article visit the site Appealing to an audience’s shared humanity is challenging. When reporting migration crises in particular—which are tied to bureaucracy and intertwined with complex causations—honest and authentic reflections can be easily swallowed up by the daily swell of statistics. Perhaps that is why we find the individuality of photojournalism so compelling, and illustrated stories of migration so powerful.
Pictures speak in ways words often cannot: unlike words, pictures deliver messages in a universal language requiring no active effort to absorb. They immediately relate to images we have seen before, eliciting emotion tied to memory or imagination, and as such are often difficult to forget. Unlike reports or statistics, images highlight the human impact of global crises, appealing to our sense of a shared humanity.
The image of a drowned toddler washed ashore on a Turkish beach this month instantly triggered a wave of action that conferred the photograph an iconic status. We are shocked by the desperation and distressed by the disparity shown in various images—safe ferries sailing abreast overcrowded, broken boats, and of families crammed into train stations but given no passage.
Yet these photos are hardly ‘new’—similar images have been captured for decades. They illustrate not only a recurring history of refugee crises, but also a nearly static approach to how they are portrayed visually.
Images captured by Arturo Rodriguez in 2006, BBC in 2008 and The Independent in 2014, are examples of photos taken across a decade that display their subjects in unsettlingly similar ways. The photograph of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi is an eerie echo of the 2006 image of an African migrant washed ashore on a Spanish beach.
In one sense, recognizing the similarities across time and place can activate that feeling of a shared humanity. The problems of the past still penetrate our present lives, and the faces of those who endure are still visible in the past. Perhaps the realization that these visually identical crises have occurred for decades would shame world leaders into action.
Yet, this likeness might also be a cause for creativity. Perhaps it is time for photojournalists to document a comprehensive temporal and thematic narrative of migration, beginning from the wrenching individual decision to leave a home, to the journey to reach a new home, to the process of integration within a new country or culture. But though they could have powerful impacts of showing the circumstances that necessitate escape and the institutional difficulties of re-settling, these two ends of the journey are rarely shown, especially the latter parts. When photos of war-torn conflict zones are shown, it is rarely in the context of a holistic visual display of a refugee’s lived experience.
While images of migrants in transit (and as such, often in crisis) are visually and emotionally arresting, they often lead to stereotyping and misunderstanding—which is why a holistic approach is superior. Snapshots represent, without being representative. They also tend to reinforce pre-dominantly Western views of refugees, in which victimhood and the ‘aggression’ of an ‘invasion’ are common denominators in news reports describing them. There is little to no heroism, bravery, or hope associated with the images, and therefore the narratives, of their travel.
This way of portraying refugees and migrants has tangible impacts for their integration in host countries. If they are to be accepted, the ways in which they are portrayed prior to arrival is important. Before their appearance, “their obvious positive characteristics are systematically denied, ignored or underplayed” by visual journalism. The power of photojournalism in part awoke a spirit of compassion and pushed open doors to create the Willkommenskultur that has swept through parts of Germany. We should understand how this influence can shape not only policy but also perceptions related to migrants, and encourage documentation that supports the growing understanding that migrants can be positive, much-needed additions to European societies.
It may seem inappropriate to ask for ‘better’ photography when ‘improvements’ come from capturing more clearly the suffering of others. But if forced migration continues, because of conflict, climate, or catastrophe, it would be to our advantage to consider how the power of photography could be re-harnessed to benefit media consumers, and the photographed.