Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

A Visual Analysis of the ‘Crises’: Deconstructing the Visual Portrayal of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in German Newspapers



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5 Minutes

Guest post by Jelena Jovičić, activist and PhD candidate at the Stockholm University. Working in an interdisciplinary field between sociology, criminology and visual studies, Jelena aims to explore the practices of criminalization of specific forms of migration reflected in the changing political and media discourses. She analyses photographs and videos depicting migrants and refugees and interviews people involved in providing for such imagery – photographers, directors, and editors. This is the fourth instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on 'Seeking Refuge in Europe' organised by Monish Bhatia.

The summer of 2015, now widely characterised by the ‘refugee crisis,’ has been one of the most intensely debated topics in politics, media and civil society circles. The presence and visibility of asylum seekers and refugees has been documented and reported mostly through media outlets reporting on the ‘crisis’ that hit European countries. As a part of my research, I explore the ways in which visual material constructed the conditions of flight and people fleeing, or which visual frames emerged as dominant. Specifically, I ask two interconnected questions: How are people fleeing portrayed in German newspapers during the summer of 2015? And, what are the possibilities to break the patterns of using dehumanizing visual frames that rest on stereotypes and ‘othering’? In order to answer these questions, I examine photographs found in the front pages of three German daily newspapers leaning left (TAZ), center-right (FAZ) and central (Süddeutsche zeitung) on the political spectrum. In total, I analysed 87 photographs from the period between August and December 2015, when the largest number of people seeking asylum arrived in Germany.


Photo from the 'We are Here Cooperative' and the 'Refugee Media Project'

Images are a powerful tool for conveying messages. As such, Wright  argues, it is essential to analyze the ways in which they create new discourses as well as study the social and institutional limitations of their meaning. The visual representations of refugees that surround us for the basis of our ideas about what ‘a refugee’ looks like. Researchers have examined the role of iconic images, such as that of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body lying on the Turkish coast. These shocking photographs of death and suffering along the EU borders confront the viewer with the grimmest outcomes of the walls erected along the national borders.

The devastation that viewers might feel after seeing the photograph of a dead child just might raise the awareness of the brutality of the current asylum regimes established by European Union and the rest of the European countries. And yet, as Susan Sontag argues, we cannot rely on photographs to enforce a moral position.  Instead, she suggests, they reinforce the morals of the dominant positions and discourses. ‘It is never photographic evidence which can construct- more properly, identify- events,’ she writes. Rather, ‘the contribution of photography always follows the naming of the event’. One example of that is what Ibrahim shows in her analyses of the Daily Mail’s construction of the Calais camp – represented as the ‘Jungle’ – and how the use of this particular terminology can be seen as a metaphor for the literal occupation of the ‘civilized’ space by the distant ‘other.’ In turn, what is established is a liminal space – the social space at the margins linked to the breaking of the established routine of the everyday life as it is known. This in turn enabled the human suffering of being stranded and immobilized to be ignored by politicians and the public through dehumanization. This line of arguments can easily be applied to other liminal spaces, such as Idomeni camp, which rapidly emerged as the EU border control and national asylum policies have taken another retrenchment turn since the summer of 2015.

Similarly, my analysis shows that, overwhelmingly, people on the move are represented as large groups through so-called ‘mass exodus’ photography. In these instances, individuals are indict, merged into shapes and silhouettes, contrasted by the rural green fields they are walking through. We cannot identify them or their emotions. Rather, we are faced with a view of a large crowd that becomes even further abstracted through the use of terminology such as ‘waves’ and ‘tides’ that is closer to natural disasters than human conditions. Finally, most pictures emphasize scarcity and poverty. People hold few belongings, they are photographed being given or holding small amounts of food, occupying overcrowded trains or dinghy-boats.

In contrast, images of individuals or small groups follow a different pattern of representation. Here, faces and emotions are easily identifiable. These are most commonly images of women crying in despair or of children with blank stares. A whole series of what I refer to as the ‘male Madonna’ – linked to the Christian icon of the Madonna and Child or the modern version of it depicted in Lange’s 1936 ‘Migrant Mother’ – relates to the hero father frame. Men are captured in action carrying their children through the chaos at the shores. The breaking of the frame of Madonna’s linkage to motherhood in precarious environments enables the male Madonna imagery to emerge as a more dominant depiction. Palczewski explains the use of the image of male Madonna in the anti-woman suffrage series of postcards from 1903 whereby iconic images ‘were deployed to reiterate the disciplinary norms of the ideographs of <woman> and <man>’. The gendered selection of specific photos and what such choices perpetuate is of great interest and should be researched in more detail.

Finally, in these photographs the environment in which the flight occurs is a mixture of rural spaces, such as seashores and fields, and urban spaces such as train stations. The crossing of boundaries is emphasized in such photos. Thick barbed wire clearly signals the point of no further entry. Police are often guarding the already existing fences. The merging of such symbolic environments in images such as physical borders, walls and fences, with an increased presence of police guarding the passages contributes both to the criminalization of people seeking refuge, as well as fuelling ideas and actions on tougher border controls. In line with Brown, I argue that these images contribute to the construction of the racialized others surrounded by prison-like symbols of confinement. Thus, confinement goes beyond specific spaces such as refugee camps and detention centres and becomes an everyday reality for those seeking refuge in Europe at this given time. The reality is that there are no photos of actual detention centres portrayed in the newspapers researched here, despite the fact that this is where many end up as their right to move and seek asylum are challenged by most European states.

In conclusion, there is an urgent necessity for radically challenging the dominant depictions of the people on the move. Coleman argues that news events consistently include visual materials filled with racial and gendered stereotyping that would probably not pass the newsroom checks if they were to be communicated in words. Lorde writes in her well-known piece that we must think of the requirements it takes to produce visual arts and how this, along the class lines, determines ‘whose art is whose’. In this context, we are pushed to think who are our photographers and journalists. New technologies enabling the emergence of the citizen journalist and what Wright calls the refugee journalist may assist. In order to change the visually reductive representations of refugees, we need to deconstruct the current depictions while smashing the dominant racialized and gendered dynamics. We should also seek out and support alternative sources such as refugee journalism and political activism. In so doing, we might contribute to a more critical, balanced account of the events and its actors and refute the currently dominant criminalizing discourses surrounding people seeking refuge in Europe.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Jovičić, J. (2017) A Visual Analysis of the ‘Crises’: Deconstructing the Visual Portrayal of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in German Newspapers. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/05/visual-analysis- (Accessed [date]).

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