanced undergraduate reading lists.

Joseph's tomb pre-1914
Joseph’s Tomb, this time in the 1890s

Click images for links to originals,
which are all from the Library of Congress

JAMES GREHAN. Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. 
Benjamin Thomas White
The American Historical Review 2015 120 (5): 1996-1997
doi: 10.1093/ahr/120.5.1996a
http://ahr.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/120.5.1996a?ijkey=lB62zajCmBMpqUJ&keytype=ref

Glasgow 1980

1 External corridor, Maxwell Oval

When I was offered (and immediately accepted) my current job, I sent a text message to a friend with the news: Lifelong Belle & Sebastian Fan Gets Job In Glasgow Shock. So when the band themselves played a home-town gig last May, I was quick to get myself a ticket. It was also a chance to see the inside of the SSE Hydro, the recently built enormodrome I cycle past on my way to and from work: Glasgow is surely the only city in the world where Belle & Sebastian could hope to (mostly) fill a 13,000-seater arena where you’re more likely to find Miley Cyrus or World Wrestling Entertainment than gentle art-pop.*

After the support act had finished, Stuart Murdoch’s voice came over the speakers and announced that before the band came on they were going to show a film called ‘Glasgow 1980’, and inviting us to watch it if we liked, or ignore it and just mill about if we preferred.

This is a film for people, about the city they live in—how the city is changing for the people.

At the time, I thought I was the only person in the audience who actually watched it.

Glasgow 1980 was produced in 1971 for the city corporation, by a company called Ogam Films. It’s about the twenty-year transformation of Glasgow after 1960, and presents a startlingly intense vision of where that road—and it was a road—was meant to lead. The process was traumatic :

Between 1960 and 1970, fifty-two thousand houses were demolished in Glasgow.

2 IMG_20160130_133052616

But the film is in no doubt that all this was necessary for a city in a steep spiral of deindustrialization: ‘It had to change’, the narrator declares.

For a locally-made publicity film for the city corporation’s urban regeneration programme, Glasgow 1980 is a remarkably powerful document. That’s partly because of the team that made it: Oscar Marzaroli, the director (and co-founder of the production company), was one of Scotland’s foremost photographers, while the editor, Bill Forsyth, became a director himself, famous for Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero. The music, by local guitarist Iain McHaffie, is also quite something. (It’s harder to find information about McHaffie online, but someone else who was struck by the music for this film had a go.) You can listen to the main theme on YouTube, and you can watch the whole film here, on the website of the Scottish Screen Archive. It’s half an hour long, though it didn’t feel like that when I was watching it at the Hydro. At least, not to me.7 Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 22.20.32

For anyone familiar with Glasgow’s history since the early 1970s, the film’s confident optimism—not to say arrogance—about the process of transformation would strike many ironic chords. The radical solutions to the city’s ills proposed by the corporation and celebrated in the documentary created plenty of new problems, some of which were already visible by the time Marzaroli filmed it and remain with us today.

4 IMG_20160130_133442485_HDRThe area I live in features in the film, for a few seconds (starting at 4’49”). The medium-rise flats that were then newly built are a block away from where I live, in a 1905 tenement building of the sort that were being knocked down in their hundreds in the Gorbals and other nearby neighbourhoods. After I (at last!) got a smartphone a few weeks ago, I took some photos as I went past one morning—the pictures illustrating this post.

With their overhead connecting bridges at the second and fifth storey and long external corridors (see top of post), they’re reminiscent of the ‘streets in the sky’ at Park Hill in Sheffield, built in 1957-61. On the satellite view in Google Maps you see them from above as two T shapes connected at the base by a long bar, T__T. But the left-hand T is no longer there. It was knocked down over the winter. The ragged edges are visible where the skyways from the demolished building met the block that’s still standing, and as I walked down Maxwell Drive I came across the pile of rubble that remains.

3 IMG_20160130_133707966

A friend who’s doing a research project on this part of town (and who took some almost identical photos when she walked past recently…) tells me that the demolished blocks will be replaced by new flats—plenty have sprouted around the place in the last decade or two. You could be forgiven for thinking that the new flats will look like this:

6 IMG_20160224_171154871_HDR

Only on closer inspection do you realize these sharply-attired new flats facing the drab brown ones across St Andrews Drive are part of the same development, but have been given a thorough makeover. They look almost identical in the aerial photo from Google Maps (another T, this one with half its crossbar missing, in the top right hand corner). But from street level the renewed façade and the beech saplings are a good disguise—it’s the overhead walkways linking the two blocks that are the real giveaway:

5 IMG_20160224_171142127_HDR

The other blocks appear to be staying where they are; perhaps they’ll get a refurb like the above. The squat tower blocks that line the railway just to the north—along the top of the aerial photo, and marching on further west—have had a similar refit: I didn’t recognize them in Glasgow 1980 until I rewatched some of it for this post (the camera pans round to them at 05’00″–05’03”). The groovy purple lights that shine softly down from them after nightfall are a signal that we’re nearing home when I’m on the train back from a bikeride in Ayrshire or on Arran on a winter’s afternoon, always slightly depressing because we pass within 250m of my house but the train doesn’t stop till Glasgow Central, a mile and a half away.

Ogam Films recorded a lot of footage for a sequel to Glasgow 1980, entitled Glasgow’s Progress—but production was halted in 1978, according to the Scottish Screen Archive, as ‘there seemed to be no end to the urban renewal in sight’. Meanwhile, in 1980 the Magnum photographer Raymond Depardon was commissioned by the Sunday Times to visit Glasgow. (He’d recently done a reportage from Beirut.) They never published his pictures, but some of them featured in a 2013 retrospective at the Grand Palais. They sparked enough interest, among Depardon’s photos from Lebanon, Latin America or Ethiopia, that they’ve now been released in a book published in France and Britain (and with a short text in French and English) by Seuil. It’s a brilliant collection, but it’s not the 1980 that Marzaroli’s film promised.

8 852597-the-crying-child-photo-raymond-depardon-magnum

(If you want to see more of the photos before you decide to shell out for the book, several newspapers in Britain and France ran stories/image galleries, including Libération and the Scotsman—or you can see them all on the Magnum website.)

Meanwhile, it looks like I wasn’t the only person watching Glasgow 1980 at that concert last year. A new short film has just been made, (Re)Imagining Glasgow, which takes its inspiration from Marzaroli’s film. It mixes some of the footage recorded for the unfinished follow-up with footage from Glasgow today, still unfinished as it is. It was premiered as part of the Glasgow Short Film Festival the Sunday before Easter, and I’d love to say that I saw it—but, having travelled back from Liverpool that morning specially, I only got back to Glasgow just in time to get there a minute or two before showtime. On a sunny spring afternoon, I found myself standing in the longest queue I’ve ever seen at the GFT, and when I got to the head of it the tickets were long since sold out, even though the film (and accompanying panel discussion) had been moved into screen 1, the big auditorium. It’s good to know that that many people care, that much, about the remaking of Glasgow. I hope they’re not getting too many ideas though.

9 Stanley St
Meanwhile, just on the other side of the motorway…

 

Images all by me except the Google Maps aerial view
and the Depardon photo. Click that one for source;
otherwise, they’re CC-BY so feel free to use them,
with attribution and without alteration

*Cycling past before the Miley concert, the streets were full of excited girls and young women in ‘Twerk It!’ t-shirts walking and talking in happy groups. Cycling past as the wrestling let out, they were full of utterly psyched nine-year-old boys and their equally wild-eyed dads. It was terrifying.

Images of refugee camps, part 1: aerial views

This is the first in a series of posts about images of refugee camps. For three earlier posts about images of refugees, click here, here, and here.

1 Zaatari Refugee Camp, Dezeen

You’ve already seen this photo, or one like it. It’s Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, home to a large (though fluctuating) population of Syrian refugees—about 80,000 at the time of writing, according to the UNHCR data portal’s page on the camp, though it’s been higher. At the moment, Zaatari is probably the most famous refugee camp in the world, though there are many that are older, or bigger, or both. Politicians, diplomats, celebrities, and tourists visit it, and so do many, many journalists. That’s one of the reasons why I say that you’ve already seen this photo, or one like it: if you pay even the slightest bit of attention to the news media, your eyes have passed over an aerial view of Zaatari in the last few years. The hi-res image above (if you do right-click ‘view image’ you can zoom in, it’s impressive) is from the design website Dezeen, but there are others all over the internet. Look:

2 Zaatari BBC
BBC
3 Zaatari CNN
CNN (same picture)
4 Zaatari Metro
Metro (same picture, uncropped, at much higher resolution)
Mideast Jordan US Kerry
Business Insider, Australia (different picture but same photographer; also impressively hi-res)
6 Zaatari Mirror
The Mirror

I could go on, and on. This MailOnline story is more of an image gallery, with six pictures of the camp, five of them aerial views. UNHCR itself tweets pictures like this:

7 Zaatari UNHCR
‘It started off as a few tents in the desert’

In other posts on this blog I’ve written about visual tropes of refugees: ways of seeing refugees that recur again and again across time and space, making very different groups of people in all sorts of places look more or less the same—making them look like ‘refugees’, in fact. There are some technical reasons why photos of groups of refugees look so similar, to do with the equipment photographers use and the format requirements of the news media where their pictures are (or have been) reproduced. But the choices that photographers and picture editors make are more important.

If there are standard ways of picturing refugees, the same is true for refugee camps—and one of them, as we see, is to look down from above. What are all these aerial views trying to do?

The answer depends on where they’re being used. In the news media, it’s striking how often stories about refugee camps, or even just about refugees, start with a bird’s-eye view of a camp. Here’s one of Dadaab, from a recent article in the Toronto Star:

10 Dadaab, Toronto Star

That article is actually about a new book on Dadaab, the camp in Kenya whose residents could virtually trademark the words ‘The World’s Largest Refugee Camp’. It’s by Ben Rawlence, and based on extensive reportage. But although the book focuses on individuals, the news story starts with an aerial photograph. The Telegraph, publishing a lengthy extract from the book, gives a more varied set of images—but it includes an aerial view too:

11 Dadaab, Telegraph

Aerial views certainly help to communicate a sense of the scale of a camp like Zaatari or Dadaab. They back up statements about such camps’ sheer size: the Mirror piece about Zaatari, which is from a year ago (30 Jan 2015), observes that in population the camp is ‘virtually the same size’ as the British town of Stevenage, and had been considerably bigger at its peak. Reports, image galleries, and UNHCR tweets alike cite population figures; most of them also mention that the camp is one of the biggest ‘cities’ in Jordan. In fact, when they’re used to illustrate pieces like this, aerial views of refugee camps are one element of a journalistic shorthand, telling the reader what to expect. With a picture, a handy stat, and a factoid (albeit a volatile one: ‘the 3rd/5th/9th biggest city in Jordan’), the scene is set—we’re in a refugee camp.

Such shorthand always leaves me uneasy. Rather than start with a person and a story, it establishes from the start that the story has nothing to do with the reader—this is a different world, one where refugees rather than people live. The occasional relatable fact (‘Crikey, it’s as big as Stevenage!’) doesn’t so much bridge this distance as emphasise it. Sometimes the choice of image runs counter to the story: the BBC story introduced by the picture above is actually about an individual, Mohamed Harib, attempting to run a small business in Zaatari. But just as often, the story itself remains as distant from the people in the camp as the photographer.

Once you notice this, you see it frequently. One example is the Mail Online piece linked above. It’s mostly images: five aerial views of Zaatari, one picture of people at the camp gate, and a map of the Syrian-Jordanian border. What text there is follows US Secretary of State John Kerry on a visit to the camp in July 2013. There are five aerial views of the camp, but it only quotes one person who lives there.

The first photo in this post was taken on that same visit, in fact. As the Mail mentions, while Kerry was visiting Zaatari he took a helicopter flight over the camp: the State Department released this picture from it on its Flickr site. Issued by the US federal government, it is in the public domain, which is why Dezeen also used it. (Wikipedia uses the same photo.)  Tellingly, on Flickr the State Department calls this a ‘close-up view’ of the camp.*

Still, at least Kerry visited the camp itself and spoke to people living there. Compare this with another story about refugee camps, and another set of aerial views, on Quartz.com:

8 Dadaab, Dagaheley - Quartz
DigitalGlobe satellite view of Dagahely sub-camp, Dadaab, Kenya

This is a story about refugee camps in general, and the growing recognition that ‘temporary’ camps are an increasingly permanent part of the human and natural landscape in many parts of the world. I wouldn’t dispute that fact, nor the argument that we need to rethink what a ‘camp’ is and how they’re planned, built, and run. But there’s a problem of perspective here, and the images that accompany the piece illustrate it better than they realize.

If views taken from aeroplanes and helicopters act to create a distance between a news story (and its readers) and the people living in a refugee camp, what are we to make of these views from space? At least in some of the hi-res aerial photographs you can see actual people going about their business. Not here, though, where the view is from a satellite:

9 Zaatari, Quartz
DigitalGlobe satellite view of Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan

That distance isn’t just metaphorical. Read the article and notice how many refugees it quotes: none. The people who live in Dadaab or Zaatari are a purely rhetorical presence. The headline refers to refugee camps that ‘last three generations’, but the author—who perhaps never left the office to write the story—has not spoken to anyone who arrived at Dadaab as an adult and grew old there, or was born in the camp to refugee parents and grew up there.

Who is quoted instead? Kilian Kleinschmidt, former director of Zaatari, now a freelance development consultant; Céline Schmitt, a UNHCR spokesperson; Taner Kodanaz, from a satellite imaging company called DigitalGlobe. These people are, respectively, based in Vienna, Paris, and Denver, not Dadaab, Zaatari, or any other refugee camp—and if they do go to one, they can leave it when they choose. All well-informed and thoughtful, especially Schmitt and Kleinschmidt, they’re good people to talk to about refugee camps, but it’s a problem that the article talks to them instead of, rather then as well as, anyone actually living in a refugee camp as a refugee. And this is common in much reporting about refugee camps: refugees themselves barely figure, or they make a token appearance (‘speechless emissaries‘ again) in the first paragraph. The images that accompany, and introduce, an article are often the first warning of this.

Here, it’s a more serious problem still, because as I said, this is a story about refugee camps in general, not a report from a single specific camp. Now, there’s an evolving policy debate among humanitarian practitioners about refugee camps: the UNHCR, for example, has recently adopted a policy of seeking alternatives to camps where possible.** This needs to be a wider public debate, too, since refugee camps aren’t just a matter for humanitarian NGOs: they figure in government policy, and not only in states witnessing large inflows of refugees. (In Britain, where I’m writing from, the government persists in seeing encampment in the region as the ‘solution’ to the displacement of millions of Syrians.) The new UNHCR policy is itself a tacit response to the fact that states still prefer to encamp refugees. But any public or policy discussion of refugee camps that doesn’t start with, or at least make a sustained effort to understand, the experiences of the people who live in them is missing out the most important thing about them. This article, which looks down on refugees from space, is an example. What do people who live in refugee camps make of views like this, I wonder? A journalist might think about how to find out.

Humanitarian practitioners, too, should be wary of the view from above. As the author notes, ‘To help them best coordinate space, shelters and facilities, many aid agencies use satellite imagery’. For instance, here’s a recent update (November 2015) on the infrastructure of Zaatari:

2 REACHZaataricampGeneralInfrastructureMapNovember2015 (1)It’s easy to find such images on the UNHCR data portal for Zaatari and other camps. It’s harder, though not impossible, to find evidence that refugees themselves have had any role, even a consultative one, in planning the camp and organizing its day-to-day life. Whether we think of them as mere holding camps or as ‘cities of tomorrow’, if those of us who are not refugees get used to seeing refugee camps from space, then whatever plans ‘we’ make for them are destined to fail.

The Quartz article quotes Taner Kodanaz of DigitalGlobe. ‘Our imagery shows the human impact of the crisis,’ he says: it is ‘a very powerful storytelling mechanism.’ Whether they’re setting the scene for a news article or serving as a planning tool for humanitarians, images of refugee camps do indeed tell a story—and it may not be the story we think it is.

Next: ‘rows of tents’. Meanwhile, here’s a good short piece about why Zaatari is a camp, not a city.

Update (same day): for many more of these unappealing views from above, see this ‘story map‘ from ESRI, a mapping software company. It allows you to zoom in on satellite views of the world’s fifty most populous refugee camps—each compared in size to some minor American city, but otherwise almost entirely decontextualized. It’s hard to see what the point is.

Click images for sources

*Taking non-essential chopper trips over a refugee camp is, to say the least, in poor taste, especially in this case. People who have fled Syria have overwhelmingly done so to get away from the regime and its indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations in rebel-held areas—most notoriously, ‘barrel bombing’, levelling whole quarters with cheap and dirty bombs made of barrels packed with explosives and shrapnel and dropped from, yes, helicopters. It would be good to know if there was any purpose to that flight other than to reassure Kerry—and his host, the Jordanian foreign minister Nasser Judeh—of the great distance that separates them from the people who live in Zaatari.

**You can read the full policy here (PDF).

Wicked women and other dark strangers

Not much activity on here recently—the back half of last term got so madly busy that even the break didn’t give me any time for, well, a break. So I thought I’d better post something before this term starts tomorrow.

Cocaine

Interesting article on the Guardian website yesterday, or rather not really an article. It’s a gallery of European posters from the decades around 1900, presented without much comment. They’re all held by the Century Guild museum in Los Angeles, and the link to the museum website at the top of the page, though it’s given as just centuryguild.net, actually takes you to the museum’s online shop—where, coincidentally, the glossy reproductions on sale are of precisely this set of posters. Still, they’re cracking stuff, even if the gallery is essentially a free (or paid?) advertisement.

Alraune

It’s a shame that they’re presented without much comment, though, because there’s plenty to comment about. Their place in art history, for a start: not my field at all, but I was immediately struck by the echo between this poster for the 1918 film Alraune and Giovanni Segantini’s 1894 painting The evil mothers, which I saw in a gallery in Vienna nearly twenty years ago and haven’t forgotten. In Alraune, a tree/woman snarls men in her roots: the film is about a demonic woman created by a mad scientist from what the IMDb plot summary calls a ‘forced sexual union’ between a woman and a mandrake root. In Segantini’s deeply creepy painting it’s the women who are snarled up: there are some in the smaller tree in the background too. They’re ‘wicked mothers’, being punished for abandoning—or killing—their babies by being tangled in thorn trees, where little babies’ heads bite them for all eternity. (Segantini’s mother died when he was seven. So.)

The_Evil_Mothers_by_Giovanni_Segantini

You could say more about how Alraune fits into film history, too: it was made in Hungary by Mihály Kertész, who moved to Hollywood in the 1920s and (as Michael Curtiz) later directed Casablanca. It was also remade more than once—indeed, at least twice within a decade or so, in German and American versions (1928 and 1930 respectively) directed by different people but both starring Brigitte Helm, best known as the star of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.Metropolis Helm’s role in Metropolis is complicated: she plays Maria, a prophetic young woman, but she also plays a robot (more mad scientists) who is eventually transformed into a false Maria sent off to engage in all sorts of wickedness to undermine the reputation of the real one. And anyone who’s seen Metropolis (1927) will remember the scene where the false Maria dances in the Yoshiwara bordello, creating a storm of lust among the tuxedo’d men there—men whose twitching, leering faces bear more than a passing resemblance to those in the poster for the 1923 Paris musical Cocaïne at the top of this post.

That poster, though, is also striking for its obvious racism: two of the figures in it are flat-nosed, fat-lipped racist caricatures of African-American jazz musicians in Paris. There are more racist caricatures in the eleven heads on plates in the poster for the German cabaret performers Die Elf Scharfrichter (‘The Eleven Executioners’), about whom I wish I could write some more—they were an early and influential political cabaret act performing in Munich in the first few years of the 1900s. But my German is minimal, and even if my university library had an online subscription to the Oxford Companion to German Literature it seems that the entry there is only 80 words long.*

Shadow and light

I won’t reproduce that poster here because there’s only so much racist caricature I can stomach even with due critical presentation, and there’s a bit more on the way. But it’s unfortunate that the Guardian site reproduces it without any critical presentation at all. It combines racist caricature with the other theme I’ve just outlined, wicked women, in the tall, dark, and skull-faced figure representing the singer Marya Delvard. (‘One thought involuntarily of sin’.)

And that makes for an interesting comparison with the poster for ‘Shadows and Light’, a 1919 Munich dance performance by Peter Pathe and Maria Hagen. The image of Hagen is lily-white, representing light, though the wild hair, razor eyebrows, and pursed, rouged lips hardly suggest innocence or virtue. Pathe and HagenBut what about the figure representing shadow? “The image is suggestive of contemporary Japanese anime”, the gallery’s founder Thomas Negovan says in the Guardian piece. Well, maybe: but it’s also more than suggestive of Nazi antisemitic caricature. Compare it with this poster by the same artist for another performance by Hagen and Pathe, which I found on an auctioneer’s website: Hagen looks pretty similar—if a bit more virtuous—but the prim and demure male figure bears no resemblance at all to the darkly Hebrew ‘Shadow’. Again, you’d have thought that someone—the Guardian writer if not the gallery owner—might have taken a moment to comment on this, rather than just present it for the internet’s appreciation as clickbait, Buzzfeed fashion. (These antisemitic posters are AMAZING!) I wish I knew more about the artist, Walter Schnackenberg. After the second world war his artistic work was a variant on the fantastic that’s light of touch but a bit too dark in character to be whimsical. You can see a couple of selections on 50 Watts (here and here): the second includes posters and costume designs from the 20s, too. But the brief bits of information I dug up in a quick skim through the internet jump from the 20s to the postwar period (he died in 1961). I wonder what happened to him in the 1930s and 40s.

All of this isn’t fingerpointing: ‘hey look people in the past were sexist and racist’ isn’t a very helpful approach to history, and it does nothing to help us understand and combat sexism and racism in our own time. But it is remarkable, or perhaps it isn’t, that a newspaper that purports to be opposed to sexism and racism can present this selection of images with no further comment. They come from across Europe—Belgium, France, Scandinavia, Germany, Hungary—and from spheres ranging across political cabaret, theatre, film, and opera, as well as campaigns for public health and morality. In other words, they give a wide-angle view of cultural history in both senses: that is, the history of how meaning is constructed within a given culture, as well as the narrower history of a given society’s cultural production, whether ‘high’ or ‘low’. They show how the most striking iconography produced across this spectrum, whether by a radical political cabaret troupe or a conservative institution like the military, relied on a visual language where misogyny and racism (including antisemitism) were taken for granted as key reference points.

Syphilis

Writing the history of all this is not the Guardian’s job, but I wish there was even the slightest hint that they’d at least noticed it. It’s hardly hiding: I mean, look where the seductive female figure of Syphilis is holding the skull. But it wasn’t female seductiveness that made syphilis a danger to soldiers, and the real hecatomb that was going on when this poster was produced wasn’t the one caused by syphilis: it was the one being coordinated by the military authorities that produced it.

*In addition to the link in the next paragraph, there are also brief pages on German and French Wikipedia.

Unless otherwise specified, all images are from the Guardian article and sourced from the Century Guild museum, Los Angeles. For other images, click image for source. Thanks to Andromeda for spotting a typo.

Images of refugees, part 3: refugees at sea

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?

vlora albanians bari 1991 BARI - 1991 agosto 1991 LO SBARCO DELLA MOTONAVE VLORA CARICA DI CLANDESTINI ALBANESI - La nave vlora in porto - foto Arcieri - Quaranta
2015, 1991, 1939?

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.

Vlora refugee ship black and white
‘These aren’t Syrians. They’re Europeans trying to get to North Africa during World War II. So next time you think of closing the borders you might want to check with your grandparents.’

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:

Rohingya refugees at sea
Could be anywhere
Vietnamese refugees Hong Kong
Could be anywhere
Exodus 1947 ship
Could be anywhere
SS Habana, Basque children
Could be anywhere

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.

Massimo Sestini Refugee boat image
This could be anywhere too

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:

Géricault, raft of the wreck of Medusa
Where are we?

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.

 

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…