You don’t have to see too many of the many photographs of the European refugee crisis before they all begin to blend together. Even those that may seem moderately distinctive have a generic quality to them.
Was this photo taken in Croatia or Hungary or . . . ? In August or September or October? Are they from Syria or Turkey or Iraq? Headed to Germany or Sweden or wherever they can be taken in?
For the record, this photo is of Syrian refugees at a makeshift camp for asylum seekers near Roszke, southern Hungary, in September. For all I know, they’re still there.
One response to the generic representation of the refugees is to call for more contextualization. There is need for that, always, and both writers and photographers are laboring to provide more nuanced stories and images that can bring out the range of circumstances and experiences that make up the crisis. Let me suggest, however, that we also need to go in the other direction: the more interchangeable the images, they more they point toward the full significance of this historical moment.
The significance I have in mind was set out prophetically by Giorgio Agamben, who argued that refugees and other dispossessed persons were not exceptions to the modern political order of human rights protected by state institutions, but rather the representative figures of a dystopian world being produced by the continued development of modern forms of power. The real question then is not how or when will the more affluent nations absorb these migrants into their societies, but rather when will the citizens of those societies find that they have been reduced to the status of refugees?
Outlandish? Perhaps, and 1984 isn’t here yet either, so one could conclude that we have been warned and let it go at that. But plenty of photographers are not letting it go, whether they’ve read Agamben or not. Here I’m reprising an outstanding short essay by Anthony Downey in the Spring 2009 issue of Aperture. It should be required reading for anyone who is interested in the relationship between photojournalism and human rights. Downey takes up Agamben’s claim and turns it into an orientation for seeing what some of the images can show us about this critical moment in the self-understanding of modernity. Stated more simply, he suggests how photographers are already revealing a world in the making: one in which more and more people are being abandoned.
Downey’s essay is a brief one, so there is much that could be added, not least in counting all the ways of abandonment. Whether European states are unwilling or overwhelmed, and whether the conflicts producing the migrations fester because of political dysfunction or indifference in the global community of states is beside the point. At the end of the day, context may not have mattered so much after all. Especially if we we looking only for information, instead of asking how photography can disclose a world.
The photograph above may have a few clues to offer in that regard. Note how it already includes a surreal decontextualization of its own. We might start with the I (Heart) NY T-shirt in the foreground. Did he buy it in Times Square? (Could have, actually.) And the general mess of largely empty bedding is also disconcerting, as if the scene was somewhere between a teenager’s bedroom and the back room of a thrift store. And where is everybody, and how can we get a wider sense of things when our vision is so hemmed in by the plastic structure? Because the structure was built to be a greenhouse, one can even imagine that we are seeing a strange bio-political operation that produces bare life and cheap labor. These refugees are somewhere in the recent past and also somewhere in a possible future, while the present appears to be largely a mess. And not just any mess, but one that shows how people are already becoming habituated to abandonment.
If Agamben and Downey are right–and they definitely are not entirely wrong–then that NY T-shirt is also providing exactly the right context for viewing the image. That shirt can be found anywhere in the world, and so their world is our world. The migrations being produced by war and war-related disasters are another kind of globalism. One possible solution may involve a more cosmopolitan sense of political identity along with a low-impact economy of resource sharing, and the T-shirt, greenhouse, and other objects in the photo point in that direction, too. The crisis will continue, however, until enough people start to discern the possible worlds already being revealed.
We are all on the same road. Sooner or later, we will all belong to the same community. The only question is whether it will be one in which all but a few have been abandoned to a world of exploitation and displacement, or one in which hardship is shared for the benefit of all.
Photograph by Muhammed Muheisen/Associated Press. Downey’s article is “Threshholds of a Coming Community: Photography and Human Rights,” Aperture, Spring 2009, 36-43.
Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.