Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Book Review: Reproducing Refugees: Photographìa of a Crisis



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5 Minutes

Guest post by Dr Sara Marino. Sara is Senior Lecturer in Communications and Media at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. Her recent book “Mediating the Refugee Crisis. Digital Solidarity, Humanitarian Technologies and Border Regimes” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) critically explores the evolution of migration governance in Europe through the lens of technological mediation and asks in what ways communication technologies have contributed to the strengthening of Fortress Europe, while providing opportunities for resistance among migrants, activists and solidarity groups. She is on Twitter @SN_Marino.

Review of Reproducing Refugees: Photographìa of a Crisis by Anna Carastathis and Myrto Tsilimpounidi (Rowman & Littlefield 2020).

The media have long played a critical role as key framing devices and information hubs for stories and perceptions on migration. This became even more evident when the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ became the object of public scrutiny in 2015, as the rise in the numbers of refugees and migrants arriving at Europe’s shores was officially labelled as a problem of unprecedented nature. Ranging from empathetic stories of acceptance and tolerance to more widespread narratives of fear of the ‘unknown other’, media representations of the ‘refugee crisis’ have been central to the public understanding of what this idea of ‘crisis’ really entailed, and what it meant for European citizens.

Against this backdrop, Anna Carastathis and Myrto Tsilimpounidi’s fascinating book focuses on the concept of crisis as a symbolic point of departure and critically engages with the meanings embedded in the circulation and reproduction of images of refugees. By using photography as the object of research and as a method of critical enquiry, Reproducing Refugees: Photographìa of a Crisis invites us to think about how “the reproduction of images through photography results in the reproduction of hegemonic values and institutions, but also resistance to those” (p.41).

The authors examine how photography speaks about the objectification of subjects that are stuck in-between hyper-visibility (of bodies) and invisibility (of rights, of stories) and in-between narratives of deservingness (the good migrant) and metaphors of threat (the criminal migrant). As such, they make a compelling case about how, far from being neutral, images support and reinforce heteronormative hierarchies of gender, sexuality and race. In purposely reducing migrants to a set of familiar and unthreatening frames (the refugee family, the victim child, the father as key familial figure), images normalize and perpetuate bordering techniques that divide (forced) migrants from the acceptable paths of citizenship. Constructed as ‘failed citizens’ disloyal to their home country, refugees become – in the authors’ words – “sedimented categories, ossified images, and legal instruments through which those subjects are fixed and contained by laws, borders, or camps, but also by representations” (p. 35).

While focusing on how images are politically charged instruments of bordering power, Anna Carastathis and Myrto Tsilimpounidi also interrogate the criminalization of solidarity movements and humanitarian efforts in Europe’s convoluted migration governance regime. This step in the analysis is a timely one, given the increasing popularity of solidarity initiatives in Europe and it represents, in my view, one of the most important contributions of the book, particularly in light of the ongoing attempts at criminalizing and stigmatizing humanitarian assistance to migrants.

What makes this book especially compelling and extremely unique in the panorama of migration studies is the adoption of queer feminist, anti-racist and decolonial perspectives. These do not only help the reader to deconstruct the notion of crisis in light of broader questions of inequality and power, but also to make sense of the connection being made between crisis and reproduction. In a very bold and much needed analytical move, Anna Carasthatis and Myrto Tsilimpounidi – both co-directors of the Feminist Autonomous Centre for Research in Athens – adopt social reproduction theory (SRT) as the key framework. Central to social reproduction theory is an understanding of the relationship between economic exploitation and gender oppression not as separate entities but as “a singular field of political struggle” (p. 12). With this we can start deconstructing the ‘refugee crisis’ as a crisis of social reproduction, where the transformation of refugees into racialized and gendered subjects further contributes to the invisibility of those who do not conform to the more acceptable “demographics of the nation” thus determining “who is differentially included, who is excluded, and who is exalted” (p. 27).

While the concept of social reproduction is outlined in Chapter One, Chapter Two introduces photographìa as a method of enquiry into the role of images as producers of the “hegemonic gaze” where “the figures of the migrant and of the refugee become visible through the administration of the field of vision” (p.44).

Chapters Three, Four and Five focus on objects that have become symbols of the ways in which the refugee crisis has been globally framed as a crisis: the life jacket, the container and the selfie. In reviewing these symbols of (forced) transnational mobility, the authors ask what these objects produce and reproduce every time they are left on public display. The question prompts a rich and meaningful analysis of the implications embedded in the circulation of objects as commodities, commodities that speak about survival, life and death. Inscribed in the social reproductive economy that has transformed the management of migration into a spectacle for the many, life jackets are here interpreted as mass-produced commodities ready for consumption (and exploitation) in economies that are “both visual and capitalist” (p.92), while containers become ‘social landscapes’ pursuing efficiency in the management of human and non-human flows, and reiterating practices of oppression by reducing the complexity of human life into goods of expendable nature.

Through the analysis of survival selfies provided in Chapter Five, we then come to terms with the opportunities that images can hold as a media genre and as instruments of resistance. This is a crucial point in the theoretical framing of reproduction. It departs from the analysis of how the mass-mediated circulation of images of refugees taking selfies should be interrogated in light of its political uses and ethical implications. In considering how the production and circulation of survival selfies affect refugee agency and voice, the authors pave the way for a more prolific understanding of the role of photography in reproducing the notion of crisis. This is perhaps more evident in Chapter Six, as the analysis shifts to the power of images to mobilize action. Here, the authors ask not only how images can encourage viewers to stand in solidarity by resisting the status quo, but – and perhaps more crucially – how the mediatization of solidarity can risk replicating the same heteronormative categories of gender, race and sexuality that images vehiculate. 

Since “photographs have the capacity to capture the untold” (p. 190), Reproducing Refugees does an incredible job at outlining the contradictions and complications of contextualizing the power of images within the current deeply xenophobic climate. The book is theoretically and empirically robust; among its many merits is the appreciation of the systemic complexity that connects the visual imagery of refugee bodies and stories to the migration governance regime where images are reproduced and circulated. While this is amply discussed and supported by a rich corpus of theories, the power of utopia as a transformative force – a topic the authors touch upon very briefly in the concluding pages of this book – probably deserved more attention. Deeply evocative and highly generative, the concept felt slightly under-theorized but in fact provides a useful starting point for further discussions.

Overall, the book paves the way for more critical and analytical explorations of the crucial role of photographìa in the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe. It thus offers migration scholars, geographers, journalists, sociologists and anthropologists a unique and original lens through which broader political, economic and systemic processes can, and should be, critically interrogated. The book is a must read for those interested in the theory and methods of visual enquiry and in the performative role of images for marginalized communities and systems of power.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Marino, S. (2021). Book Review: Reproducing Refugees: Photographìa of a Crisis. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/09/book-review [date]

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