The first keyword of this series – refugee – pervades the global discourse on migration, and yet its meaning is not always understood. So let us begin with a definition. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which supports displaced people:
A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
Under this definition, one becomes a refugee and eligible to receive protection under international law only when displaced from one’s home country. According to UNHCR’s 2015 Global Trends report, there are 21.3 million refugees worldwide, 53% of whom come from three countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. But if we include all of the displaced people on the planet (e.g., internally displaced or stateless persons), that number increases to a staggering 65.3 million – the highest level ever recorded.
So how does contemporary photography, through its aesthetic conventions and social practices, define refugee? In recent years, photographs in the international media have relied on a narrow range of visual strategies to make refugeeness visible. The last post cited a photograph of a young Syrian refugee named Alan Kurdi, found dead on a Bodrum beach in September 2015. I reproduce that image below, along with another, Pulitzer-prize-winning photograph documenting the refugee crisis. The latter, taken by Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times in November 2015, portrays refugees delivered by a Turkish boat to the Greek island of Lesbos.
Although worlds apart compositionally, these photographs both employ traditional, art-historical devices to depict refugees as vulnerable victims and to present their condition as a crisis. The picture of Alan Kurdi brings to mind the Christian tradition of the Pietà, in which the Virgin Mary cradles the dead Christ in her arms. Ponomarev’s photograph invokes canonical paintings of doomed vessels and their human cargo, like Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1819) and John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778). Neither photographer likely had these artworks in mind when they snapped the shutter. Rather, my point is that the media selects refugee photographs to solicit strong affective responses and those selections are shaped by (often Western) visual traditions. The compassion, empathy, pity, fear, outrage, or sadness that such pictures stimulate in viewers can lead to any number of actions – from quiet recognition of the humanity and vulnerability of refugees, to louder, activist gestures in support of displaced persons around the world.
But why must we accept this formula for refugee photography? After all, we are talking about one among many highly constructed methods of making others visible. What would it mean to define refugee differently through the medium of photography? Before turning to the global stage, I’d like to begin addressing these questions through several local efforts.
Last month, the city in which I currently live and work – Waterville, Maine, USA – began holding community meetings to acknowledge and offer resources to refugee families from Burundi living nearby. In photographs of the inaugural meeting in February, refugees are pictured alongside their citizen-supporters, with faces expressing a mixture of pride, happiness, and hope for the future. If we collect together the many photographs of meetings and demonstrations held in support of refugee families in Maine alone, an alternative genre of refugee photography comes into focus, one that promotes solidarity and strength over helplessness and victimhood. Within that genre, I would include a picture of an organized community action in Portland, Maine in August 2016. Protestors denounce anti-refugee remarks made in the city the previous day by Donald Trump, then Republican candidate for the US presidency. Since the presidential election in November, the iconography of this photo has become familiar to people across the United States: bodies of all skin tones, with heads covered and uncovered, stand side by side in front of a municipal building, holding handmade signs and directing their attention to a lone orator, who appears to speak for them all. This is photography recasting refugee in terms of community activism.
Maine has generated other ways of visualizing refugees. My colleague at Colby College, anthropologist Catherine Besteman, published a series of photographs in her book Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees in Lewiston, Maine (Duke University Press, 2016). Taken by Besteman’s spouse, Jorge Acero, when they lived in a Somali village, these photos depict people in and outside their homes – productive, together, contented – before civil war erupted in 1991. Making Refuge recounts Besteman’s unexpected reunion with her Somali friends decades later, after they relocated to Lewiston (an hour’s drive from Waterville). In Lewiston, the ethnographic pictures taken by Acero became refugee photographs, if we reimagine that genre as vivid traces of lives that once were, treasured by displaced families.
Consider a final, local example: a series of close-up portraits that photographer Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest calls New Mainers. Artistically composed and lit, the portraits picture immigrants to the state (only some of whom have refugee status), born in places like Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan as well as parts of Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe. Collected into a book in 2009 (published by Tilbury House), the portraits are accompanied by personal stories that bring to life individual journeys to and experiences in Maine. Like Besteman’s photographs, these aim to communicate the lives of refugees to others and to make observations from their points of view. Making Refuge accomplishes this in part by embracing the conventions of vernacular photography and presenting portraits as if they were made by refugees. We see this strategy informing the cover image, which looks with the subject onto the wintry Maine landscape. Although van Voorst van Beest selected an artistic genre of portraiture for his project, a first-person narrative accompanies each full-page portrait in New Mainers. Written in the narrator’s voice, these stories lend an authority to the pictures and to their view of new immigrants as “part of the fabric of Maine life.”
The Western media has itself circulated images that attempt to challenge the conventions of refugee photography. In 2016, for instance, Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop was commissioned to document the refugee crisis in Africa. He chose to make formal studio portraits in Cameroon of people fleeing the Central African Republic – portraits that the New York Times hailed as “putting a dignified, humane face on refugees.” Diop’s photos were included in the REFUGEE exhibition organized by the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. Also featuring the work of Graciela Iturbide, Tom Stoddart, and other acclaimed photographers, REFUGEE set out to display pictures that viewers were not accustomed to seeing in the press. Its mission is to “humanize” refugees in their new countries, dwelling not on the process of migration or in the past, but instead honing in on the destination and the future.
In addition to serving as a collaborator on REFUGEE, which has plans to tour internationally, UNHCR has been hosting photography workshops around the world. These have placed cameras in the hands of refugees, assuming that such action would produce a more authentic vision of refugeeness. UNHCR further claims that initiatives like Exile Voices “are transforming the lives of refugees.” The brainchild of Iranian-French photojournalist Reza Deghati, Exile Voices began in 2013, when Reza established his first photo workshop for children in a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. Photos created through the Exile Voices project were mounted along the Seine in Paris between July and October 2015, in an exhibition titled Dreams of Humanity. “I want to show their lives to the entire world and in a universal language,” Reza explained to exhibit visitors, speaking of the refugee children he taught to make photos. UNHCR has supported similar projects in Namibia, Yemen, and Jordan led by American photographer Brendan Bannon. Bannon wants the world to see the photos created in his wokrshops so that they can “experience refugee life through the voices and visions of the children, who are the true experts on their own lives.”
Often efforts to remake refugee photography present themselves as beyond critique. How can we do anything but celebrate projects that aim to reclaim the humanity and agency of refugees and to capture the rich variety of their feelings and experiences? Celebrate we may, but critique we must, so that such projects become self-conscious of their own biases and perhaps avoid some of the political missteps taken by the mainstream media. Take, for instance, the notions of humanization and universality that projects like REFUGEE and Dreams of Humanity promote. Who decides what humanity looks like? What does it mean for a dominant social group to claim it for others? What makes the language of refugee photographers so universal? How is that language crafted and by/for whom? Can the goal of universal messaging be reconciled with the aim of picturing uniquely individual viewpoints? I invite comments that address these questions or explore other contemporary efforts to rethink refugee and photography.