Picture by Frank C. Müller (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The ´Good´ Refugee

by Clau Tatangelo (she/they) 

In this EMGS Blog, Global Studies student Clau Tatangelo reflects on the use of images and emphatic regimes emerging from media reports, which constitute political subject „The Refugee“ as instances of broader discourses around war, democracy, human rights, and humanitarianism on national, regional and global scales. Departing from recent murder of Agitu Ideo Gudeta, the symbol of Italian integration, she analyzes two photographs of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler who drowned in the Mediterranean six years ago, showing the connotative meanings of the images which were used to turn them into the iconic pictures of the Syrian war. By analyzing the instances of Kurdi’s pictures‘ appearance on transnational media platforms, Tatangelo shows how photographs have been used to propose different and sometimes conflicting narratives on the Syrian war and its consequences. [1]

Agitu Ideo Gudeta was murdered on the 29th December in her farm in Frassilongo, a small municipality in the Italian Alps. Her brutal death was widely commented on the news as a disgrace, the sudden loss of “the symbol of Italian integration”. [2] Indeed Gudeta was the perfect ‘success story’ for this narrative of integration: she spoke Italian “more than correctly[3], she built her own goat farm where she bred indigenous goats to produce dairy products and cosmetics, and she made it through the television screen with politicians praising her and sharing her story, “an example for women refugees in our country[4]. 

As the icon of Italy’s integration system, Gudeta’s story was cut in pieces of appropriate size so she could fit the picture of ‘The Good Refugee’. Some newspapers refer to her as “the Ethiopian refugee” or “the Queen of the happy goats[5]. Pictures that have been circulated in the last days usually portray her smiling, wearing working clothes, surrounded by goats. Like the story of Alan Kurdi, the narration of Gudeta’s story acquires meaning from a broader discourse of humanitarianism and human rights. But it also feeds in a narrative of what is successful integration: ‘productivity’ and economic success. Her story is meaningful to the audience because it repeats an existing pattern: ‘good’ refugees speak the local language properly, they are expected to integrate and to become successful workers or entrepreneurs [6]; they need to be exceptional individuals that distinguish themselves for their moral and social respectability. Only when they can show that they are productive citizens, despite the foreign origins, they can become a national symbol and be tolerated within the national community.

The stories of Alan Kurdi and Agitu Gudeta became extremely visible at the time of their death. By taking them as symbols of something bigger, the “refugee crisis” or the “system of integration”, mainstream media circulates familiar stories of refugees so they can fit pre-existing structures of knowing, what Chouliaraki and Stolic define as ‘regimes o visibility’. The Alan Kurdi case is of interest because the picture of the drowned Syrian toddler became an icon not only of the so-called “refugee crisis” but it contributed to a change in the narrative of the Syrian conflict. Moreover, when analyzed through the concept of ‘regimes of visibility’ it shows that different and conflictive narratives can be attached to the same story, according to different political agendas. 

The moral implications of media

Conflicts in the 21st century arise in the context of a ‘new media ecology’ (Hoskins et al. 2010), whereas warfare and its representation are involved in a dialectic relationship. The ‘mediatisation of war’ involves a change in the channelling of information. Media perform an active role not only in disseminating knowledge about distant suffering but also in creating a specific discourse around it, the humanitarian one. This latter creates a sense of responsibility in the audience and pushes for a reaction from observers of distant suffering which is a de-politicized one, representative of a politics of pity. Huge broadcasters such as the BBC, CNN or Al Jazeera are the transnational agents who have the capacity “to selectively combine resources of language and image in order to present distant suffering as a cause of emotion, reflection and action for Western media audiences” (Chouliaraki 2008: 329).  

Picture by Frank C. Müller (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Picture by Frank C. Müller (CC BY-SA 4.0)

When the Syrian war is represented in terms of humanitarian crisis, suffering is thematised through a ‘politics of pity’ (Chouliaraki 2015: 109). The display of distant suffering in a humanitarian context implies a narrative in which three roles need to be played out: the victim, the persecutor and the saviour.  The foregrounding of pity for the victim results in an over-simplification of the conflict, whereas the aim is not the understanding of the conflict but the investment of moral meaning. Through this ‘politics of pity’ media contribute to the “securitisation of news—a discursive practice by which citizen voice is used to construe conflict as a humanitarian emergency, in line with contemporary conceptions of Western warfare” (Chouliaraki 2015: 117). In this framework we see how media deploy their symbolic power to act performatively over events rather than being limited to representing them, transforming the Syrian political uprising into a humanitarian crisis.

Regimes of visibility

In a 2017 article, Chouliaraki and Stolic elaborate a visual typology of European news regarding refugees, what they call ‘regimes of visibility’. Regimes of visibility are visual patterns through which responsibility acquires meaning (Chouliaraki and Stolic 2017: 6). By shaping collective imaginations of the refugee crisis and create imagery of refugees, visual representations articulate normative dispositions of responsibility towards refugees which also tell us about the nature of the crisis itself (Chouliaraki and Stolic 2017: 2).

Visibility as biological life reduces refugees to bare existence offering minimal context for their suffering and translating responsibility into the mere fact of registering the emergency without inquiring the reasons behind. The regime of visibility as empathy manifests the vulnerability of refugees, usually through pictures of children, arousing a reaction of sentimental pity and the paternalistic responsibility of compassion and care. These two regimes are both based on the moral claim that refugees are victims and they deserve to be taken care of, therefore presenting distant suffering through the theme of victimhood.

The regime of visibility as threat highlights the ambiguity of the refugees, which are “speechless victims” but also “evil-doing terrorists” threatening the nation-state order (Chouliaraki and Stolic 2017: 3), and it introduces antagonism in the representation of vulnerability. By racializing refugees and treating them as Others, this regime stimulates a reaction based on fear and the responsibility to protect the national home from intruders. The regime of visibility as hospitality focuses on Western actors and their activism while denouncing policymakers as those who are responsible of harming refugees. This regime which appears to point at transnational solidarity, ends up silencing refugee voices and invisibilizing them as political actors in favour of a performative solidarity. Both regimes share the introduction of an ‘evil-doer’ into the picture and claim for an active response: either ‘our’ politicians are the ones to blame for the suffering, and the response should be a collective responsibility to help, or the refugees themselves are to blame, and the audience is urged to take on the responsibility of security.

Kurdi as an icon

The picture of the dead body of a child, dressed up in a red t-shirt and short blue pants, was on every newspaper in early September 2015. Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old boy of Syrian origins depicted in the photograph, was trying to reach the island of Kos (and from there Canada) with his family when the ship sank, and his body was washed up on Turkish shores. Even though the ‘refugee crisis’, as a newspaper trope, already started at the beginning of summer 2015 this picture was massively diffused (Triandafyllidou 2017) and it was immediately recognised by journalists and audience as an iconic picture. 

Photographer Nilüfer Demir took a series of photographs which will, due to intensive circulation by media around the world, quickly turn into the icons of refugee crises. One of the most often circulated images taken by Nilüfer Demir was the one representing a Turkish soldier holding a dead body in his arms. When looking at this picture, it becomes even more clear how small Alan Kurdi’s body is, emphasizing the childhood and by default the innocence which is attributed to infancy. Soldier’s uniform presents the same colours as the child’s clothes, offering succour and carrying the dead body away. It is very easy to see in this picture the common Pieta trope, again connecting it with a Christian visual background. Moreover, the Pieta trope is a well-known and widely used trope not only in photojournalism and in war reporting, but also in humanitarian pictures. “For western eyes the photograph under discussion takes part in the construction of a world where something might be done, that there might be life after death, and the guilt arising from a double sense of responsibility and impotence might be lifted. The reference to the Passion of Christ gives it the significance of a higher authority to obscure the political and military realities of the war in Syria and the ensuing refugee crisis.” (Aulich 2015). The iconicity of this picture therefore is not an instance appearing in a vacuum but is actually made possible by the inter-textual linkages that it elicits, what Zelizer calls ‘reliable visual depictions’ (Zelizer 2004: 115-116).

The second picture by Nilüfer Demir usually referred to as iconic, shows the dead body of Alan Kurdi on the shore. The reference by which connotation of this image operates is not recognition of established cultural symbol as in the previous image, but associative regime and the invitation to think about Alan Kurdi on the photo as a sleeping child  which is simulatnious with the recognition of his tragic death.  According to Olesen, what distinguishes this picture from other pictures of migrant deaths is given by both internal and external qualities of the photograph. The composition of the picture, together with the colour contrast of his clothes, produces an aesthetic effect which highlights the contrast between a sleeping child and the reality of death. The so-called elicited shock suggests inter-iconic relations and puts into motion a universalizing reaction within the observer which is at the base of the narrative ‘this could have been my son’. The picture of Alan laying on the beach, without signs of drowning or blood, as a “photogenic and cleansed image of death” (Drainville 2015: 47) allows for an aestheticization of decease. According to Drainville, the trope of a sleeping/dead body allows the observer, especially in Western-Christian context, to put it in relation with the aesthetic images of the corpse of Christ. Even though Kurdi himself is not explicitly linked with Christ, he is often described or pictured as an ‘angel’.

The Kurdi picture in transnational media

I have looked at two articles from the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR) [7], and two articles from Al Jazeera. Even though Al Jazeera’s reach in terms of audience and topic is definitely broader than the SOHR (which is a UK-based broadcaster which focuses solely on Syria), I have chosen these broadcasters because they both have an English and an Arabic version and a transnational scope. This might suggest that they both appeal to a specific kind of audience: not only the linguistic regions of Arabic and English, geographically the Arab world and Europe, but particularly to an audience which is fluent in both Arabic and English, most likely characterized by a transnational identity (i.e. Syrians and Arabic speakers from the diaspora). Furthermore, the two newspapers share an anti-Assad, pro-opposition stance in the Syrian conflict and an inclination towards a human rights approach. 

The first article from the newspaper of the SOHR never calls Kurdi by name but it merely counts how many people have died in the shipwreck only mentioning the death of a “young migrant”. Reducing the notion of humanity to corporeal existence and to an ‘anthropological minimum’, this article participates in a regime of ‘visibility as biological life’. The second one [8] instead presents the story of Kurdi’s father as one of the smugglers who participated in the shipwreck. Published on the 15th of September 2015, this article diffuses the news originating from a Reuters article [9], that Kurdi’s father is one of the smugglers. The news eventually turned to be false, but it circulated with Kurdi’s picture accompanied by a picture of his father crying or with his head in his hands, suggesting his failure as a father in protecting his child (Thelwall 2015: 31). This story was also disseminated by some Western newspapers [10]. It appears as a strategy to undermine the central message of Kurdi’s picture, complicating the sympathy for his family and suggesting other narratives of the “refugee crisis”. Suggesting that refugees might be criminals or terrorists, these stories are in line with what Stolic and Chouliaraki call the ‘visibility as threat’.

While Al Jazeera in Arabic posted a picture of Kurdi on the 6th of September 2015 [11], the English version of the website mentioned it in a short and impersonal article from the 2nd of September [12], but never posted the picture [13]. While the English version seems to reproduce the regime of ‘visibility as biological life’ that we have discussed before, the Arabic one presents a different discourse. It is also accompanied by pictures of Kurdi alive with his brother and father, and the tone of the article is very dramatic (“The last words of the toddler Alan Kurdi [14]), including the testimony from the child’s aunt, Tima Kurdi. Compared to the latter, this type of visibility is more humanised and personalised. But this humanizing potential is related to an infantilization of refugees, semiotically associating the parents with the West and echoing colonial paternalism. The presence of ‘intimate injustice interpreters’ (Olesen 2018), such as the father and aunt of Kurdi, set Alan’s story aside from the many deaths in the Mediterranean who are just corpses without a name and a story, amplifying the horror and moral shock caused by his death.

Conclusions

The Alan Kurdi photograph is an iconic picture for the Syrian war, and it came to represent the convergence of the Syrian crisis with the “refugee crisis”. The reasons for its ‘iconicity’ mostly rely on its ability to connect with intertextual references in the context of a Western-Christian visual background. The reference to the visual tropes of the sleeping/death body, the ‘Pieta’ trope and the topos of the ‘innocent child’ connect it to the history of war photojournalism and humanitarian photography (Fehrenbach and Rodogno 2015). But by looking at instances of Kurdi’s pictures appearance on transnational media platforms, it appears that photographs from the same set have been used to propose different and sometimes conflicting narratives on the Syrian war and its consequences, the arrival of refugees from the other side of the Mediterranean. 

As a general conclusion, it can be argued that there was a shift between the first reports of the story (2nd-5th of September) and later ones (6th-15th of September). The first stage was characterized by the regime of biological life, with the difference that while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights chose to publish a picture of Kurdi, the English version of Al Jazeera did not publish any picture. Both did not immediately catch up with the full individual story but merely reported the shipwreck. Later, the discourse appears to split. While Al Jazeera in Arabic refers to a regime of empathy, the SOHR appears to align with a regime of threat. In the case of Al Jazeera, it can be argued that the audience for the story is the transnational Arab community and that this regime, through the intervention of intimate justice interpreters, appeals to both Arabs in the region and in the diaspora to elicit identification. The article appears to focus on Tima Kurdi’s grief, as a family member that helped Kurdi and his wife and children to pay the boat trip to Europe. It also mentions the return of Kurdi and his family to their home in Kobane, Syria. Further investigation could answer the question what the differences and similarities between Al Jazeera’s ‘empathic’ story and Western ones are. Is it based on the same visual tropes and intertextual links? Is the focus of the story also on the aunt’s grief and her involvement in the organization of the trip?  Lastly, it remains open the question of why the SOHR aligned with right-wing British newspapers in sharing the story of Mr. Kurdi as one of the smugglers. This example opens much more questions than it answers: who and where was the point zero for the propagation of this fake news? What was the political agenda? Who was responsible to spread the story and why? With which political agenda? 

In conclusion, we have looked at different regimes of public visibility which encompassed the publication of the iconic picture of Alan Kurdi’s death. The assumption is that these regimes of visibility are key spaces of moralization, producing and regulating public dispositions towards collective responsibility (Chouliaraki and Stolic 2017) and that, even though in strikingly opposite ways, they take part in a humanitarian discourse on refugees. Paradoxically, a humanitarian discourse strips people of their humanity by fixing them into the category of ‘refugee’ and turning them into a recognizable ‘item’ for the audience, The Refugee. 

By enabling global and perpetual connectivity, media today are “the key modulator of insecurity and security” (Hoskins et al. 2010: 2), to the point that through such perpetual connectivity media can be turned into “a tool of warfare” (ibid.). Far away from prescriptive models of media analysis, whereas information is either neutral or ‘propaganda’, the complex relation between information, representation and circulation needs to be analysed considering the reality of the ‘new media ecology’ and the positionality, both geographic and epistemological, of the actors involved. The representation of Kurdi’s and Gudeta’s stories in media, as instances of the public discourse around the political subject “Refugee”, needs to be placed in such context. 

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[1] The text is a revised version of the final paper submitted in the course Media and Images of War, given by Katarina Ristic at GESI Leipzig, in Summer Semester 2020. 
[6] the UN refugee agency comments that “her entrepreneurial spirit “demonstrated how refugees can contribute to the societies that host them””. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/jan/01/tributes-paid-to-ethiopian-refugee-farmer-who-championed-integration-in-italy.
[7] The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is “an independent and impartial UK-based human rights organisation, founded in 2006 by Rami Abdulrahman.” (https://www.syriahr.com/en/about-us/ consulted on 07/09/2020).
[9] I haven’t been able to access the Arabic version of Reuters in the last days (some regional pages appear as if they have disappeared), but the original article was translated to English and posted on the US version of the website https://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-turkey-iraq-idUSKCN0RB2BE20150911 (consulted on 24/09/2020).
[13] On the debate on whether to publish the picture or not see for example Vis and Goriunova 2015: 56-70.
[14] All the articles have been analysed in the original language. I have translated the relevant parts of the articles in Arabic into English. 
 
References

CHOULIARAKI, Lilie, “The symbolic power of transnational media: Managing the visibility of suffering”, Global Media and Communication, 4, 2008, pp. 329-351.

CHOULIARAKI, Lilie, “Digital Witnessing in War Journalism: The Case of Post-Arab Spring Conflicts”, Popular Communication, 13, 2015, pp. 105-119.

CHOULIARAKI, Lilie, STOLIC, Tijana, “Rethinking media responsibility in the refugee ‘crisis’: a visual typology of European news”, Media, Culture and Society, 39(8), 2017, pp.1162-1177.

DRAINVILLE, Ray, “On the Iconology of Alan Kurdi, Alone” in Farida Vis and Olga Goriunova (eds.), The Iconic Image on Social Media: A Rapid Research Response to the Death of Aylan Kurdi*, 2015, pp. 47-49.

FEHRENBACH, Heide, RODOGNO, Davide, “A horrific photo of a drowned Syrian child”: Humanitarian photography and NGO media strategies in historical perspective, International Review of the Red Cross, 97 (900), 2015, pp. 1121–1155.

HOSKINS, Andrew, and O’LOUGHIN, Ben, War and Media. The Emergence of Diffused War, Cambridge: Polity, 2010, pp. 1-19.

OLESEN, Thomas, “Memetic protest and the dramatic diffusion of Alan Kurdi”, Media, Culture & Society, Vol. 40(5), 2018, pp. 656– 672.

THELWALL, Mike, “Undermining Aylan: Less Than Sympathetic International Responses” in Farida Vis and Olga Goriunova (eds.), The Iconic Image on Social Media: A Rapid Research Response to the Death of Aylan Kurdi*, 2015, pp. 31-36.

TRIANDAFYLLIDOU, Anna, “A “Refugee Crisis” Unfolding: “Real” Events and Their Interpretation in Media and Political Debates”, Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 6:1-2, 2017, pp. 198-216.

VIS, Farida and GORIUNOVA, Olga, (eds.), The Iconic Image on Social Media: A Rapid Research Response to the Death of Aylan Kurdi*, 2015.