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…

Images of refugees

Gruzinsky, The highlanders leave the village; Пётр Николаевич Грузинский, Оставление горцами аула при приближении русских войск
Pyotr Nikolayevich Gruzinsky, Оставление горцами аула при приближении русских войск (The highlanders leave the village as Russian troops approach)

I came across this painting last week, when I was searching for images to illustrate a lecture on the late Ottoman refugee crises. It’s the first proper lecture in an honours module I’m teaching on refugees and statelessness in world history, c.1900–1951. That ‘c.’ allows a lot of wiggle room: in this lecture I briefly go back as far as the Russian annexation of the Crimea—the first time round, that is—in 1783. But most of the lecture treats the fifty years or so from the consolidation of Russian rule in the Caucasus in the 1860s to the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913: a half-century when millions of Muslims left the Russian imperial borderlands, and the new Christian nation-states that had broken away from the Ottoman empire, and sought refuge in the empire’s truncated (but still extensive) territories. This painting is by Pyotr Nikolayevich Gruzinsky, a prince of the Georgian royal family, and therefore a member of the Russian imperial aristocracy, in the mid-nineteenth century. It surprised me somewhat for its sympathetic depiction of Muslim refugees being forced out of the Caucasus in the decades when Russia’s grip on the mountains was consolidated.

It’s striking how this painting prefigures the stereotypical image of forced migrants that appears in the print and then audiovisual media through the twentieth century and up to the present. I did a Google image search for ‘refugees’, and one of the suggested subcategories that came up was ‘refugees fleeing’—here’s what that click looked like:

Google image search for refugees
Google Images suggestions for ‘refugees fleeing’

There are a number of similar, and similarly ‘stock’, images on the Wikipedia page for ‘refugee‘. Here are the ones that show people trekking overland, on foot or on a cart:

1024px-Kibativillagers
Refugees fleeing from Kibati refugee camp to Goma refugee camp, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, 2008
Ostpreussischer Flüchtlingstreck 1945
East Prussian refugees in 1945
Russian refugees near Stalingrad, 1942
Russian refugees near Stalingrad, 1942
Palestinian_refugees
Palestinian refugees in 1948

Gruzinsky’s painting is a reminder that some such visual tropes have roots that long predate photoreportage and newsreels. It’s a nineteenth-century narrative painting, and if I was put on the spot and asked to trace its antecedents my first guesses would be artistic depictions, in the European tradition going back to the Renaissance at least, of the biblical exodus and the holy family’s flight into Egypt. There’s a contrast with most similar scenes in news photography, though, which is that the scale of the painting allows the figures to be depicted as individuals, clearly differentiated rather than trudging huddled masses. (The close-up image of refugees from Kibati, taken by a medical worker, is something of an exception: it was taken in a hurry, with the sound of gunfire not far away, and the person who took it was probably running too.) I wonder if Gruzinsky actually witnessed any of these scenes.

Click images for source
Apologies for any mad formatting, my laptop is playing up

Landscape for a decent bloke

James Robertson And the land lay stillIt was the cover that caught my eye, actually: a street of sombre tenements retreating into pale murk, one side lined with the dark silhouettes of lamp-posts in tight perspective. There are plenty of people about—three men clusted around the lamp-post in the foreground, one with his head twisted to look not towards the camera but a little past it to one side; two young girls crossing the street in lockstep from the other side; a little further back, a man who seems to be in military cap and coat striding purposefully the other way, but with his head turned to look down the street away from the camera; other figures deeper into the background, too. But there’s a lot of space between all these people, partly because to the modern eye there are barely any cars about—just one, almost invisible, parked way up the road and on the other side of the street. The road is wet, and as roads without cars do it looks broad and spacious, even between the high enclosing walls of the tenements. To a black and white original some muted colours have been added.

It’s a fine, beautifully composed photograph, but as a cover it’s slightly misleading. Taken by Bert Hardy, it shows a street in the Gorbals in 1948. (Reading up on Hardy was a pleasure: pictures here and here.) It’s probably about a mile from where I’m sitting as I write, though I don’t recognize it and wouldn’t know how to find it: postwar ‘slum clearances’ mean few streets in the area today look much like they did in the late 40s. And it’s misleading—though not gravely so—because almost all the action in James Robertson’s novel And the land lay still takes place after 1950, and most of what happens in the 1950s and 60s happens away from big cities, in smaller, fictionalized places: a village, Wharryburn, expanding with council estates to relieve overcrowded single-ends in the nearby town of Drumkirk, where prosperous rural Perthshire gives way to mining communities and the Central Belt; a small coal town called Borlanslogie, a bit further south and east on the Fife border. The novel doesn’t follow a simple chronological narrative—it has a satisfyingly complex, interwoven structure that moves back and forth in time—but Edinburgh and Glasgow don’t show up till later on. The many scenes set in Edinburgh, from the first section of the novel to the last, occur between the 1970s and about 2008. Glasgow, despite appearing on the cover, has more of a supporting role: a big part of one section is set there in the late 1960s and 70s, but even this bit is recalled through alcoholic tremors by a character now sitting in a filthy flat in Edinburgh.

Robertson's landscape
It happens here

The novel, in other words, follows a trajectory like Robertson’s own, from small towns on the northern fringes of the Central Belt—he grew up in Bridge of Allan and went to school in Perthshire—to Edinburgh and Glasgow. Most of the characters inhabit this terrain. Those who are already adults at the novel’s chronological (but not narrative) outset, like Don Lennie, who we meet as a young father one Saturday night in 1950, stay in Wharryburn or Borlanslogie. Their children’s generation, born after 1945, move into the cities. Michael Pendreich, the photographer son of a better, more famous photographer, leaves Doune (one small town that’s not fictionalized) for Edinburgh; Peter Bond, from Drumkirk way, briefly gets to London before a long, seedy decline as an off-the-books MI5 spook in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The same goes for lesser characters like the Tory MP David Eddelstane, prospering between Westminster and Edinburgh, and his sister Lucy (radical, if one-dimensional, left activism in Glasgow and Edinburgh); Don Lennie’s older son Billy, teaching History and Modern Studies in Glasgow; and a contingent from Borlanslogie—the journalist Ellen Imlach and her cousins Adam and Gavin—who also end up in the orbit of Edinburgh, where Adam becomes Michael Pendreich’s long-term boyfriend. There are a few glimpses of the far north coast and a single one of an elderly Hugh MacDiarmid’s home in rural south Lanarkshire, but for the most part both the highlands and islands and the southern uplands are absent, as are Aberdeen and Dundee, the other cities that count.

This is the landscape in which Robertson’s exploration of modern Scottish history is rooted, and if it’s not quite the state of the whole nation it’s still an expansive canvas, richly detailed. The first half of the book is made up of three long parts, each—it seems—largely self-contained, touching the others only lightly. In the first, Michael Pendreich, planning a commemoration of the father who has overshadowed his whole life, returns to Edinburgh in 2008 from self-imposed exile in the far north and reflects on his own past, most of it spent in the city. The second follows Don Lennie through 1950, as his second son is born and his friend Jack Gordon, deeply damaged by his experience as a prisoner of war, disappears. In the third, Peter Bond, also in Edinburgh in 2008 but a decade older than Pendreich, looks back on his own much shabbier life at the grubby fringe of the UK secret services. Parts four, five, and six get gradually shorter, move more steadily from past to present, and slowly map out the many connections between all these stories, no longer with one character as the only focus of each part. Characters who earlier on had smaller roles, or were just barely mentioned, get a bit of time and space to develop, though some get more than others. The final part brings the threads together in an Edinburgh gallery, and anyone who enjoys a long, intricately plotted novel will admire the way this is done.

Winifred Ewing election leaflet 1967
Winifred Ewing swings Hamilton for the SNP, 1967

The history Robertson is excavating here is political, social, and cultural: it’s a history of the Scottish present, and more specifically the history of the rise of Scottish nationalism. In 1950, Jack Gordon’s ideological nationalism seems inexplicable to the Labour-voting Don, a slightly suspect—and certainly unhelpful—curiosity. Through the 1960s and 70s, an increasingly coherent Scottish Nationalist Party dances a double waltz with the movement’s own radical fringe and with the other parties: on one side, the oddballs, visionaries, and occasional gunmen monitored by Peter Bond, who knows—or guesses—that he is also one of the strings the British deep state tugs on to prompt agents provocateurs to violent action, so discrediting the SNP; on the other, the Conservatives and above all Labour, gradually shifting their respective containment strategies. As North Sea oil begins to flow and the Conservatives’ 1980s stranglehold on Westminster takes hold, underlying political dynamics and more basic self interest push both parties towards accepting the idea of devolution, though grudgingly, while a steady buzz of cultural and political activism continues: Michael Pendreich’s milieu in Edinburgh (‘soft-left, soft-nationalist’, Bond calls him). The devolutionary moment of the 1990s doesn’t end the ebb tide of nationalism, though. The Conservatives’ very success in England wipes them out in Scotland, David Eddelstane’s kinky boot fetish taking him down just before the 1997 general election. And the Labour party that dominates UK politics at the turn of the century—and makes devolution a reality—has lost its raison d’être in Scotland. The book was published in 2010, before the SNP won a majority in the Holyrood parliament that had been designed to make an SNP majority impossible, before the 2014 referendum, before the 2015 general election and the collapse of Labour in Scotland. But it fills in a lot of the background on how we got here.

Alex Kapranos in a duffle coat
Someone else in a duffle coat

Although politics infuses the novel—not without a certain amount of info-dumping, usually done with a trowel rather than a spade—it isn’t a dry examination of party political combats and entanglements. The book is about lives lived through the social and cultural changes that brought this political shift about: ordinary lives, but emblematic ones. Don Lennie, who may not have had much of an education but is thoughtful in both senses, represents common, socially-minded decency—he benefits from the post-1945 transformation (a council house, an NHS birth for his son, and gradually increasing if always modest prosperity), but he’s also part of the generation whose wartime sacrifice and postwar mobilization made it happen. Michael Pendreich belongs to the baby boom, a generation of greater social freedoms, wider horizons, but a nagging sense of not living up to their parents’ achievements. Peter Bond is the most compelling, and tortured, character in the book, though you want to take a bath for every page you spend with him: a failure by any judgment, including his own, his life as a servant of power has brought him no reward. His parents, he thinks as a young man, are ‘a case study in being oblivious to the bigger picture’, but the words apply to him. First motivated, then strung along, by his desire to be ‘in the know’, ‘on the inside’, he has in fact always been on the outside, always ignorant of the bigger picture, and as an alcoholic shouting at the walls of a Tollcross flat he seems to know it. In his adult life he has been recognized for what he is by the people he spies on (who call him ‘Dufflecoat Dick’), despised by the mother who was once so proud of him, and ruthlessly controlled, manipulated, kept in ignorance, and discarded by those who really are on the inside. Lennie and Pendreich, of different generations and social classes, share a tendency to self-doubt. But Bond, in whom that tendency was quite absent, ends up as a portrait of whisky-breathed Scottish self-loathing.

Bond isn’t the only character who lives in the shadows. Don Lennie’s younger son Charlie is the dark principle incarnate, angry, derisive, and limitlessly violent from early childhood. He’s a terrifying character, glittering with a kind of dark light, amplifying wickedness in the bad and sucking or crushing the life out of the good. His father assumes, and often attempts to articulate, common decency and shared humanity—he tries to behave decently, to live decently—and his politics rests on these assumptions too. But Charlie’s very existence contemptuously refutes them. He’s such an intense presence that the way he gets written out of the plot feels too cursory: in such a tightly-woven novel, a thread this important shouldn’t be pulled out and snipped off so neatly. But it would have been hard to bring this one together with the others in part six without spoiling the party.

Charlie, it becomes clear, has touched many of the other lives in the book. The only other supporting character who approaches him in darkness is the MI5 handler Croick. He is Mephistopheles to Peter Bond’s Faust, promising knowledge but bringing damnation. He doesn’t play as important a role in the plot as Charlie because Bond’s is, with a minor exception, the only other character whose life he touches directly. But Croick is playing a larger symbolic role, too, though a lightly sketched one. As a young man, Bond, who is working hard to smooth the edges off his own, tries to place Croick’s Scottish accent—somewhere in the northeast, he thinks. Eventually, years later, and just before his own (less cursory) exit, Croick explains: he was born in Kenya to a father from Aberdeenshire, a policeman in the Colonial Service—his accent comes from his father, and from a schooling in Aberdeen. It’s worth taking a moment to think about what’s going on here. Croick is the British deep state personified, and for all his Scottish accent he hates Scotland, muttering ‘What a shithole this is’ as he strides around the more imposing parts of central Glasgow on one of his rare visits. In him, Robertson sketches a different variety of Scottish self-hatred, but it’s telling that he places Croick’s origins not in Scotland itself but in the British empire. There are Scottish unionists in the book—Don Lennie is one; the Tory David Eddelstane is another—but the one who actually hates Scotland, who does the (very) dirty work required to preserve the union, turns out not to be Scottish at all. Robertson here comes close to accepting the glib get-out-of-imperial-guilt-free card that Scottish nationalism sometimes waves about. He implies that the British empire was something that was corrupting for Scotland, and that may be true. But it wasn’t something that can be separated from Scotland in this way, as my first-year students taught me last year.*

One last character to consider for his symbolic role: Don Lennie’s vanished friend Jack Gordon, who, we slowly learn, has also touched many other lives in the book. From a slightly higher social class than Don—not much richer, but better educated and better travelled, within Scotland, before the war—he survived a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp by grim determination and by remembering the Scottish landscape.

It was home that kept me going really. Scotland. I dreamed about it, and when I woke up I thought about it. I tried to remember everything I could down to the finest detail. Mountains I’d climbed, rivers I’d fished, towns I’d visited. I thought of walks I’d done and I did them again.

An uncomfortable and self-isolating figure in postwar Wharryburn, with a fearful English wife and a silent young daughter, Jack is also the only Scottish nationalist Don knows. But with his disappearance he turns away from a political nationalism towards a more mystical connection with the land: he is the silent figure who, in short passages before each part of the book, walks the Scottish landscape through the decades. The thread that ties the whole novel together, he also plays the role of spirit of the nation, its link to the land through his life and death, one of Neal Ascherson’s stone voices in more than one way.

The novel is a great way to learn about modern Scottish history, which is one reason I read it—though literary enjoyment was as powerful a reason, and there’s plenty of that, not just in the plotting and characterization (there are plenty of well-drawn minor characters I haven’t even tried to justice to here) but particularly in its use of Scots, which peppers the English language of the narration—from bairns and breeks to cooncillors and high heid yins—and takes over more fully in swathes of dialogue between characters like the Lennies or Adam Shaw. It places different characters, regionally and socially, too.

‘I doot we’ll no fash aboot the Lord Lyon. His heid’s ower big for him tae come doon here and arrest me. If ye ask me, the Lord Lyon maks things up in his heid as he’s riding alang on his muckle horse. I’ll gie ye some advice, Ellen, that’ll mebbe stand ye in good stead when ye’re older. Never trust onybody whase name has a “Lord” in front o it. Beaverbrook, Lyon, Nelson, it disna maitter. He micht hae a voice like silk and a bonnie wee wife and a parcel o deeds and documents in ablow his oxter but he’ll steal the shirt frae your back if ye tak your een aff him for a second. Oh, and while I’m aboot it, that applies to the Lord tae. Aw ye need tae ken aboot kirks is that the folks that gang intae them are aye gaun aboot crying their god the Lord. As if we owe him rent.’

If you want a faster overview of the dynamics that propelled the rise of Scottish nationalism, though, you could read Tom Nairn’s short essay of the late 1980s, ‘Tartan Power’, more relevant than ever today. And that shares a weakness with And the land lay still: it doesn’t talk about women.

Okay, this is a bit of an exaggeration for Robertson’s novel. But here are the main female characters, none of whom get anything like the page time of the main men—see if you can spot a pattern. Jean Barbour, storyteller and nationalist folk-salonnière, is Michael Pendreich’s friend and a kind of alternative mother, not just in the role she’s played in his life but as his father Angus’s former lover. She’s much more fun than Pendreich’s beautiful, shallow, purse-lipped mother Isobel, as the reader—like Angus Pendreich—is meant to agree: Isobel never gets the chance to speak for herself. Liz Lennie is Don’s wife; their warm relationship steadily cools into mutual misunderstanding after Charlie is born, though Don is always a dutiful husband. We never see the marriage from Liz’s point of view, though we do occasionally get to see her by herself, working as a cleaner in a big house at the posher end of the village. (Marjory Taylor, a nurse Don meets briefly on the night of Charlie’s birth, also plays a role in the drop in the marital temperature.) There are no important women in Peter Bond’s life, which reflects his character well enough—a few prostitutes here and there, his mother, some disapproving aunts, all of whom size him up for the worm he is—so none feature prominently in part three, though no doubt the milieu of the security services in the 1970s was pretty male at that. Jack Gordon’s wife Sarah follows him out of Wharryburn once he’s declared dead-in-effect, taking her silent daughter Barbara with her, though Barbara returns as the girlfriend of Don Lennie’s older son Billy, who’s nice but boring (for the reader as well as the author).

You see the pattern. They’re all women in men’s lives, even Jean Barbour. The men drive the plot and interact with each other; the women interact with the men. David Eddelstane’s sister Lucy crops up here and there, and eventually, through Peter Bond, triggers his public humiliation. But she then drops out of the novel, while her brother is offered a kind of redemption. Two men who are off stage for almost the whole novel—Jack Gordon, and Michael Pendreich’s father Angus—play a more important structural role, as unifying elements and plot drivers, than any female character. The novel would pass the Bechdel test, but it’s a close thing.

It’s instructive to think about the subordinate position assigned to women by the novel’s structure. The first three parts, as I’ve said, each centre on a male character. The fourth part begins with Mary Murray, employed in the tracing room of the Borlanslogie coal mine in the 1950s. With impressive economy it outlines the narrow possibilities available to her in small-town Scotland, and her dextrous expansion of them. But no sooner have we begun to get a sense of this vivacious and determined young woman than the narration shifts away from her—partly to introduce her daughter Ellen, but mostly to start bringing together the stories of Michael Pendreich, Don Lennie, and Peter Bond. Though she lives into the twenty-first century, Mary is no more than a bit-part player for the remainder of the novel.

So for the first half of a long book, the novel sustains a viewpoint-character structure that is both bold—it takes confidence to set up a complex narrative centred on one character and then leave it on hold for hundreds of pages at a time—and successful: each of the first three parts draws you in on its own merits. But the author is only confident enough to do this for his male characters. As soon as part four begins from a female viewpoint, he blinks. The men get the first three parts to themselves. The women have to share the final three parts with the men. What makes this even more of a shame is that Robertson could obviously have done better. Jean Barbour is a memorable character, but we never see things from her viewpoint (though we hear a couple of her stories). But Liz Lennie is a well-drawn character, and we sometimes see thing from hers. Ellen Imlach, like her mother, deserved more space. These are characters with depths and stories that are effectively sketched out, but not fully explored.

Not even that much can be said of Lucy Eddelstane and Barbara Gordon, the two women in the book who are radical political activists rather than gentle cultural nationalists. Lucy Eddelstane is a poor little rich girl, flitting from one hard-left cause to another with the attention span of a butterfly, who becomes a sour and vindictive middle-aged woman. If you espouse a progressive politics, and it’s clear that Robertson does, it’s a problem when your narrative is much more sympathetic to a Tory MP with a shoe fetish than to the sister he’s connived in cheating out of her inheritance. And Barbara Gordon is a killjoy caricature, always seen from the point of view of others—usually Billy Lennie, presented as a nice chap whose rightful enjoyment of his male pleasures is wrongfully constrained by the boringly political Barbara. When a male novelist writes a feminist woman whose only three-dimensional characteristic is her ‘delicate, bulb-like breasts’, he demonstrates that we need more radical feminism, not less.

There’s only one moment when Barbara Gordon briefly becomes a real character, in an electrifying confrontation with Charlie Lennie. She is the only person in the novel who successfully stands up to him—everyone else, from his father to Ellen Imlach, is either beaten (usually literally) or backs away in fear. The irony is that to do this, the narrative requires her to be a radical feminist: she sees the bruises under his girlfriend’s make-up and calls him out—to her, to his brother, and to the rest of a crowded bar—as an abuser. This is exemplary bravery, and a character who’s given a task this important deserves better than to be reduced to a sexist stereotype and briskly written out of the plot once it’s done.

It makes this problem worse that Robertson calls attention to it. When Don Lennie goes to see Psycho in 1960 with Liz and another couple, he’s deeply uneasy about it, and unsure how to react. ‘And what if you were a woman?’ he thinks, ‘How different would you feel then?’ This is just about in character—Don is thoughtful and self-questioning enough that you can imagine him asking himself this, even in 1960—but the author’s hand feels heavy here. More problematic is a narratorial aside that comes after Margaret Thatcher’s second election victory in 1983, when Michael Pendreich and his boyfriend Adam attend the depressed (and depressing) ‘Which way now for the Scottish left?’ conference:

Various pompous, contrite, humble and not-so-humble MPs, councillors and union leaders—almost all male—came to the microphone.

Almost all male, indeed. It would have made a good alternative title for this post.

There’s a similar point to be made about the cursory role given in the novel to Saleem Khan and his family, who arrive in Wharryburn in the 1970s to take over the village shop. Saleem gets a bit of back-story, and a couple of chances to speak for himself, but as with most of the women characters we never see things from his perspective. You might think that the Khans are here to represent a changing Scotland, or to demonstrate that the virtues of old-fashioned decency and thoughtfulness—Don Lennie’s virtues—are the antidote to racism too.

Mr Lennie said, ‘Please call me Don.’
Mr Khan said, ‘Please call me Saleem.’

But Saleem Khan’s main function in the novel is to enable one key plot-point and one smaller one, both of them for white people rather than himself. His shop’s windows are smashed, which enables the author to bring Don and Charlie Lennie together for their final, decisive, father-and-son collision. And it’s a photograph of Don and Saleem by Angus Pendreich that, decades later, will bring Don to Edinburgh at the end of the novel—but not Saleem, who prefers not to go, and thereby conveniently excludes himself from both the novel’s finale and the Scottish present. You can’t write black and brown people into modern Scottish history by writing them out like this.

This is a big, intelligent, likable novel, and a thoughtful enquiry into modern Scottish history and the rise of nationalism. It’s convincing as a portrait of changing times, and as a stock-taking of what has changed—much better as both history and literature than the last historical novel I read (even if it too begins with a passage of fain writing in italics, argh). But it raises many questions. Whose story is worth telling? Which of your characters do you invest narrative time and energy in, and whose viewpoint do you adopt? Which subjects do we choose to explore, and how do we structure our narratives? These are fundamental questions for historians as well as novelists. I’m glad I read And the land lay still, for the pleasure of a good novel and for the lesson in Scottish history. But I’m also glad it got me thinking about these questions, which I need to keep asking myself as a historian. Meanwhile, to overcome some of the blind spots in Robertson’s view of Scotland’s present and recent past, I’ve loaded up on older and newer novels by Janice Galloway, AL Kennedy, and Leila Aboulela.

*I asked them to name three things in Glasgow that wouldn’t have been here if it weren’t for the British empire. Their answers were so comprehensive as to demonstrate that without the British empire, Glasgow as it is today (and as it has been for over two hundred years) could never have existed.

Click images for sources,
some of which have a CC-By licence.
Apologies to Alex ‘Dufflecoat Dick’ Kapranos.

Not the way it really happened

When I was a teenager, I wrote a story, perhaps as a homework assignment, that began with a long paragraph in italics. (We’d recently got a computer with a ‘word processor’ that could do italics.) This paragraph was extraneous to the story itself, and described a sunny afternoon in a wood—it probably talked about ‘shafts of sunlight’ and ‘leaf-dappled shade’. The only actual event, or the only one I can remember, was a woodpigeon taking off with a clatter from a branch high in a tree. It was probably intended as atmospheric scene-setting. I’ve retained no memory of the story that followed—I don’t think it was ever finished—but writing it made me realize that if starting a story with a long paragraph of self-consciously fine writing is a bad idea, putting that paragraph in italics is even worse.

Front coverAnita Amirrezvani’s The Blood of Flowers starts with two-and-a-half pages in italics: a story within a story, a fairytale with a happy ending. This, it transpires, is an attempt by the main character’s mother to fictionalize the sequence of events they’re caught up in, in a way that leads her daughter to a ‘life… written in the brightest of inks’ rather than their current predicament, stuck in a storm somewhere in an inadequate shelter with a group of unidentified fellow travellers, mother coughing ‘from deep in her lungs’ and daughter shivering in a ‘thin blue robe… so threadbare it looked grey’. We know this because the daughter interrupts—breaking us out of the italics—and insists on getting the cold and threadbare truth, ‘the way it really happened’, sad parts and all. When the mother, Maheen, hesitates, her daughter decides to tell the story for herself.

‘The way it really happened’: that wouldn’t be a bad translation of wie es eigentlich gewesen war, von Ranke’s much-quoted dictum about what historians should be trying to understand about the past. The Blood of Flowers is set in seventeenth-century Isfahan, when under Shah Abbas I the city became capital of the Safavid empire and one of the largest cities in the world. The unnamed narrator is a teenaged girl who, after the sudden death of her father, leaves her small and remote village and travels with her mother to the city, to be taken in by a relative who has become carpet-maker to the Shah. There, after the usual trials and tribulations, she finds success—apparently there’s a happy ending. I didn’t get that far, however, because this is a profoundly irritating novel and I gave up on it after reading through my fingers for a hundred and twenty pages. (I only made it that far because we were reading it for a book group.) The problem with the book is that nothing about it is remotely plausible: not as history, not as fiction. This isn’t the way it really happened.

I’ll start with the history. The novel is spattered with historical solecisms: things that people do, or, particularly, say, that a person in that time and place simply wouldn’t have done or said. ‘How many people live here?’, the narrator’s mother asks as they arrive in Isfahan (p.30). ‘Hundreds of thousands’, their escort replies, ‘More than in London or Paris; only Constantinople is bigger.’ Well, an educated Isfahani in the seventeenth century would certainly have known about Constantinople, capital of the Safavid empire’s great neighbour and rival. They might have known it was a bigger city, though that knowledge would have been anecdotal at best: like other states of the time neither the Ottoman nor the Safavid empire collected detailed population statistics, whether at the level of the city or the empire. (The British government, for comparison, began keeping a regular census at the turn of the nineteenth century, and educated observers were surprised when it rapidly disproved the widely held notion that Britain’s population was declining.) But why on earth would they compare it with distant London and Paris, capitals of states that from the point of view of the great Islamic empires of Eurasia were, at this time, both remote and of strictly regional importance? Madrid or Vienna, possibly; Venice or Cairo, Baghdad, Shiraz, or Delhi, much more likely—these were cities that one way or another probably featured in the mental geography of the Safavid elite. But not London or Paris. This isn’t a plausible exchange involving fully imagined historical characters: it’s a clunky bit of info-dumping for a modern (American) readership, hence the choice of comparators. In the voice of an omniscient narrator, not claiming to be fixed in time or place, it could work. But a seventeenth-century Isfahan merchant wouldn’t have made that comparison, and if he had, a peasant girl just arrived from a dirt-poor village in the mountains wouldn’t have known what he was talking about anyway.

Thirty-three Arched Bridge, Allāhverdi Khan Bridge
The ‘thirty-three arched bridge’, Isfahan

This kind of thing is all over the place, at least in the third of the book I read. A silk merchant boasts that ‘it’s our biggest export, and we sell more of it than the Chinese’ (p. 70). This is a statement that a person could only make after states started collecting and comparing reliable macroeconomic data (which in turn requires a sophisticated and fairly interventionist standing bureaucracy), and disseminating them through an educated public sphere via media like printed statistical yearbooks, newspapers, and economic journals. When, if ever, did the Safavid empire start collecting that kind of data—and when did China, for the comparison to be made? When was a national consciousness sufficiently well developed in Iran that a merchant in Isfahan could say ‘we’ and mean ‘the Safavid empire’ rather than ‘my family’, ‘merchants in this city’, or ‘the Muslims’ (or more likely ‘the Christians’)? Probably never.

This is quibbling, but it’s not just quibbling. The novel claims to be depicting a particular time and place, but errors like this show that Amirrezvani hasn’t even begun to think about the differences that separate us from that time and place. The characters are stock characters of suburban American literature, crowbarred awkwardly into an ‘exotic’ setting. The Shah’s favourite concubine, Jamileh, is described as a pert little thing in ‘a lacy undershirt slit from the throat to the navel, which showed the curve of her breasts’ and ‘a thick saffron sash round her hips, which swayed as she walked’ (p. 64): you can picture her in the movie adaptation, but whether this description bears any relationship to pre-twentieth century ideals of beauty in Iran is questionable. The romance of the narrator’s friend Naheed and her polo player doesn’t show a daring and impetuous young woman breaking the conventions of her time: she’s a cheerleader falling for a sports jock at the game, showing an author utterly bound to the conventions of our time. Characters in the novel actually do talk about going to ‘the game’; Naheed actually does get grounded for going without permission. The self-consciously exoticising dialogue—‘May God rain his blessings on Shah Abbas!’—doesn’t transport us to Safavid Iran: it just goes clunk.

The place and time don’t come alive because the author can’t imagine any place and time but her own. ‘My beloved was not Naheed’s handsome polo player’, says the narrator, ‘nor the powerful old Shah, nor any of the thousands of sweet-faced young men who congregated on Isfahan’s bridges, smoked in its coffee houses, or lingered around Four Gardens. The one I loved was more unknowable, more varied, and more marvellous: the city itself. Every day, I bounded out of my bedroll, longing to explore it.’ (p.111) This orientalizing nonsense, with its ‘thousands of sweet-faced young men’, has nothing to do with Safavid Iran. It draws on the nineteenth-century exotic kitsch that gave America the Shriners, but also on a tradition of overwritten twentieth and twenty-first century city-guides that pretend that any city can be penetrated by the eyes, feet, and intellect of the flâneur, after the model of Baudelaire. But flâneurs, if they ever existed at all, were high-status men of independent means: the male gaze on foot. A low-status girl barely surviving on the charity of a distant relative in seventeenth-century Isfahan wouldn’t bound out of her bedroll and start cruising the pavements as though she had a Lonely Planet in one hand and a selfie stick in the other. She’d get to work around the house, and she’d work all day. She wouldn’t explore the city, and I doubt she’d even think of ‘the city’ around her in those abstract terms.

This problem is literary as much as historical. The author pays no more respect to the literary world she’s created than to the history. After the narrator’s father dies, she and her mother, in their village, are reduced to such poverty that by the winter ‘we were living on a thin sheet of bread and pickled carrots left over from the previous year’ (p. 22), lethargic with hunger, selling their ‘last valuable possession’, a rug she had made. But in Isfahan a few months later, when the plot requires her to come up with a design that will persuade her relative and somewhat stingy benefactor, Gostaham, to let her participate in his work as rug-maker to the court,

I put my hand to my neck and touched a piece of jewellery that my father had given me as protection against the Evil Eye. It was a silver triangle with a holy carnelian in its centre, and I often touched it for blessings. (p. 86)

If it’s poor history to imagine that a seventeenth-century peasant could give his daughter designer jewellery in silver and semi-precious gemstones (‘as protection against the Evil Eye’!), it’s poor plotting to have someone who was close to starvation sixty pages ago suddenly remember the jewellery she’s had hanging around her neck the whole time.

This implausibility, not just in the historical setting but in the novel’s own mise en scène, is everywhere. Amirrezvani puts her narrator in a position of tenuous survival on the lowest rung of a large household, more servant than niece—but instead of working out a plot that might actually arise from that situation, she keeps sending her out into ‘the city’, as though her time (and body) were her own. Again, historically it just isn’t believable that a girl of low status like this, an uneducated peasant, would have been considered a suitable companion for Naheed, who ‘comes from a very good family’ (p.43): a servant, perhaps, but not a friend. But it’s a failure of characterization and plotting that this suggestion comes from Gostaham’s wife Gordiyeh. She’s the main antagonist of the narrator and her mother in Gostaham’s household, little pleased by the arrival of these dependent womenfolk, and presented as a snobbish and grasping social climber: the least likely person, on the novel’s own terms, to threaten her own recently acquired respectability by introducing a braying peasant child into the household of a distinguished neighbour.

And there I’ll have to stop, without engaging with the novel’s main themes (‘a quest for independence and self-reliance’, apparently, which is of course a highly original and daring theme for a book that is marketed to a western audience and purports to be about an Iranian woman) or the rest of the plot. It probably involves the sexy Fereydoon, who on p. 81 catches sight of the narrator’s hair as she shakes it free, shampoo advert style, from the headscarf she’s just unwillingly learned to wear.* But I don’t know, because all the implausibility, exoticism, and faux-naïf prose just got the better of me. I’ve read plenty of good historical novels recently: this isn’t one of them.

*Fereydoon is a soldier, just returned from fighting the Ottomans in the north, and also ‘the son of a wealthy horse trader’ (p. 84), though one who himself started out as ‘just a country farmer’. It seems unlikely to me, and a quick skim of Iranica Online tends to confirm this suspicion, that the son of an upstart merchant, however wealthy, would have been able to join the Safavid military aristocracy in this period.

Click images for source