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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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).