Photography and Migration | Tanya Sheehan | Montag, 06.03.2017

Photography and Migration: Keywords

To consume international news today is to experience one facet of photography’s relationship to human migration. Daily we confront photographs of overcrowded boats and trains; life preservers and backpacks, with or without their human users; fences, tents, and other spaces of containment or restriction; outstretched feet and hands; young children in the arms of parents or strangers; anguished, angry, vacant faces; and countless bodies arranged in lines, standing still or moving forward. Deploying a consistent visual rhetoric, these images can fuse together in readers’ minds, with an occasional few demanding we pay attention to their view. Think of the most widely circulated and remediated pictures from 2015 and 2016: one depicts a Turkish police officer discovering two-year-old Alan Kurdi, after he drowned fleeing Syria with his family; another captures 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh during an airstrike in Aleppo, his expressionless face covered in dust and blood.

I have more to say about these images in a forthcoming post. But here I want to make a simple but critical point: contemporary news photographs offer a highly circumscribed view of photography’s long and complex relationship to human migration. Beyond their shared interest in Syrian children suffering alone, media images routinely frame migration in terms of forced displacement, trauma, tragedy, and the affective responses they arouse in viewers – from compassion and pity, to shame and disgust. Yet so much more can be pictured and said of the medium’s role in the movement of peoples within and across borders. Cameras, after all, can document, enable, or control voluntary and involuntary movements across geographical, cultural, and national divides. Their operators put many faces on immigration (migration to a nation), emigration (migration from a nation), and internal migrations (within a nation), making visible human hardship as well as opportunity. Those photographers, moreover, include migrating subjects taking pictures for their own consumption, not in the name of humanitarianism or international recognition. We must also remember that photographs themselves migrate with their makers, subjects, and viewers, and with them the very concept of photography, which takes on new social functions and meanings along the way.

This blog series explores what it means to adopt a more expansive view of photography and migration in the twenty-first century. It does so by placing in dialogue images produced in the context of the global migration crisis, such as those cited above, and photographs I have experienced and generated through my own local community work. In 2014, I founded the Photography and Migration Project at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, US in order to bring together scholars, artists, students, and members of the central Maine community around this timely subject. In the coming weeks, the project is hosting several public events that explore regional migration in the context of national and international debates about immigration to the US. In fact, on the day of this post, US President Donald Trump released a new executive order banning travel for refugees and immigrants from countries that many new Mainers claim as their homeland. How can photographs represent and respond to such actions?

Each of the next four installments in the blog series will take up a single keyword from migration studies: refugee, diaspora, (im)mobility, and border. In contemporary parlance, we talk about keywords as concepts of great significance within a discourse, and as words that delimit or refine a search for information. Yet keywords are also capacious, flexible terms that point outward to worlds of knowledge. In adopting this approach I am inspired by Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler’s Keywords for American Cultural Studies, now in its second edition, which offers 64 lenses through which to navigate American studies and cultural studies – migration and immigration among them. Their project took its cues from Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, first published in 1967 with 134 essays. Despite its preoccupation with labor and economics, migration and its close cognates did not make Williams’s list, even after it expanded to 151 essays in 1983, reminding us of the weight these terms carry for scholars today.

More immediately, my keywords approach is indebted to art historian Anthony Lee, whose lecture at the Photography and Migration Project’s conference at Colby in 2015 was structured by six concepts: iconic, labor, accommodation, acculturation, elision, home. Lee threaded these keywords through the Pictorialist photography of American photographer F. Holland Day, whose sitters in the early twentieth century were predominantly immigrants and migrants from Boston’s poor neighborhoods. That my choice of keywords departs from Lee’s should tell readers that these are not the only concepts defining the study of photography and migration. In recent years, for instance, generative conversations have emerged around photography and circulation, dissemination, citizenship, indigeneity, internment, family, nativism, naturalization, settlement... No doubt you can conjure many more.

In the following posts, I make a case for thinking about photography through the keywords I selected for discussion, and invite readers to reflect on the possibilities and limitations they present contemporary writing on the medium.