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Of Refugees and the Photograph

In conjunction with the recent “Odyssey” issue of Aperture magazine, Fred Ritchin examines photography of the refugee crisis.

Nina Berman, Installation view of Za'atari: Inside These Walls, March, 23, 2014. © the aritst/ NOOR

Nina Berman, Installation view of Zaatari: Inside These Walls, March, 23, 2014. © Nina Berman/ NOOR

Have we done enough in the field of photography to represent the enormity and the suffering of the current refugee crisis? There are now some sixty million refugees and internally displaced people in the world, a population that would constitute the world’s twenty-fourth largest country, after Italy. Has the huge amount of imagery that has been produced related to this human disaster helped to significantly alleviate the widespread anguish and distress, to minimize the deaths, to promote a more just resolution of the crisis?

In the past, the first question, when asked of photographers and editors, may have been sufficient given the prevailing social contract that photographing tragedy, especially at this scale, was intended to be instrumental in eliciting a societal response (not that it always succeeded). In this paradigm, suffering was not displayed from the vantage point of voyeurism, but as part of a witnessing function that attempted to compel media and governments to investigate further and to decide, whenever possible, upon a course of action to at least partially rectify the situation depicted.

This is what Cornell Capa meant when he proposed the field of “concerned photography” half a century ago, and founded the International Fund for Concerned Photography (later the International Center of Photography). It was a term that provided some meaning, perhaps even solace, after the sudden death of his brother, Robert, who was killed in 1954 while covering yet another war, this one in Indochina. It was also a term that could serve to validate the work of many others, such as Werner Bischof, Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, David “Chim” Seymour, and W. Eugene Smith.

This social contract seems to have been in play last September when photographs were widely distributed of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who, along with his brother and mother, drowned while trying to escape to the West. Politicians, including Britain’s David Cameron, who said “as a father” he had been deeply moved, responded more quickly and viscerally than usual. Many other commentators stated how Alan Kurdi reminded them of their own child, dressed with care and love. There seemed to be something different in these images than in the multitude of other pictures of refugees meeting difficult and terrible fates. Alan, his face largely concealed from the camera, seemed serene, lying on his stomach on the sand where it met the water, his palms up, wearing blue shorts, sandals, and a red shirt. He seemed, at first glance, to be almost sleeping, but the awful truth was that he had been abandoned by the larger society, and he was dead.

Nilufer Demir, Paramilitary police officer investigates the scene before carrying the lifeless body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi from the sea shore, September 2, 2015. Courtesy AP Photo/Nilufer Demir, DHA, File

Nilüfer Demir, Paramilitary police officer investigates before carrying the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi from the sea shore, September 2, 2015. Courtesy AP Photo/Nilufer Demir, DHA, File

A Turkish photographer, Nilüfer Demir, made the images of Alan from a respectful distance. The child was not asking anything of the viewer—it was too late. The viewer was not to be confronted by the tormented faces of refugee families screaming and crying, pushing against barbed wire, lying on railroad tracks, frenzied and exhausted, asking for something to be done. Instead, in the image of Alan Kurdi, there was a hint of divine grace, a sense of stillness rising above the cataclysm from which his family had been trying to escape, and above the cynical politics strangling their home country. Rather than joining a manipulative war of images to clamor for the public’s consideration, these photographs asserted tragedy quietly, with minimal polemics.

Others felt the image should not have been published, that showing a dead child was outside the bounds of decency. Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s director of emergencies, wrote a bluntly eloquent blog post responding to this criticism under the title, “Dispatches: Why I Shared a Horrific Photo of a Drowned Syrian Child.” In it he writes, “Some say the picture is too offensive to share online or print in our newspapers. But what I find offensive is that drowned children are washing up on our shorelines, when more could have been done to prevent their deaths.”

Without the political will and a sense of what might be done to implement change, such photographs can be seen, rather than as iconic and motivational, as part of a detached, consumerist spectacle. Nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc being napalmed in 1972 during the Vietnam War, or Nguyen Van Lem of the Vietcong being summarily executed in the streets of Saigon in 1968 by national police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan, transcended the prurient because the roiled body politic felt that something could be done—massive protests leading to a military withdrawal. The 1968 Christmas Eve photograph of the Earth from outer space, looking fragile in the universe, led to the first Earth Day sixteen months later, and provided momentum for an emergent, activist engagement with the environment. And, more recently, the images of torture from Abu Ghraib prison that were made by soldiers also provoked moral outrage and a turn against the war in Iraq.

But since the Abu Ghraib images were released in 2004, other than those of Alan Kurdi eleven years later, few—if any—photographs have had a similarly forceful impact on world opinion. There have not been photographs that have resonated as much as the one of a hooded prisoner in Abu Ghraib, his arms outstretched Jesus-like with wires dangling from them, captioned by The New Yorker, “An Iraqi who was told he would be electrocuted if he fell off the box.” It may be, in part, because these photographs were made as an aspect of the torture by the soldiers themselves, and have a casual, party-like, perverse quality that circumvents the growing skepticism surrounding professional imagery, with its higher production values and more targeted messaging. Professionals often represent suffering in photojournalistic tropes that focus on the “other,” and not on “us.” The Abu Ghraib images and, to a certain extent, those of Alan Kurdi can be seen from the perspective of “us,” or, even more tellingly, of “me.”

“Photojournalism is a great tool for telling very simple stories,” former photojournalist Simon Norfolk, who has worked extensively in Afghanistan, stated in a 2006 interview. “Here’s a good guy. Here’s a bad guy. It’s awful. But the stuff I was dealing with was getting more and more complicated—it felt like I was trying to play Rachmaninoff in boxing gloves.” The complexity of the contemporary refugee crisis, including the lack of clarity as to political solutions and the fear that societies opening their frontiers will be destabilized, makes it impossible to assert a simplistic narrative, to always tell the “good” guys from the “bad.”

This may be a reason why the smuggling by a military policeman code-named Caesar of fifty-five thousand forensic photographs of eleven thousand young Syrian detainees killed in prison by the Assad regime, many of them also tortured (their cause of death was to be reported as “either a ‘heart attack’ or ‘breathing problems’”), had very little effect on the world when in 2014 they were made available (I wrote a piece about them for Time magazine). Apparently the images of a three-year-old boy that appeared the following year were more difficult to deny.

But would images of refugees similar to those of Alan Kurdi be taken so seriously again? Following the sexual attacks on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve by men described as predominantly North African, and other troubling events relating to immigration in Europe, it has no doubt grown easier for many to deny their own empathetic responses and for others to promote xenophobic agendas. (While only three of the fifty-eight men arrested for the Cologne attacks were identified as recent refugees from Syria and Iraq, the majority of suspects were said by the police to be of Algerian, Moroccan, or Tunisian descent.)

The problem, of course, is broader, as photographs are now more easily contested and disbelieved. Social media—Web 2.0—does a powerful job of interrogating assertions, whether verbal or pictorial, including those from news sources and governments. And an entrenched sense of consumerism, in which it is the discrete viewer/consumer who matters and is societally entitled, makes it more difficult to arrive at a sense of collective responsibility. Is the photograph of Ai Weiwei sprawled on the beach in a pose intentionally similar to that of Alan Kurdi a gesture of empathy, a commercial self-promotion for the India Art Fair, or both?


Ai Weiwei’s recreation of the Alan Kurdi photograph, as seen on journalist David Beard’s Twitter feed. A print of Ai Weiwei’s image was displayed at the India Art Fair.

There are, of course, other attempts by photographers to directly help their subjects. For example, the project by four members of the Noor agency to create mural-sized portraits of Syrian refugees in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan (often shown with an object that each one cherishes), along with photographs of daily life, was largely an attempt to reiterate the dignity of these refugees for themselves—the images were placed on the inside of the camp’s walls, making its denizens the primary audience. (According to Nina Berman, the project’s organizer, the photographs were also displayed for “the donors, stakeholders, and camp visitors who often never leave the tour bus, and so for them, seeing the refugees pictured on the massive road inside the camp entrance, was to remind them that the refugees are not just numbers in the sand.”)* Also, photography workshops for refugees to express their new and old realities, both in camps and in the countries to which they have migrated, are at times useful, and can help others understand more of who they are.

Photographs of young Iraqi Yazidi women who were enslaved by ISIS and taken to Syria, published alongside lengthy texts that recount their stories, underline a particularly savage migration. The women are shown in white bridal dresses to restore a sense of purity, while their faces are intentionally obscured by veils. Seivan M. Salim, a female photographer from the independent Iraqi agency Metrography, made the images and conducted the painful interviews. Muna, an eighteen-year-old who was forced into captivity for four months as of August 15, 2014, states: “They forced me to go with them when I was in Tal Afar. They said, ‘If you don’t come with us we will behead your two young brothers,’ and I had to go with a man to Mosul. I worked in his family as a slave. They forced me to become a Muslim. Although he had a wife and a family he always slept with me. When we were besieged in Sinjar the fighters of ISIS threatened us by showing on a mobile how they beheaded some Peshmerga fighters. Five members of my family are still held by them, and I don’t know where they are, or if they are still alive.”

Seivan M. Salim, Muna from the project Map of Displacement, 2015. Courtesy the artist/ Metrography

Seivan M. Salim, Muna from the project Map of Displacement, 2015. Courtesy the artist/ Metrography

Sadly the photographs remained unseen for a time, according to Metrography’s cofounder Sebastian Meyer and its editor-in-chief Stefano Carini, as Western media appeared hesitant to publish the work. That only changed when Marcia Allert, director of photography at the Daily Beast, took an interest after seeing the photographs and meeting Meyer and Carini last September at a panel discussion, “The Representation of War—From Capa to Instagram,” at the International Center of Photography. Since appearing in the Daily Beast on November 6, the work has been published in many countries.

What, then, are the issues complicating the previous social contract in which photographic witnessing could be, although certainly not always, relied upon as a spur to action? Might it be that the fragmentation caused by billions of photographs uploaded online daily, representing the world as a collection of disparate single two-dimensional rectangles made over fractional seconds, makes it more difficult to place both the images and the events that they are meant to signify in a universe of cause and effect? Might it be also that the frequent controversies surrounding the manipulation of photographs via software and the staging of events have contributed to the medium’s diminished standing as social referent? Could it be as well that short videos and their more explicit narratives, such as the many we have recently seen of police brutality in the United States, are perceived as more credible and as a result galvanize more concern, particularly when emerging from a society in which the pursuit of legal recourse is possible?

Today’s refugees are being photographed attentively and widely. But today’s photographers, in a world riven by stridently competing perspectives exacerbated by the dissonance of much of social media, have difficulty providing a declaration of moral right. It is hardly coincidental that today’s politics have a similar problem.

*This article was updated March 18, 2016

Fred Ritchin is Dean of the School at the International Center of Photography and author, most recently, of  Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen (Aperture, 2013).

To read more from “Odyssey,” buy Issue 222, Spring 2016, “Odyssey” or subscribe to Aperture and never miss an issue.

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