Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.TP.13.2.1 | PDF

Rep­re­sent­ing and Refram­ing Migration
Cam­bre / Lehmuskallio

Representing and Reframing Migration

Maria-Car­oli­na Cam­bre
Asko Lehmuskallio

The world changes accord­ing to the way peo­ple see it, and if you alter, even but a mil­lime­ter the way peo­ple look at real­i­ty, then you can change it” (James Bald­win 1979).

Millions of peo­ple find them­selves dis­placed both inter­nal­ly and exter­nal­ly due to con­flict, extreme weath­er events, severe eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty, or a com­bi­na­tion of push fac­tors that sig­nal an era of mass migra­tion is under­way. The fre­quen­cy, scale, and mag­ni­tude of dis­place­ment events, and the con­se­quent rise in migra­tion wit­ness a his­tor­i­cal shift glob­al­ly. Mea­sur­ing and track­ing migra­tion presents sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges, but com­pre­hend­ing the impli­ca­tions of an entire era of mass migra­tion is anoth­er. On the one hand, despite the efforts of many gov­ern­ments, the com­plex dynam­ic of migra­tion “can nev­er be ful­ly mea­sured, under­stood and reg­u­lat­ed” (UN World Migra­tion Report 9) because so much of this dynam­ic is clan­des­tine, undoc­u­ment­ed, and chaot­ic. On the oth­er, there is no one syn­thet­ic image that can gen­er­al­ize the idea of migra­tion or migrants (cf. Knorr Ceti­na 2009). Yet the phe­nom­e­non and the peo­ple are often essen­tial­ized in the increas­ing­ly heat­ed are­na of pub­lic debate, with migra­tion being explic­it­ly and implic­it­ly mis­rep­re­sent­ed. Migrants are not a homoge­nous group, nor are their needs: health vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, resilience fac­tors, age, and gen­der are key dimen­sions that par­tic­u­lar­ly need to be con­sid­ered. These fac­tors need to be bet­ter under­stood in order to begin to address both the chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties they may present, and what this spe­cial issue pro­vides is a clos­er look at the com­plex­i­ty, irre­ducibil­i­ty, and pow­er of migra­tion images.


Learn­ing about the shift­ing con­texts and fea­tures of migra­tion is increas­ing­ly impor­tant, not least in our dig­i­tal age where nov­el plat­forms have and will become a deci­sive space of rep­re­sent­ing, mis­rep­re­sent­ing, con­duct­ing sur­veil­lance, and shap­ing dis­cours­es of inter­na­tion­al migra­tion. More­over, this is a moment when a pol­i­tics of divi­sive­ness has simul­ta­ne­ous­ly demo­nized and weaponized inter­na­tion­al migra­tion to be used as a polit­i­cal tool, accord­ing to the UN World Migra­tion Report, that down­plays “the sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fits and enrich­ment migra­tion brings, and stead­fast­ly ignor[es] shared migra­tion his­to­ries” (7). Unfor­tu­nate­ly, politi­ciza­tion of migra­tion and migrants is not new, as John Berg­er and Jean Mohr (1975) observed near­ly half a cen­tu­ry ago: “[T]he migrant is not on the mar­gin of mod­ern experience—[s]he is absolute­ly cen­tral to it” (10). The ever-increas­ing num­ber of bor­der walls bears grim wit­ness to this politi­ciza­tion, with about 15 walls hav­ing been erect­ed at the time Berg­er and Mohr were writ­ing The Sev­enth Man com­pared to the five that exist­ed just after World War Two. Despite wide inter­na­tion­al cri­tique, today in 2022 there are now over 70 of these cost­ly walls or fences includ­ing the walls by Hun­gary, Bul­gar­ia, Slove­nia, and Croa­t­ia to block a mil­lion or more war refugees from the Mid­dle East; Israel’s 436-mile “sep­a­ra­tion fence” referred to by Pales­tini­ans as the “Apartheid Wall”; Sau­di Arabia’s 600-mile bar­ri­er on the Iraqi bor­der; Norway’s 11-foot-high fence at its Russ­ian bor­der; the “Great Wall of Calais” in North­ern France; the 435-mile Kenya-Soma­lia bor­der wall; and Don­ald Trump’s “big beau­ti­ful wall” expand­ing an already 700-mile-long bar­ri­er between the Unit­ed States and Mex­i­co, with many more on the draw­ing table or under con­struc­tion (Gam­mage 2018).

Walls don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly pre­vent people’s move­ment, but they do mate­ri­al­ly and sym­bol­i­cal­ly sep­a­rate those who belong and those who do not. As geo­g­ra­ph­er Reece Jones notes, “The way that walls do work is as a sym­bol. The mate­r­i­al object of the wall stands in for all of the oth­er com­plex issues about bor­ders, migra­tion, and trade” (qtd. in Gam­mage 2018). Thus they are a vis­i­ble and tan­gi­ble man­i­fes­ta­tion of a nation’s desire to block the flow of mil­lions of refugees and migrants flee­ing war, envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter, or per­se­cu­tion, rather than invest­ing in the dif­fi­cult process­es of build­ing poli­cies invest­ing in migrants and cre­at­ing paths to cit­i­zen­ship. These tac­tics per­verse­ly prof­it nations that rely on migrant work­ers as a source of labour that can be exploit­ed cheap­ly because the lack of cit­i­zen­ship pro­tec­tions allows them to be dehu­man­ized: they are often uniron­i­cal­ly referred to as “stock” (World Migra­tion Report, 33).

In a pre­scient way, Berg­er and Mohr (1975) had already observed how var­i­ous Euro­pean economies had become depen­dent on labor from poor­er nations, and they cre­at­ed their pho­to-book to call atten­tion to this and fos­ter an idea of work­ing-class sol­i­dar­i­ty. At the time of pub­li­ca­tion, the press ignored their work, and crit­ics dis­missed it, despite the book being trans­lat­ed into mul­ti­ple lan­guages, and being wide­ly read (Berg­er 2010). The “inti­mate address” or fam­i­ly pho­to album visu­al approach was not tak­en seri­ous­ly among the cul­tur­al elites, although the black and white word/image series depict­ed migrant expe­ri­ences in ways that res­onat­ed affec­tive­ly with migrants them­selves. Still today, the moments depict­ed con­dense glimpses of shared expe­ri­ences: dream­ing of return­ing home, the depar­ture, the jour­ney, the arrival, “the deaths far away, the black for­eign nights, the proud obsti­na­tion [sic] of sur­vival” (Berg­er 2010, 9). As James Bald­win (qtd. in Romano 1979) claims in the epi­graph, the “world changes accord­ing to the way peo­ple see it.” While Bald­win orig­i­nal­ly was refer­ring to writ­ing, tak­ing the word “see­ing” lit­er­al­ly we can attest to how images mobi­lized in main­stream visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions of migra­tion are marked by cer­tain Euro-West­ern icono­graph­ic con­ven­tions that high­light a series of tropes that have become nor­mal­ized in part due to the dom­i­nance of West­ern news media and the use of fre­quent rep­e­ti­tion. The migrant is depict­ed as poor, in need, help­less, or used as a token for sym­bol­ic self-rep­re­sen­ta­tions by celebri­ties and artists alike, as Lilie Chou­liara­ki (2017: 2019) has shown. If Berg­er and Mohr offered a coun­ter­point to these kinds of reduc­tions, it remains clear that we con­tin­ue to need ways for see­ing and show­ing differently.


This col­lec­tion offers a set of styl­is­ti­cal­ly diverse and non-reduc­tive pieces to offer counter-nar­ra­tives, recast­ing how migra­tion can be seen and thought. These counter-nar­ra­tives flour­ish in a minori­tar­i­an fash­ion, from the ground up, and often include prac­tices of doc­u­men­ta­tion by migrants them­selves, shared dig­i­tal­ly online through col­lab­o­ra­tion with artists, activists, and schol­ars. The poly­va­lent nature of rep­re­sen­ta­tion con­tests estab­lished icono­graph­ic con­ven­tions of demo­niza­tion, or reduc­tive sen­ti­men­tal­iza­tion of migrants. This ethico-aes­thet­ic par­a­digm rec­og­nizes an eth­i­cal imper­a­tive to con­test exclu­sion­ary visu­al dis­cur­sive con­struc­tions that seek to build on the com­mon­al­i­ty of expe­ri­ence. Our aim is to shift the struc­ture of mean­ing: by ground­ing images in the social con­texts of embod­ied sto­ries and expe­ri­ences through a prin­ci­pled pol­i­tics of wit­ness­ing (Cam­bre 2019), we dis­em­pow­er reduc­tive and mis­lead­ing visu­al dis­cours­es by focus­ing on the look as a medi­um (Lehmuskallio 2019). Because we take the assumed cor­re­la­tion between see­ing and know­ing seri­ous­ly, a cor­re­la­tion that sug­gests that our ways of see­ing are tight­ly inter­re­lat­ed with our ways of know­ing (Mitchell 2013), we have posi­tioned the authors in this issue in ways that refract and piv­ot around this idea to high­light the cracks and fis­sures that undo this ten­u­ous link. By diver­si­fy­ing the ways in which migra­tion may be “shown” and “seen,” this issue high­lights the roles that images have in sug­gest­ing how to see.


Photog­ra­phy has long been con­cerned with process­es of human move­ment. With Europe’s ongo­ing so-called refugee “cri­sis,” some pho­tographs became the sub­ject of intense, repeat­ed analy­sis. One exam­ple was the strik­ing 2015 pho­to­graph of Alan Kur­di, a young Syr­i­an boy who drowned along with fam­i­ly mem­bers and oth­ers in a dev­as­tat­ing migra­tion jour­ney and was pho­tographed dead on a beach in Turkey. Cul­tur­al and dis­cur­sive sys­tems through which graph­ic images and ges­tures are framed and fil­tered (Cam­bre 2019) call for a crit­i­cal eye. In par­tic­u­lar, the social work images do when they par­tic­i­pate in these sys­tems influ­ence both how the images/gestures come to con­struct mean­ing and how such mean­ings accrue impor­tance and stick to an image. Many analy­ses, often through semi­otic approach­es, or for illus­tra­tive or doc­u­men­tary pur­pos­es, over­look the photograph’s active role in the pro­duc­tion of human knowl­edge and its use in con­sti­tut­ing a shared real­i­ty itself. We ask what it would mean to engage dif­fer­ent­ly in see­ing; to engage in ways that “con­sid­er the simul­ta­ne­ous mate­r­i­al and social nature of both invis­i­ble and vis­i­ble pre­sen­ta­tion” (140). Indeed, pho­tog­ra­phy and migra­tion have a long, com­plex rela­tion­ship, but a rela­tion­ship which has been under-the­o­rized in favour of the spe­cif­ic analy­sis of indi­vid­ual pho­tographs or cas­es. Today, the hopes, fears, and dreams of migrants are, ubiq­ui­tous­ly, trans­formed into pho­to­graph­ic images, which them­selves reflect, reassem­ble, and recon­sti­tute the migrant expe­ri­ence itself.

Many schol­ars have stressed the cru­cial impor­tance of research that cen­tres visu­al images for the pur­pos­es of wit­ness­ing and inter­ven­ing in the pub­lic imag­i­nary (Sli­win­s­ki 2011; Son­tag 2003; Zeliz­er 2010; Camp­bell 2007; Cam­bre 2019; Nikiel­s­ka-Seku­la and Desille 2021). Some show the lim­it­ed effec­tive­ness of pro­vid­ing pho­to­graph­ic tes­ti­mo­ny of dis­tant suf­fer­ing (Moeller 1999; Son­tag 1978), as well as the invis­i­bil­i­ties that can be cre­at­ed (Camp­bell 2004, Grøn­stad and Øyvind 2019), and the lim­its of rep­re­sen­ta­tion when it comes to human suf­fer­ing (Didi-Huber­man 2012), its instru­men­tal­iza­tion (Keenan 2004), or aes­theti­ciza­tion (Bau­drillard 2006). Fol­low­ing soci­ol­o­gist Fuyu­ki Kura­sawa (2011, 2015), in attend­ing to how mate­r­i­al and/or sym­bol­ic val­ue can accrue or dis­si­pate through ways in which “medi­at­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tions [are] insert­ed into pub­lic dis­cours­es and giv­en mean­ing via inter­pre­tive prac­tices” (5, 2015), we sit­u­ate these essays with an aware­ness of their par­tic­i­pa­tion in a visu­al ecol­o­gy that draws on tech­ni­cal, insti­tu­tion­al, and social infra­struc­tures to orga­nize the “socio-visu­al field” (2015). The images that migra­tion itself evokes con­tribute to the for­ma­tion of com­mu­ni­ties of inter­pre­ta­tion that can be mobi­lized in dif­fer­ent ways to enable oth­er ways of see­ing migrants, move­ments, and the ways in which images and infor­ma­tion them­selves trav­el, shift, or mutate and pro­duce log­ics of legit­imiza­tion or dele­git­imiza­tion. We con­sid­er an image not just a pho­to­graph tak­en, nor a cam­era just a pho­to­graph­ic device; rather we com­pli­cate the sit­u­a­tion by under­stand­ing them as flu­id and dis­cur­sive­ly con­struct­ed in var­i­ous ways: cam­eras are sites of deci­sion mak­ing, and par­tic­u­lar images a means to facil­i­tate spe­cif­ic deci­sions instead of oth­ers (cf. Lehmuskallio 2020). Both of them play a part in how we per­ceive, relate to, and make deci­sions on mat­ters of migra­tion and movement.


When con­sid­er­ing images of migra­tion, besides reflect­ing upon the roles that humans on the move have for our under­stand­ing of the present con­di­tion, we also need to reflect on the ways in which images are made to move, flow, flood, and migrate, and how these and sim­i­lar metaphors them­selves are used not only regard­ing migra­tion, but also for think­ing about images and human beings (Hen­ning 2018).

Increas­ing­ly since the 1980s and 1990s, the man­i­fold ways in which images move have gained ded­i­cat­ed atten­tion. Arjun Appadurai’s (1996) work on the cul­tur­al dimen­sions of glob­al­iza­tion gave the image cen­tre stage in con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing moder­ni­ty at large, espe­cial­ly with regard to ways in which images and the imag­i­nary play key roles in form­ing imag­i­na­tion as a social prac­tice. Dias­poric com­mu­ni­ties, liv­ing far apart from their coun­try of ori­gin, could con­tin­ue to share cul­tur­al points of ref­er­ence with their friends and rel­a­tives by fol­low­ing the same news­pa­pers and tele­vi­sion shows from afar, for exam­ple by sub­scrib­ing to cable tele­vi­sion and buy­ing inter­na­tion­al­ly sold news­pa­per prints. Since the 2000s, with increas­ing dig­i­ti­za­tion of both the news as well as the enter­tain­ment indus­try, access to local media con­tent has become eas­i­er, such that today migra­tion from one part of the world to anoth­er does not nec­es­sar­i­ly mean a cut in the media one con­sumes. The medi­at­ed images one has learned to rely on con­tin­ue to be acces­si­ble, although they usu­al­ly need to be com­ple­ment­ed with oth­er forms of medi­at­ed infor­ma­tion that are used to help nav­i­gate the every­day with­in the dias­po­ra. Media anthro­po­log­i­cal work (e.g. Gins­burg et al. 2002; Rothen­buh­ler and Coman 2005) clear­ly shows the impor­tance of spa­tiotem­po­ral­ly con­nect­ed, acces­si­ble media con­tent to peo­ple liv­ing in very dif­fer­ent kinds of circumstances.

The role of the image in this con­stel­la­tion is more com­plex than might ini­tial­ly seem to be the case, as images play dif­fer­ent kinds of roles for dif­fer­ent kinds of audi­ences and cit­i­zens. A key notion of the image is that it is seen with what W.J.T. Mitchell calls a para­dox­i­cal trick of con­scious­ness, “an abil­i­ty to see some­thing as ‘there’ and ‘not there’ at the same time” (1986, 17). We have learned to see images in a par­tic­u­lar way, so that we under­stand that we are fac­ing an image, and that this image needs to be appre­hend­ed in spe­cif­ic ways in order to be under­stood. The dialec­tic between “there” and “not there” is in itself based on our abil­i­ty to move our atten­tion between what is depict­ed and how it is shown. Images, from this per­spec­tive, need to be appre­hend­ed through the move­ment of our capa­bil­i­ties for atten­tion, too.

This para­dox­i­cal trick of con­scious­ness most like­ly does not rely on a sim­ple mech­a­nis­tic switch of atten­tion, but impor­tant­ly, the ways in which we attend to par­tic­u­lar kinds of images plays a role in what we actu­al­ly get to see. Pho­tographs, famous­ly, allow us to mean­der on the visu­al sur­face of a print, to pay atten­tion to the aspects of the image that we find par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ing or dis­turb­ing. We move our eyes in order to direct our foveal gaze on the sur­face of a print, so that we actu­al­ly may attend to an image that emerges in our inter­ac­tions with the depict­ed sur­face. Depend­ing on our moti­va­tions, inter­ests, and the con­text of see­ing, we may see dif­fer­ent images from each oth­er, even though look­ing at the same print.

High­light­ing the impor­tance of the role of move­ment in attend­ing to images pro­vides us, in the con­text of dis­cussing images of migra­tion, with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of see­ing and attend­ing to them dif­fer­ent­ly. Scop­ic vari­a­tion is not only a mat­ter of hav­ing a wider or dif­fer­ent set of pic­tures avail­able, but also a ques­tion of how we pay atten­tion to images—that is, how we see. For cul­ti­vat­ing par­tic­u­lar modes of see­ing, Tim Ingold has under­scored the impor­tance of the point and the edge for opti­cal visu­al­i­ty, main­tain­ing that “we have inher­it­ed from Greek Antiq­ui­ty the com­par­i­son of the act of look­ing to the bowman’s shoot­ing an arrow towards its tar­get; and from Renais­sance the­o­rists of per­spec­tive the notion of the line of sight as a taut thread that cuts orthog­o­nal­ly through the plane of pro­jec­tion” (2017, 101). In short, a preva­lent mod­el for opti­cal vision is based on the idea of vision as a cut, which is less inter­est­ed in sur­face char­ac­ter­is­tics of the pic­ture plane, than in the abil­i­ty to pro­duce forms of vision that can be for­mal­ized, mech­a­nized, and auto­mat­ed. Ingold’s notion of opti­cal vision describes the wide­ly applied con­cept of immutable mobiles, which inter­est­ing­ly enough was devel­oped based on stud­ies of images, visu­al tech­nolo­gies, and visu­al cul­tures (Latour 1986). Bruno Latour specif­i­cal­ly takes up per­spec­ti­val pro­jec­tion and the Dutch “dis­tance point” method for draw­ing pic­tures in order to explain how opti­cal con­sis­ten­cy can be main­tained across a range of drawn images cre­at­ed in a vari­ety of sit­u­a­tions. These kinds of images, work­ing as immutable mobiles, pro­vide an answer to the prob­lem of mobi­liza­tion by allow­ing one to car­ry inscrip­tions of that which is absent, while doing so in a way that main­tains a two-way rela­tion between those doing the inscrip­tions (e.g. drafts­men, painters, and lat­er pho­tog­ra­phers) and that what is inscribed (parch­ment, paper, film). Ingold’s opti­cal visu­al­i­ty and Latour’s immutable mobile thus refer to a spe­cif­ic “para­dox­i­cal trick of con­scious­ness,” for which that which is seen is flat­tened out, pro­vid­ed with a scale that can be changed at will, and can be repro­duced and spread at lit­tle cost. It is this kind of visu­al­i­ty, and these kinds of images, which have become par­a­dig­mat­ic for today’s visu­al cul­tures that rely ever more on the abil­i­ty to cir­cu­late images. These kinds of images are increas­ing­ly set in motion by pre­scribed cul­tur­al tech­niques (e.g. per­spec­ti­val pro­jec­tion and the Dutch “dis­tance point” method for draw­ing pic­tures); icono­graph­ic con­ven­tions; as well as by machines, be it a cam­era device, a social media plat­form, or an auto­mat­ed facial recog­ni­tion booth at a gas sta­tion. Impor­tant­ly, these kinds of images are the ones which most eas­i­ly become stereo­types, not least because they need to fit par­tic­u­lar kinds of tech­ni­cal instru­ments and tech­no­log­i­cal infrastructures.

While Latour is fas­ci­nat­ed by the work that immutable mobiles, based on opti­cal visu­al­i­ty, are able to accomplish—consider the cen­tral­iza­tion of resources, the accu­mu­la­tion of wealth, the pro­duc­tion of value—Tim Ingold argues for hap­tic vision as a coun­ter­point to the flat­ten­ing preva­lent in this ren­der­ing of opti­cal vision. The main fal­la­cy that the­o­ries based on opti­cal vision fall into, is to dis­re­gard the impor­tance of sur­faces for our under­stand­ing of the world. As Ingold suc­cinct­ly puts it: “What if sur­faces are the real sites for the gen­er­a­tion of mean­ing?” (2017, 100). By seek­ing inten­sive­ly for deep­er lay­ers beneath sur­face appear­ances, we tend to dis­re­gard and destroy pre­cise­ly the com­plex­i­ties that lie before us.

Hap­tic vision, in this under­stand­ing, stays with sur­faces, dwelling with them, seek­ing out tex­ture and com­po­si­tion of that which is appre­hend­ed. It fol­lows folds and creas­es as char­ac­ter­is­tics of sur­faces, with­out pro­ject­ing a straight line between two points on the sur­face, and hence focus­es atten­tion on how the tex­ture of a sur­face unfolds, allow­ing one to make infer­ences about the com­po­si­tion of that which is appre­hend­ed. If opti­cal vision focus­es on a face in order to detect mark­er points that are used to mod­el the specifics of a face, for exam­ple for pur­pos­es of facial recog­ni­tion in bor­der con­trol, hap­tic vision stays with the sur­face of the skin, being inter­est­ed in the mate­ri­al­i­ty, plas­tic­i­ty, and speci­fici­ty of the face itself. When con­sid­er­ing migrat­ing images, this shift in per­cep­tion from the opti­cal to the hap­tic is a shift in move­ment, too. Immutable mobiles, based on opti­cal vision, are cre­at­ed with the pur­pose of col­lect­ing, cen­tral­iz­ing, and stan­dard­iz­ing prac­tices of col­lec­tion, archiv­ing, and analy­sis. As Latour has expressed, immutable mobiles are cre­at­ed in order to mas­ter the prob­lem of mobi­liza­tion, but we sug­gest that they are nev­er ful­ly suc­cess­ful in doing so. While expe­ri­ences are gath­ered dur­ing move­ment, immutable mobiles seek to stop and freeze this move­ment in order to con­tain it and scale this con­tain­ment across space and time (be it for the pur­pos­es of colo­nial explor­ers, ethno­g­ra­phers, botanists, or tech­ni­cal­ly auto­mat­ed sen­sor net­works form­ing “smart cities” or bor­der con­trol sys­tems). In con­trast, hap­tic vision is inter­est­ed in a dif­fer­ent form of move­ment; it “seeks not to freeze the sur­face cor­ru­ga­tions in some momen­tary form, so that they may be mod­elled […] but to join with the cur­rents and with the wind. It is to feel the waves, the rip­ples and the swish of the field as move­ments.” (Ingold 2017, 103, orig­i­nal emphasis).

These kinds of move­ments that become of inter­est for hap­tic vision mark sur­faces over time; they affect how sur­faces become. Faces and hands, exposed dur­ing a life­time to their imme­di­ate envi­ron­ments, show wear and tear; in some cas­es due to expo­sure to wind and weath­er, ropes and ploughs; in oth­ers due to their con­stant expo­sure to paper, pens, or dig­i­tal screens. The move­ment of our bod­ies with­in spe­cif­ic envi­ron­ments impacts sur­face char­ac­ter­is­tics, and in doing so the ways in which we attach to the world. Hap­tic vision, thus, in its inter­est in move­ment along and with­in sur­faces, is kin to oth­er move­ments that sur­faces are prone to expe­ri­ence: the wip­ing of the face, the wash­ing of hands, the bruis­ing of the body; but also forms of caress­ing and behold­ing or stop­ping and pushing.

The visu­al­i­ties that these two modes of vision, opti­cal and hap­tic, advance are of dif­fer­ent kinds. Opti­cal vision, in its focus on reflec­tions, appear­ances, and a quest for truth beyond the sur­face, is inter­est­ed in imagery that can be mod­elled, repro­duced, and dis­trib­uted via the mar­vels of our tech­no­log­i­cal sys­tems, where­as hap­tic vision calls for a kind of move­ment that stays with the sur­faces it encoun­ters, with­out advanc­ing quick­ly beyond them. Both forms may over­lap and exist togeth­er, but what we would like to point at with this dis­tinc­tion is a need to pay atten­tion to par­tic­u­lar ways in which spe­cif­ic pic­tures are made, as well as to the ways in which we attend to them, depend­ing on our spe­cif­ic moti­va­tions and tasks at hand.

For con­sid­er­ing migrat­ing images, it is help­ful to bear these modes of encounter in mind, when con­sid­er­ing how we might envi­sion and devel­op modes and metaphors of migra­tion which are not stereo­typ­i­cal, dis­mis­sive, or belit­tling. For exam­ple, the “flood” of migrants, their con­stant “flow” are prob­lem­at­ic metaphors that make us think about the move­ment of peo­ple across bor­ders along notions of opti­cal visu­al­i­ty, advo­cat­ing stereo­typ­i­cal, eas­i­ly repro­ducible and cir­cu­lat­able images. In con­trast, a focus on spe­cif­ic encoun­ters and the com­plex­i­ties inher­ent in these, the atten­tion to wear and tear of the bod­ies involved, opens up oth­er kinds of images and imageries that allow dif­fer­ent kinds of encoun­ters to emerge.

If imag­i­na­tion indeed is a social prac­tice, images are cen­tral in direct­ing social imag­i­nar­ies. When con­sid­er­ing images in and of migra­tion, we need to pay atten­tion not only to what is rep­re­sent­ed, but how, and with which modes of atten­tion it is appre­hend­ed. A focus on edges, lines, and points gen­er­ates oth­er kinds of images than does a dwelling on creas­es, folds, and hol­lows. It is these ten­sions which the papers in this issue address from their respec­tive perspectives.


We begin with reflec­tions by Reuben Ross on his inter­view with Swiss pho­tog­ra­ph­er Jean Mohr, who is well known for his long career doc­u­ment­ing the plight of the dis­placed and dis­pos­sessed and as a long-time col­lab­o­ra­tor with John Berg­er. With Berg­er, he pub­lished A For­tu­nate Man and A Sev­enth Man, explor­ing migrant labour in 1970s Europe. Lat­er, with Edward Said, he pub­lished After the Last Sky, which meld­ed text and image to cre­ate a nar­ra­tive about Pales­tin­ian life. In con­ver­sa­tion with Mohr, Ross takes read­ers on a jour­ney through the devel­op­ment of Mohr’s unique approach to pho­tog­ra­phy and the con­struc­tion of visu­al nar­ra­tives. In par­tic­u­lar, he offers insights for visu­al researchers, par­tic­u­lar­ly those engaged in study­ing process­es of migra­tion or zones of con­flict, ways of con­struct­ing more effec­tive, more engaged, and more expe­ri­en­tial accounts of com­plex social real­i­ties, note­wor­thy for their cre­ative exper­i­men­ta­tion with the con­struc­tion of visu­al narratives.

Next, Bir­git Mers­mann takes a close look at spe­cif­ic photodoc­u­men­taries to demon­strate how pho­to por­traits rep­re­sent a cen­tral genre there­in, strong­ly cou­pled with the pho­to­book for­mat. Mers­mann notes how human­is­tic and human­i­tar­i­an pho­tog­ra­phy has often focused on the por­trait, and takes a deep look at how these already estab­lished con­ven­tions inform doc­u­men­tary images deal­ing with human migra­tion. This paper explores two major ways por­traits appear inter­wo­ven in pho­to­books, and in par­tic­u­lar those pro­duced by Fazal Sheikh through long-term engage­ment and “slow sto­ry­telling.” This analy­sis helps Mers­mann address the ques­tions of how real-life migra­tion expe­ri­ences as sur­vival sto­ries and per­son­al biogra­phies become inscribed in the por­traits of refugees and migrants, and which prac­tices and form(at)s of por­traits are cho­sen to doc­u­ment migrant lives.

Mov­ing more inti­mate­ly towards the migrant expe­ri­ence, Yolan­da Her­nan­dez and Adri­ana Ciccaglione stage an encounter between two researchers in the form of a reflex­ive case study to exam­ine the pos­si­bil­i­ties of using pho­tovoice as a form of resis­tance against nar­ra­tives of hate through a fem­i­nist the­o­ret­i­cal frame. They ask how researchers see­ing and being seen is impli­cat­ed in the con­struc­tion of knowl­edge, and how it is legit­imized: does it suc­ceed in pro­mot­ing vis­i­bil­i­ty and social trans­for­ma­tion? Her­nan­dez and Ciccaglione explore the poten­tials offered for visu­al activism by spring­board­ing from Diane Arbus’ unique pho­tog­ra­phy and a pho­tovoice project on being a migrant woman in Spain. The authors find images enable doing work at the mar­gins, from the mar­gins, and for the mar­gins in order to cre­ate alter­na­tive spaces that nour­ish the devel­op­ment of dif­fer­ent sub­jec­tiv­i­ties and under­stand­ings of the self and society.

In a visu­al essay, Liz Hingley’s research shows how mobile devices medi­at­ing her work with migrants arriv­ing in Coven­try, Unit­ed King­dom can con­tribute to redefin­ing nar­ra­tives around migra­tion in gal­leries and muse­ums. The text, sep­a­rate­ly fol­lowed by images as a stand­alone gallery, draws on dig­i­tal migra­tion stud­ies to exam­ine process­es and con­texts of the sig­nif­i­cance of SIM cards in forg­ing a sense of secu­ri­ty, iden­ti­ty, and belong­ing, and explores how they act as dig­i­tal pass­ports for indi­vid­u­als. Telling the sto­ry through the words and pho­tographs of these Syr­i­an refugees is refract­ed through their recep­tion of minia­ture SIM sculp­tures, intri­cate­ly inscribed with their own words and mes­sages, and then exhib­it­ed and lat­er trans­formed into pen­dants for par­tic­i­pants. These usu­al­ly hid­den mobile phone com­po­nents take on the sta­tus of con­tem­po­rary cul­tur­al arti­facts and high­light the reset­tle­ment expe­ri­ences of recent­ly arrived refugees, and their aspi­ra­tions for the future. Hin­g­ley works to “open up” the smart phone to reveal the urgent need for deep­er appre­ci­a­tion of the mean­ing and mate­ri­al­i­ty of per­son­al dig­i­tal ecosys­tems (Blanke and Pybus 2020) for refugees nego­ti­at­ing a sense of home.

Next, Patri­cia Pri­eto-Blan­co takes a triple-lay­ered approach with eleven Irish-Span­ish fam­i­lies through obser­va­tion of pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices using dif­fer­ent styles of pho­to-elic­i­ta­tion and nar­ra­tive inter­views, semi-struc­tured inter­views, and three fol­low-up inter­views. Par­tic­i­pants in this in-depth process were able to co-pro­duce inter­pre­ta­tions of their own using abstract sym­bol­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al tech­niques to gen­er­ate insights into their per­cep­tions of how their own images move and migrate across media, plat­forms, and con­texts that thick­en their affec­tive weight. Their sto­ries are pre­sent­ed with atten­tion to how knowl­edge is devel­oped and shared around pho­tographs, which in turn become car­ri­ers with per­for­ma­tive potential.

Angel Igle­sias Ortiz presents a pic­to­r­i­al jour­ney reflect­ing on the bor­der­scape of the Mex­i­co-Unit­ed States bor­der marked by the divid­ing wall/fence. In this piece, Igle­sias Ortiz works on mul­ti­ple lev­els to unpack the sta­t­ic-flu­id bina­ry set up by ideas of bor­der walls and their mate­r­i­al and metaphor­i­cal affor­dances. The visu­al­iza­tion of the fence is used to guide per­son­al reflec­tions of the every­day and the pol­i­tics of exclu­sion and inclu­sion. It thus pro­vides the author’s per­spec­tive as some­one who fol­lows the lines of the wall and allows them to pro­voke some diver­gent lines of think­ing, see­ing, and respond­ing using the ethno­graph­ic descrip­tions afford­ed by the images tak­en on the move, per­haps fleet­ing or furtive, in a land­scape devoid of human sub­jects that nev­er­the­less reveals their presence.

Cri­tiquing the tra­di­tion­al and estab­lished prac­tices of pho­to­jour­nal­ism writ large, Maria Nilsson’s “Spaces of Empa­thy: Visu­al Strate­gies in Pho­to­jour­nal­is­tic Imagery of Migra­tion” explores a Swedish case of images of migra­tion and the shifts and move­ments that hap­pened rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al­ly as the nation’s immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy became stricter. By tak­ing dif­fer­ent posi­tions around a par­tic­u­lar pho­to­graph being ana­lyzed in one case and a set of pho­tographs of one fam­i­ly over a span of four years as a nar­ra­tive of lived expe­ri­ences of forced migra­tion, Nils­son argues for a broad­er, more inter­dis­ci­pli­nary sen­si­tiv­i­ty in pho­to­jour­nal­ism that opens the field to a more explic­it acknowl­edge­ment of the ethics of wit­ness­ing, and by exten­sion an empa­thet­ic lens that expands rather than con­stricts view­ers’ under­stand­ings of the human expe­ri­ences of forced migration.

Shirley Van der Maarel’s visu­al essay presents an alter­na­tive way of rep­re­sent­ing refugees’ expe­ri­ences in rapid­ly depop­u­lat­ing areas of rur­al Italy through a car­to­graph­ic visu­al nar­ra­tive. To rep­re­sent how migrants arriv­ing in Italy live in an alter­nate geog­ra­phy that doesn’t map onto the world of Ital­ian nation­als at home, Van der Maarel cre­ates a visu­al essay that works as tour guide for the read­er into a het­ero­topia. Draw­ing on phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal metaphors and images, she evokes and medi­ates con­nec­tions that refuse to impose struc­tures on expe­ri­ence and endeav­or to remain open-end­ed con­ver­sa­tion. Her process entails a triple move­ment that begins with cre­at­ing the guide col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly dur­ing ethno­graph­ic field­work. Using images, sound, film, and text, this hyper­linked visu­al essay maps a world-in-move­ment that makes read­ers also move, back and forth between sites, pages, image, and text. Here images trav­el across borders—not the geo­graph­i­cal ones between coun­tries, but the invis­i­ble ones between people.

This spe­cial issue explores the pol­i­tics and poet­ics of pho­tog­ra­phy as his­tor­i­cal­ly and fun­da­men­tal­ly inter­twined with the expe­ri­ence of migra­tion by con­test­ing sim­plis­tic, stereo­typ­i­cal accounts of the migrant, often pro­duced with means of opti­cal vision. Like the migrant, pho­tographs trav­el, move, and mul­ti­ply; divorce from con­text; and inhab­it a shift­ing mobile space as they oscil­late between the lime­light and lim­i­nal­i­ty. Using diverse and con­text-spe­cif­ic means, the fol­low­ing papers explore the con­cep­tu­al and phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal rela­tion­ship between the pho­to­graph and the migrant expe­ri­ence, and the migrant nature of pho­tographs them­selves, not just in and out of con­text but as mov­ing through diverse and ephemer­al media. As such, this col­lec­tion, through the the­mat­ic of migra­tion, joins togeth­er papers that would oth­er­wise be scat­tered across dis­ci­plines and pub­li­ca­tions adher­ing to spe­cif­ic forms for pre­sent­ing research in line with tra­di­tions asso­ci­at­ed with the arts or social sci­ences. Instead, dis­ci­pli­nary bound­aries are crossed and inno­vat­ing forms of rep­re­sen­ta­tion used in order to trans­gress lim­its of what to say and how to express it. Sim­i­lar to the notion of hap­tic vision, here spe­cif­ic approach­es are not ironed out in order to fit a spe­cif­ic tech­ni­cal mould, but are allowed to retain sur­face char­ac­ter­is­tics in the hope that these open up avenues for nov­el kinds of inter­re­la­tions. We believe this is a gen­er­a­tive approach for crit­i­cal insights into the spe­cif­ic cas­es being explored, as well as to the broad­er top­ic of migra­tion and pho­tog­ra­phy, too. We hope the read­er will be able to move across these papers and through them as if they were a sort of palimpsest in the spir­it of Wal­ter Benjamin’s Arcades project. Ben­jamin as flâneur strolling through the city helps him engage a kind of mon­tage between see­ing and think­ing. This dimen­sion­al see­ing, a kind of phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal “lay­ered now-being” where­by “the com­mon­place aspect of the com­mon­place is pen­e­trat­ed and dis­pelled” is what we hope this col­lec­tion will cre­ate open­ings for, so that read­ers can sense “a kind of flu­id, ‘run­ning’ palimpsest, a sus­tained and even kalei­do­scop­ic dis­solve” (Eiland 2016). We hope to pro­vide avenues for read­ings that can gar­ner insights through and between the lay­ers of these pieces in open and non-reduc­tive ways. The images, cre­at­ed both with text and opti­cal media, hope­ful­ly res­onate hap­ti­cal­ly, too, allow­ing us to oscil­late between optic and hap­tic visu­al­i­ty, and hence to con­sid­er nov­el forms of becoming.

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