What is photography’s role in the age of displacement?

What is photography’s role in the age of displacement?
Constant motion — With millions of people around the globe forced to flee their homes, images of refugees have become sadly too familiar. But is any of it truly cutting through?

This story appears in The Documentary Photography Special VII. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

Humanity has never stopped moving. From the moment we first launched ourselves onto two legs, reaching out beyond our evolutionary cradle in the horn of Africa, our history has been marked by ceaseless travel. As a species, we have spread to the farthest reaches of the globe, in constant pursuit of new opportunities.

And yet one form of movement has always been deeply stigmatised: that of people forced to flee their place of birth, by circumstances beyond their control. From the plight of Rohingya in Myanmar, to the migrant caravans through Mexico, to the continuing refugee crisis on the shores of Europe and other examples scarcely reported, 70 million people find themselves displaced around the world today.

The scale of the problem might be unprecedented, but its reporting has also never been so comprehensive or sophisticated. This is thanks, in part, to a rich lineage of boundary-breaking photographers: storytellers who have innovated with form, process and technology to illustrate the issue in a host of different ways.

© Mujtaba Jalali (2015)

Take John Moore’s award-winning 2018 photograph, ‘Crying Girl on the Border. Shot at a child’s eye level, his picture of a distraught Honduran girl, watching on as her mother is searched by US border guards, seems to embody the draconian immigration policies of the Trump administration. In its crystallisation of the faceless power that often confronts refugees, the image resonated with audiences in both the US and overseas – standing out from decades of coverage along the US-Mexico border.

But Moore’s photograph also reflects many of the difficulties of documenting this subject. It provoked claims of misrepresentation from government officials – mother and daughter were never separated, despite the image being used to illustrate border separation policy – and underlined the challenging ethical considerations which are ever-present when working with vulnerable people, who are often not in a position to provide consent.

‘Crying Girl on the Border’ reawakened debates that have been at the heart of photojournalism for more than a century: questions about whether photographs can ever adequately represent issues as complex as migration, and whether they can ever lead to tangible change. Now, at a time of deepening crisis – as climate change and other manmade disasters threaten to displace millions more – is photography doing all it can to overcome these challenges? And who are the innovators brave enough to tackle this difficult topic head on?

Old ways of seeing

What ‘good’ can a photograph do? Photojournalists and documentary photographers have long grappled with this question. Debates surrounding ethics and purpose – how and why a photograph came to be – have been a constant in documentary photography and stories of displaced people.

One of the key early innovators was Jacob Riis, himself a Danish immigrant to the United States who had experienced poverty and hardship along the way. As a photographer and social reformer, he made his name photographing the poverty-stricken denizens, many of them fellow immigrants, who resided in the slums of New York’s Lower East Side, using the then-new technology of flash photography to probe the darkest corners. These photographs formed the basis of his 1890 book How the Other Half Lives, a work which Riis used in conjunction with newspaper articles and fiery speeches to successfully agitate for concrete social change. But his work remains difficult viewing for its tendency to stereotype and sensationalise.

Alfred Stieglitz was a very different photographer, who saw himself as an artist rather than a muckraking journalist in the mould of Riis. But Stieglitz’s 1907 photograph ‘The Steerage’ was influential in its own way, regarded as a key early example of documentary for its fusing of sophisticated composition with a focus on social issues. Depicting the lower-class section of a trans-Atlantic liner as viewed from the upper-class decks, ‘The Steerage’ reminds us of the power relations that often exist in such photography, and of the constant danger that migrants and refugees find their experiences exploited – namely, being transformed into visually pleasing images which only indulge the voyeurism of those better off than them.

© David Seymour / Magnum Photos (1939)

As Martha Rosler noted in her now-seminal 1981 critique In, Around, And Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography), this has long been a problem. “Documentary, as we know it,” she wrote, “carries (old) information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed as socially powerful.” All too often photographs of the vulnerable have been less about improving their lot, than about reassuring the more fortunate about their own privileged status in society.

Problematic or not, photographers like Riis and Stieglitz inadvertently created a template which has long been repeated, not least in the wake of 20th-century wars, which led to a displacement of people in Europe unparalleled until today.

David Seymour, one of the founders of seminal agency Magnum Photos, captured refugees fleeing conflicts that defined modern times: the Spanish Civil War, Second World War and the Greek Civil War, one of the first salvoes of the emerging Cold War. In many of Seymour’s photos barefoot children, seemingly unencumbered by parents, play, learn, eat and cry alone.

Photographers like Seymour created a new template, rooted in the idea of the equality of all people, that promoted the ambitious goal of engaging viewers on a human level with the suffering of others. But within this noble project, questions of responsibility remained: namely, what right the photographer has to frame any individual subject as the representative of complex global issues. What weight does this place on a person’s shoulders? Is it essential or troubling when photographers make beautiful images of terrible events – and what, in the end, do these images achieve?

Bright new visions

Which brings us to the present, and the ongoing European refugee crisis: a humanitarian disaster which has been photographed more comprehensively than possibly any other. How can photographers cut through the noise, make work that stands above – and outlives – countless competing images, while addressing the lingering issues of more traditional reportage?

Making beautiful images of terrible events has long been an ethical minefield for photojournalists, who must skirt the demands of engaging viewers with their photographs, while not reducing terrible events to visual spectacles or indulging voyeuristic tendencies. But for some photographers, beauty is an intentional part of their strategy: a visual antidote to a photojournalism that is sometimes alienating in its harshness.

Daniel Castro Garcia and Thomas Saxby’s book Foreigner takes on the appearance of a passport, consisting of remarkable, eye-catching images, quite different from the press photographs associated with migration. Perhaps to an even greater degree, Michael Danner’s Migration as Avant Garde renders scenes from the crisis as a series of brightly coloured and beautifully composed images, more akin to still life art photography than traditional reportage. Works like this may stand out from an endless stream of apathetic, distressing images, but critics may also question the kind of commentary they offer.

© Marco Tiberio (2016)

Other photographers have turned to humour, something similarly alien to traditional photojournalism, in an attempt to cut through the dense weight that accompanies much reporting of migration. Take Marco Tiberio’s Immo Refugee, a project reimagining the Calais camp in the form of a real-estate magazine, depicting informal dwellings along with information about nearby amenities. “These catalogues are everywhere and part of the daily life [in Italy], thus it seemed something very close to everyone’s life,” says Tiberio. “At the same time, I wanted to move away from the manner in which migration is normally portrayed… I thought that an ironic approach could lead to more discussions on the topic and touch more people.”

As a project it stands out, while also courting controversy for the way it broaches a weighty issue with a touch of humour. But Tiberio wasn’t interested in contributing to an already fierce debate on migration. “I made this work in this way exactly because I didn’t want it to be political,” he says. “I wanted to work in the middle of the political spectrum, because I believe there are already too many polarising stances.”

Collaboration is another way to navigate ethical challenges. For several decades now, non-governmental organisations and charities have used participatory projects to empower those experiencing displacement, by asking them to document their experiences themselves.

Photographers have increasingly absorbed the lessons of this approach. Jim Goldberg’s Open See expands on the collaborative strategies he pioneered in his earlier works, inviting refugees and migrants to share their own stories, by writing and drawing directly onto his images. This strategy puts considerable power in the hands of his collaborators, allowing them to define how the images are interpreted, even empowering them to censor them by obscuring their identities.

© Patrick Willocq (2017)

Other photographers take a more performative approach to collaboration. For My Story is a Story of Hope Patrick Willocq recruited residents of Saint-Martory, Haute Garonne, France, a small town of fewer than a thousand people, including around 50 asylum seekers. Working with townspeople, Willocq creates enormous staged tableaus rich with symbolism and meaning that attempt to unravel the polarised and complex attitudes felt by old residents towards the new, and vice versa.

“With the subject entirely part of my creative process, I practise an aesthetic never devoid of ethics,” he notes. “In all my carefully composed performative stagings, entirely constructed in situ rather than created on Photoshop, I send messages that pass through a participatory theatricality in order to go beyond media stereotypes – while generating greater social solidarity.”

Other photographers turn to new forms of photography. Richard Mosse’s video piece Incoming and accompanying book The Castle takes advantage of a state-of-the-art thermal imaging camera to render refugees as alien figures in ashen landscapes. The project soars in its ability to spark conversations, but work like this also comes with a risk: innovative processes can sometimes segue into gimmicks or spectacles, and in attempting to show how states see refugees, Incoming was met with criticism that it inadvertently dehumanised them even more.

The lived experience

Patterns of migration have changed dramatically since the time of Seymour. Today, migrants and refugees can record and share their own experiences – often in real time – while an emerging group of photographers descended from refugees are using their craft to explore their diasporic roots.

Mujtaba Jalali, for instance, had the tool in his own hands. Born in Iran to parents who had fled the conflict in Afghanistan, he documented his own perilous journey – from his home to Europe via human traffickers – on a smartphone.

“In 2015, many people came to Europe so I was not the only one recording his journey,” he says. “Everyone involved had a unique vision of [their] story; mixed with emotions. I think behind every photo there is a unique story… it’s important for education, I believe. We read stories and we listen to them to get to know things.”

Seba Kurtis, a very different type of photographer, left his native Argentina and worked illegally on construction sites in Europe for a number of years. His series Drowned consists of photographs of the fortress-like coastline of the Canary Islands, juxtaposed with Kurtis’s own family photographs – which are intentionally immersed in the sea to the point of obliteration. The resulting series creates a stark contrast between very personal experiences of migration, the indifference of state power, and the cold and dangerous elements.

Cuban-American photojournalist Lisette Poole set out alongside two Cuban women, Liset and Marta, to document their perilous journey to the United States, a journey which would become her book La Paloma y La Ley. Spending nearly two months with the women and travelling illegally across ten borders, Pool’s work offers a particularly intimate perspective on migration, one also informed by her own family’s experience of relocating to the United States.

“I was very clear about my role from the beginning, and we had several talks before and during the trip,” she remembers. “They inherently understood the value of documenting their journey, and knew that keeping journalistic boundaries was essential to making sure the story had credibility.”

© Jim Goldberg (2004)

This approach goes some way in humanising the migration experience, without distilling it down to a singular story. “I don’t see them as stand-ins for [the topic of migration and refugees more broadly],” explains Lisette. “Their story is wholly unique just like everyone else’s, the only difference is that I had the privilege of time and their deep trust, to be able to tell the story intimately.”

Other photographers and organisations are turning to new technologies to foster empathy through immersive experiences. As expanded reality storytelling has matured, it has increasingly been used to probe sensitive issues. The New York Times video The Displaced, for example, places viewers into the lives of child refugees across three conflict zones – Ukraine, Syria and South Sudan – transporting viewers from their privileged surroundings into authentically dystopian worlds.

There is clearly no shortage of innovation in migration photography, and yet the crisis continues seemingly indifferent to these efforts. The problem perhaps is not just one of cutting through the noise, it is a far more profound question of what we do once we have made it through.

Over a century ago Riis and other campaigning photographers saw their photography as part of a clear process: that photographs and other media informed a public, who then acted at the ballot box, with politicians in turn responding to these desires. Most photographers today still follow that model, but without realising that’s what they’re doing – much less questioning whether that model still makes any sense.

New ways of representing the experience of displacement and migration can undoubtedly engage audiences and address ingrained wrongs: it can, at its best, affect change. But our work does not stop at the point of making an innovative image. Photography that deals with forced displacement and migration must be, like the subject itself, something in constant motion.

This story appears in The Documentary Photography Special VII. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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