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
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

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).


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:

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 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