Blog Post 4.1: The Emotional Power of Images

Mainsteam Media and the ‘Refugee Narrative’

The Australian media and politicians have played a significant role in shaping the current political climate for refugees, casting them as a political problem and using racialised rhetoric and imagery to isolate them from Australian society. The power of these images is that they are able to evoke the mood of their context but also reflect and shape the current political climate. In the first half of this visual analysis considers various depictions of the refugee plight within mainstream media and how this responded with the context. The second half focuses on collective action which has been taken by various groups to counteract the story that the media has spun.

Image One

migrants arriving in sydney 2
Morre, D. (1966)

Over the last half century there has been a monumental rise in the politicisation of refugees and asylum seekers. The initial wave of immigration occurred post WWII as people left cities, desolated by bombs, in search of new jobs and lives. In the last two decades, the Australian government has consistently worked to make our borders impenetrable through the introduction of mandatory offshore detention. We can see how the representations of refugees have changed through images like David’s Morre’s photograph, ‘Migrants Arriving in Sydney’ (1966). In this image we can see how vulnerable these people are, allowing us to empathize with their fear, their anxiety and their hope for a new and better life. This humanised treatment of refugees and migrants vastly differs from the way they are represented in our current political climate.

Images Two and Three

Asylum Seekers on board the Tampa. Wallenius Wilhelmsen/ AAP
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October 8 (2001) file photo of video footage of refugees being rescued  in seas off Christmas Island by personnel from HMAS Adelaide. Defense PR/ APP

One of the key turning points in Australia’s recent refugee and asylum seeker policy was the Tampa and Children Overboard incidents. These took place against the backdrop of 9/11 terrorist attacks and rising xenophobia in Australia, which were channeled politically through Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party.

Both these images serve to reflect the heighten sense of fear and anxiety amongst the Australian public and media. Refugees are represented as a faceless, genderless other.

The first image of rescued refugees on the Tampa boat is an aerial shot that shows cramped rows of primarily male asylum seekers. The significance of this image lies in its resonance with post 9/11 media representation of Muslim males as dangerous extremists.

The second image was released during the children overboard affair and was purported to show evidence of refugee parents having thrown their children overboard as means to induce the Australian government to take them to Australia. Again, the refugees are represented as faceless – their faces are blurred out – but importantly, the image doesn’t give any tangible proof that children were in fact ‘thrown overboard’. This demonstrates again the significance of political and cultural context in the way images are interpreted by the general public.

Image Four

anti-immigration flyer
A still from the ‘No Way you will not make Australia Home’ ad campaign (ABF TV 2014)

This is a poster from the international ‘No Way’ campaign, introduced after the Operation Sovereign Borders in an attempt to deter people smugglers and refugees from seeking asylum in Australia. In order to underline this message, the poster shows a tiny fishing boat being tossed around by waves in a storm warning that the journey is not worth the risk. The words ‘ NO WAY YOU WILL MAKE AUSTRALIA HOME’ are in bold red letters.

Image Five

Navy boat pulling up next to a refugee fishing boat. AAP/ Scott Fischer

This image shows a naval ship intercepting a refugee boat as it approaches land. The image was released in September 2013 after the introduction of Operation Sovereign Borders by the Abbott government. The policy was unique in that it saw Australia break international maritime laws by enforcing this operation. The image compares the stark differences of both the boats, highlighting the heavy handedness of Operation Sovereign Borders and the use of military force for a humanitarian issue.

Shifting the Narrative

Secrecy and lack of transparency is fundamental to governments’ responses to the global refugee crisis. Conditions in detention centers and refugee camps around the world are dire and thus are hidden from the general public. This is the only way a system of harsh immigration detention can be sustained.

Actions and images of particular individuals have made large impact in undermining some of the secrecy involved in dealing with the global refugee crisis. These images challenge the dominant media narrative around security and the need for controlled immigration, questioning the heavy-handed response from governments.

Image Six

humanising images leaked
Aboard the HMAS Adelaide. Coustesy Project SafeCam, Jack H Smit.

The image shown here was one released from an anonymous source in August 2003 from the HMAS Adelaide, of the aftermath of the boat from the children overboard crises sinking. The significance of this image is the contrast between this image and the officially released images of the Tampa and the children overboard incident. The image shows a humanity that is often absent from images of refugees- a mother is playing with her daughter’s hair.

Image Seven

Drawing by a child in detention, Australian Human Rights Commision

This image is a drawing created by a child living in Nauru. In December 2014 as apart of the National Enquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, staff member of the Human Right’s commission went to visit children in detention. In these visits, the staff would give children paper and pens, asking them to draw something about their life. The image above depicts a young girl crying blood, and is visually similar to many of the images that were published as apart of this enquiry.

Image Eight

Image of Reza Barati. Richard Milnes/ Demotix/ Corbis

The infamous image of Reza Barati is quite insignificant in itself– it’s a portrait of a young, ordinary and well-presented man. The importance of this image comes from its ability to humanise the victim and reflect the contextual concerns of the secrecy around the Australian detention centres. Reza Barati was a 23 year old Iranian refugee who was murdered on Nauru dentition center by staff members. This image became the dominant image that was associated with his murder, and the secrecy surrounding the camps.

Images Nine and Ten 

Warning: Graphic Images which readers may find disturbing 

Still taken from video by Aleppo Media Centre, A young boy is sitting in an ambulance after being pulled from a building hit by an air strike. Aleppo Media Centre
Death of Alan Kurdi , September 2, 2015. Demir, N. 2015 

The first image is a still from a video released on August 19th 2016. Here, five year old Omran Daqneesh sits in an ambulance, covered in dust and blood after being pulled out from a bombed building after an air strike in Aleppo.

The second image was one of hundreds released on September 2, 2015 after a news agency DHA reported that twelve Syrian refugees had died whilst trying to sail to Greece. It shows the dead body of 3-year old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. This image went viral after it was published, however it was represented in the media as a European problem, with headlines like ‘The images that stopped Europe’. For weeks after, refugees became the core subject of media debates, the Australian public putting pressure on the government to assist this humanitarian issue. On September 9th, Abbott agreed to resettle 12,000 refugees from Syria. This is a great example of how images and public empathy can be used to make tangible differences for refugees.

Image References

  1. Morre, D. Migrants Arriving in Sydney, 1966
  2. Wilhelmsen, W (AAP),2001,  Aboard the Tampa [online], Accessed 26 August 2016
  3. Defence PR/AAP, 2001, Video recording of refugees being rescued in seas off Christmas Island by defence personnel from HMAS Adelaide, [online] accessed 21 August 2016
  4. Australian Border Force TV. 2014, No Way. You will not make Australia home-English,
    video recording, YouTube, viewed August 17 2016
    < >.

  5. Fisher, S. 2013, Legal implications for proposals to ‘tow back’ and ‘push back’ asylum seeker boats [online], viewed 26 August 2016
  6.  Smit, J. 2001, Aboard the HMAS Adelaide [online] viewed 26 August 2016
  7. Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014, A drawing by an asylum seeker child from the Christmas Island detention centre, [online] viewed August 17 2016  <×2-940×627.jpg>

  8. Milnes, R. 2015, Image of protestors at the trail for Reza Barati death, [online] viewed August 22 2016
  9. Aleppo Media Centre, 2016, Still taken from video by Aleppo Media Centre, A young boy is sitting in an ambulance after being pulled from a building hit by an air strike [online] viewed 26 August 2016
  10. Demir, N. 2015, Death of Alan Kurdi, [online] viewed 22 August 2016



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