Does Photography Dehumanize Refugees?

Steve McCurry, National Geographic, Sharbat Gula, Syria refugees, The EU migrant crisis, boat people, International news journal, far-right in Europe, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, photography

© AshleyWiley

December 01, 2016 14:01 EDT

Images create a particular political language that shapes our way of understanding refugees.

The image of the stunning gaze and green eyes enthralled the world when it was captured by award-winning photographer, Steve McCurry, and appeared on the front page of National Geographic in 1984. The subject’s name was Sharbat Gula, who later became an iconic symbol of the refugee crisis. In recent weeks, Gula’s face has, once again, come to the forefront of media attention when Pakistani authorities filed charges against her for falsifying identification documents.

But why have the media and numerous people always responded to the image of Gula in such a powerful way? What is it, in particular, about this image? Gula’s face is clearly more than just a pair of green eyes. Her face has character and it creates, in the act of an interpersonal relationship, a union between the subject of the picture and the viewer. In the context of this unique union, her face is not a passive object toward which the photographer comfortably directs the camera, but rather her face has its own dynamism that invites the viewer for a closer look or a closer encounter.

Shooting from a Distance

Tracing the wide range of emotional and intimate responses to this image reveals an important lesson about the significance of the close-up or the close encounter and the dynamism of the face. It is this necessity, of seeing the refugee with an identifiable face close up, that I would like to challenge our wide-angle memoir of refugees—particularly Syrian refugees. In other words, the refugees are being framed from a distance: crowds of faceless asylum seekers and masses of nameless people.

Today, the wide shot is part of our routine assessment of the refugee crisis: huddled bodies of a hundred illegal migrants in a boat, large groups of asylum seekers carried by the drift of the tide, furious fence-jumpers or border-crossers with their backpacks or children. Such images provoke a particular political language that shapes our way of understanding refugees. Consider how a wide shot image of asylum seekers helps politicians to deface refugees by depicting them as an abstract crowd and, thereby, describing them with a range of abstract terms such as: SIVEs people (suspected illegal entry vessels), IMAs people (irregular maritime arrivals), or the less technical “boat people.” The wide shot creates an abstract form in which no human face can be found.

Bowls of Skittles

When it comes to anti-immigrant slogans, the potential of the wide shot to abstract individuals to the level of groups plays an essential role. Visualization of refugees from a distance draws a line between two groups of them and us. “They” refers to the illegal, dangerous, the terrorist, while “we” means that it is us who will be invaded, ravaged, plundered.

Within the political arena, shooting from a distance conveys an underlying political message: They are not in our group, they are not like us, they are aliens. The camera distance, thereby, fades individuals by reducing them to masses. It is within this context that refugees are understood in terms such as horde, flood, flow or, as Donald Trump Jr. has described, a bowl of skittles.

The wide shot acquires a certain emotion and rhetoric, whereby the long line of dislodged refugees is converted into the political expression: “You don’t know that. They are coming from all over the world,” the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, said with a poster behind him that depicted hundreds of refugees walking in a long queue with the headline: Breaking Point.

Certainly, neither aesthetic insight nor artistic worth of this picture inspires this British politician. Rather, its potential for propagating and confusing the mind is better suited for him. And in this, he is not alone. There are leaders of far-right parties and movements like Marine Le Pen of the Front National in France who look at these images of immigrants and describe them as physically aggressive, saying that “in the images, 99% are men.”

US President-elect Donald Trump goes further in this portrayal of refugees as a flow of soldier-like men in this statement that “not only are they men, they’re young men. And they’re strong as can be.”

What these politicians represent is a wide shot of refugees that ultimately forms the visual basis of confrontation between them and us. However, it is exactly this confrontation that the close-up challenges by offering an intimate look at the refugee: his mangled body, his fragmented rag, his scorched lips, and his face. The close-up gives the undifferentiated crowd individuality, features and unique identities that must be shown. Eventually, the spatial proximity created by the close-up humanizes the refugee and makes him look more like one of us.

Today, we are being told that boundaries are coming down, that refugees are “the all-time great Trojan Horse,” and we need a “big, beautiful, powerful border wall.” The wide shot plays a crucial role in this imagination. In the era of border phobia, the wide shot lies at the heart of how we see refugees. As the practice of framing refugees from a distance is becoming more integral to our imagination, the hope of seeing an expressive face of exile, like that of Sharbat Gula, is becoming ever more distant.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: AshleyWiley

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