Perhaps the most well recognised image in the last year on asylum seekers and refugees is Nilüfer Demir’s shot of three year old Aylan Kurdi’s body in the arms of a policeman on the shore. It raised an uproar of responses in a way that words never really could.
An individual, and a child at that, is the focus of this image. Images of individuals evoke far more empathetic responses (Bleiker et al. 2013). An image of an individual’s death in this instance acts as a symbol of crisis, evoking a strong emotional response from the reader (Sontag, 2003). While images of children, helplessly caught amidst the tragedy brought on by adults, seem to draw out the strongest emotional response.
Stephen Cooper/The Australian
This is an image like a hundred others. Articles about refugees are most often accompanied by image of boats. Refugees in medium to large groups on these boats do not have any discernible features, a visual cue that is immediately dehumanising.
The boat crammed with a faceless group has become a motif in the discourse surrounding this issue. This pattern has re-framed the perception of refugees as being part of a humanitarian disaster, to them being a potential threat that sets about the need for border control (Bleiker et al. 2013).
An image is far quicker to read than a block of text, using images of large groups on boats in the media becomes an efficient way to convey emotions of fear and distrust (whether or not the author intended) . Bleiker et al. (2013) state that “these dehumanising visual patterns directly feed into the politics of fear that many scholars have already identified as a highly problematic aspect of Australia’s approach to refugees”.
This image is a portrait of swimmer Yusra Mardini who competed in the Rio Olympics under the refugee team. With no background noise, the photo is simply Mardini’s face, sporting a playful grin as she looks away from the camera.
It is a strong contrast to the representation of refugees and asylum seekers in the previous photo. Facial features are certainly not obscured, her expression a prefect reflection of her youth and joy.
Detainees protesting on Nauru are often written about but rarely seen. This image shows them standing with arms raised in conviction, holding banners with messages demanding justice . The image depicting their strong stance confirms their agency, dispelling the perception that they are passive or hopeless.
Tent homes on Nauru
The detention centres on Nuaru and Manus island are not often seen due to restricted media access. Rare images of the camps show their poor conditions which only become more unjust once you realise that some detainees have been living there for 3+ years.
Many articles that I had read made general statements suggesting that the facilities in detention centres are poorly maintained, but images provide evidence that is undeniable.
#bringthemhere leaves the confines of Twitter and Facebook and is used as a slogan during protests. This image shows that protesters of detention centres do take action beyond social media and those who attend are numerous and quite diverse.
On the other hand, it seems that those who are against refugees and asylum seekers definitely take action beyond the digital sphere as well. A sign with “Where are the Christian Refugees????” (because four question marks are necessary) is held up by two presumably white citizens in the UK.
It’s shocking to see that sort of blatant xenophobia displayed by people not hiding behind the anonymity of the internet. A photograph of these protesters can express beyond a vicious comment or opinion piece. It is a reminder that this really is a contentious issue with those on either side of the argument believing strongly in their values.
Australian Border Force
This campaign still is part of a video that was used to deter asylum seekers and people smugglers from coming to Australia. The tone of voice is shockingly aggressive, with bold red type and a boat motif dwarfed by strong waves.
It’s hard not to compare this image to propaganda of the past. The language and typography is reminiscent of American war recruitment posters that address the reader as ‘you’ in bold. Paired with the dramatic boat-in-storm-Moby-Dick imagery, the campaign seems genuinely absurd in its lack of tact (honestly, when I first watched this video I thought it was a parody or satire).
Sydney Morning Herald
This image shows the extreme level of security measures taken to monitor the detainees. The guard’s protective gear against the background of high metal fencing is a reminder of who holds the power in this context.
Not exactly a photograph, not just words. This image and many others like it have been at the forefront of the Asylum seeker and refugee debate in the past week.The Nauru files released by The Guardian are incident reports detailing events of abuse, self-harm, threats of self harm etc. in the Nauru detention centre.
These reports could have been just typed, but the Guardian chose to release scans of each document leaked. Each scan with names and personal details blacked out, is a reminder that these documents were not meant to be seen. The power of these images lie not only in their recount of cruelty and chaos on Nauru, but also in their illustration of a government that sorely lacks transparency.
Images evidently offer narratives that sometimes words just cannot provide. They act as ‘visual quotations’ that often linger in the mind of viewers and shape their emotional attitudes (Bleiker et al. 2013). When media access to PNG & Nauru detention camps are limited, images in the media can be a powerful way of delivering information that is scarce.
However, we should be mindful that the narratives images tell do not exist purely for our consumption. In this context, we as viewers are in positions of power. The act of looking at images of refugees – who are obviously in positions of disadvantage – and analyse their plight can often become quite voyeuristic and insensitive. Helen Razar in an article on Crikey once described it as “turn[ing] private moments of death and grief into horror pornography”. This phenomenon is not uncommon in a culture that is often drawn to tales of trauma, where “accounts of extreme situations sell” and “offer the reader the suspicious thrill of borrowed emotions” (Miller & Tougaw, 2002).
So when looking at these images and analysing them in class I think we must always be aware of the context of our actions.
14 June 2015 2016, The Guardian, viewed 28 August 2016, <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/ng-interactive/2016/aug/10/the-nauru-files-the-lives-of-asylum-seekers-in-detention-detailed-in-a-unique-database-interactive>.
Anti-refugee protesters 2015, Belfast Live, viewed 28 August 2016, <http://www.belfastlive.co.uk/news/belfast-news/anti-refugee-protesters-counter-demonstrators-10553548>.
Australian Border Force 2014, No way. You will not make Australia home – English, Youtube, viewed 20 August 2016, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rT12WH4a92w>.
Bleiker, R., Campbell, D., Hutchison, E. & Nicholson, X. 2013, ‘The visual dehumanisation of refugees’, Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 48, no. 4, pp. 398-416.
Cooper, S. 2012, Asylum, The Australian, viewed 27 August 2016, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/opinion/boats-sinking-our-refugee-program/story-e6frgd0x-1226431207815>.
Demir, N. 2015, Don’t look away from Aylan Kurdi’s image, The Conversations, viewed 27 August 2016, <https://theconversation.com/dont-look-away-from-aylan-kurdis-image-47069>.
Hassenstein, A. 2016, Yusra Mardini, The Guardian, viewed 27 August 2016, <https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/mar/18/syria-rio-refugee-yusra-mardini-olympic-swimming>.
Miller, N.K. & Tougaw, J.D. 2002, Extremities: Trauma, testimony, and community, Anonymous University of Illinois Press.
Parkes, Z. 2016, Thousands rally to bring them here, Green Left Weekly, viewed 28 August 2016, <https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/photos-thousands-rally-bring-them-here>.
Razar, H. 2014, Razer’s Class Warfare: tweeting pictures of dead Palestinian babies helps no one but you, Crikey, viewed 28 August 2016, <https://www.crikey.com.au/2014/07/24/razers-class-warfare-tweeting-pictures-of-dead-palestinian-babies-helps-no-one-but-you/>.
Refugee Action Coalition 2015, Asylum seekers during a hunger strike, The Guardian, viewed 28 August 2015, <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/jul/01/detention-centre-staff-speak-out-in-defiance-of-new-asylum-secrecy-laws>.
Refugees state protest on Nauru 2015, ABC, viewed 28 August 2016, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-26/dsc_0813.jpg/6351790>.
Wylie, A. 2013, Tent homes on Nauru, The Sydney Morning Herald, viewed 28 August 2016, <http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/detention-centres-inhumane-un-20131126-2y8hk.html>.