Europe’s Vicarious Victimhood: World Press Photo 2015

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A Syrian man carries the body of a child, killed in an air strike by government forces in Douma, Syria
© Abd Doumany

It takes time to change old edifices, whether that change be a restoration to a former glory or a gradual crumbling to dust. World Press Photo currently seems to currently be undergoing something of a transformation, but it is yet unclear how far this change will go, and to what extent it will either rejuvenate or reduce the organisation’s relevance to photojournalism. Many of the old problems which have tended to rear their heads each year seem to being gradually dealt with, but others remain, including I would say the very obvious issue of the prize’s Eurocentrism. Coverage of the refugee crisis currently engulfing Europe featured prominently this year, a fact which is not surprising in itself since there is a tendency with all such prizes and competitions to reward work which feels timely, and which engages with a topic resting heavy on the minds of both audiences and jurors. This year however it has occurred on a scale I’m not sure I have seen previously in the (short) time I have been engaged with photojournalism. Beyond Warren Richardson’s winning photograph already discussed here in depth, other photographers focusing on the crisis rewarded with recognition included Sergey Ponomarev, General News, first prize stories, Paul Hansen, General News, second prize singles, Matic Zorman, People, first prize singles, Bulent Kilic, Spot News, third prize stories, Francesco Zizola, Contemporary Issues, second prize stories and Dario Mitidieri, People, third prize singles.

Yet what seemed noticeably absent among the winners were photographs of the conflict in Syria, which is often articulated (rightly or not) as the driving force behind these current waves of forced migration. As far as I could tell there were only two exceptions, Abd Doumany’s photograph of a man carrying a child’s body from the remains of a building after a government airstrike on the city of Douma, which won General News, second prize stories, and Mauricio Lima’s photograph of a badly wounded ISIS fighter being treated by a doctor at a Kurdish hospital in northern Syria, which won General News, first prize singles. (You well also might argue that Dario Mitidieri’s photograph, taken in a Lebanese refugee camp, is the real exception amongst all of these in being from the limbo between Europe and Syria). In a brief exchange we had on Facebook, photographer Robert Stothard pointed out that the emphasis on certain aspects of a crisis and not on others is problematic, and I am want to agree. He wrote that ‘in a year where the big stories have been taking place on the doorstep of those with editorial power isn’t it a tad sad that the winner is a photograph of an unidentified family (no name let alone nationality) shot by a white bloke. Photojournalists working on the issue of immigration to Europe have a great opportunity to work towards preventing the othering of their subjects.’

In photographing the refugee crisis there are many questions to be negotiated and considered, not least about what ‘side’ we photograph from, in both senses of that word. As I noted in my original analysis of Richardson’s winning image, there is a subtext of voyeurism which is hard to escape, partly created by the compromised aesthetics of the photograph which brings to mind the smartphone photographs of the bystander or eyewitness, but also to a significant degree by the framing of the photograph from the far side of the razor wire from its subject. Aesthetic decisions are always in fact political decisions, whether the photographer intends them to be or not, because they always have the potential to be read as such. A similar issues of aesthetics and in particular perspective might be levied at many of the other photographs on the refugee crisis featured in World Press Photo, and something which is notable in many is the way they often seem to take the position of a European insider or witness, watching the arrival or transit of these people, viewing them through barriers, and so on. In relatively few is there a sense of the photographer’s perspective being the same as that of the refugees, a distinction which might seem subtle but which I think is enormously important. In photography perspectival angles help to define journalistic angles, and again these choices are almost always readable as ideological ones, whether the photographer intends them to be or not. Mid-way through last year this blog was amongst several publications which unmasked a widely reported Instagram account, which apparently belonged to a Senegalese migrant named Abou Diouf, as a fake. Whatever the many problems represented by the that account, the way those photographs gave us very much the same perspective as ‘Diouf’ was nothing if not powerful.

I used the objectionable phrase ‘engulfing Europe’ in the introduction to this piece quite intentionally, because many of the descriptions and narratives focused on the people seeking safety in Europe characterises them in a way which very clearly serves to other, and to alienate us from them. To speak only of oceanic adjectives, refugees are often described as a tide, wave or flood of humanity which is relentless and sea like, with the efforts of European governments to stem the flow as vain as King Canute’s attempts to turn back the incoming tide. In the context of this sort of language it is very easy to unintentionally dehumanise, or equally problematically to misplace victim-hood, with even sympathetic Europeans sometimes starting to talk in terms which seem to suggest that we are the true victims of a disaster, and the disaster is actually constituted in the flood of refugees themselves (a use of language which I think ties in interesting ways into our current fears about climate change). The Syrian Civil War is of course the true cataclysm, and one which European states have had no small part in fostering, whether that be in the longue durée sense of our collusion with and support of middle eastern strong men like the al-Assad’s, or in the more recent sense of our dysfunctional entry and exit from Iraq. The fallout from these misadventures are so complex and confusing even to its primary actors that we have now reached the bizarre stage of witnessing the United States effectively fight a proxy war against itself in Syria, as groups backed variously by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon face off against each other across these most indistinct of front lines.

Perhaps Syria prompts us in Europe to think of our own failings and inertia, and perhaps that, alongside the increasingly dangerous situation there for journalists, explains part of why we prefer not to be reminded of it. The attacks committed by Islamic State in Paris last autumn seemed to me to represent a brief but enormously significant moment when the war in Syria spilled out very directly into the streets of Europe. Yet rather than resulting in a wider feeling amongst Europeans that ‘Je suis Suryien’ (which of course we are not) it far more evidently led instead to a new suspicion of refugees as potential ISIS fifth columnists, another reason to deny them entry alongside the old long standing fears of migrants as cultural saboteurs and economic parasites. These fears were renewed again in the wake of the attacks on women in Cologne on New Years Eve 2015, attributed to men of North Africa or Middle Eastern descent, an event which has been not doubt hastened the gradual souring of German attitudes towards refugees, whcih was hitherto remarkably open (and still remains so, certainly compared to many other countries). The same narrative is now also rearing its ugly head in the context of the debate over a British withdrawal from the European Union where refugees and migration in general are being presented as a direct physical threat to the state, as well as an existential one. Viewpoint then shapes standpoint, and aesthetics are politics. In the context of European fragmentation, closing borders, and souring attitudes towards refugees the responsibilities and burdens of representation weigh more heavily than ever on journalists and in particular visual journalists. This is not to say that it is a prerequisite for journalists to approve of immigration or demand the protection of refugees, while many do feel this way clearly some don’t share these views. But it is to say that for those for whom this does matter, the narratives of the refugee crisis need to be rethought, and the question of where we stand and what we stand for needs to be most carefully considered.

(Critical transparency: The title of this post is adapted with permission from that of a work by Josephine Sun.)

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