Framing Refugees

Marching into Europe. Turin, April 2018.

Not everyone hates refugees. The prejudice – amongst those who subscribe to it – has been cultivated. Not just by populist political parties and ‘fake news’ disseminated by shadowy forces on Facebook, but mainstream news media, and how it has framed successive waves of mass immigration to Europe since the 1990s.

Working as an editor at a Brussels news outlet during the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, I became particularly sensitive to the problem. Though my colleagues and I did not consistently come down in favour of asylum, I found that we were often hamstrung by the sorts of photography we had at our disposal to use in our articles on the subject.

Nine times out of ten, the photos would be of large groups of faceless refugees, identifiable as outsiders either by the colour of their skin (Central Africans or Eritreans) or through hijabs (Arab women), moving north, from the Mediterranean. Every now and then we’d closeups of tragedies, such as the image of the infant Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. But that was rare.

Our publisher was to blame for the situation. Unlike other news agencies, we didn’t get a dedicated budget for wire photos until a few months before I left, so we were stuck running work that was typically mainstream in its sensibilities, as is the case with free content from citizen journalism-driven archival sources like Flickr. Good photojournalism costs money.

Ironically, it was this stereotypically independent content that typified the tabloid sensibilities of photojournalism run by mainstream newspapers. For readers who know little about the refugee crisis, it’s easy to see how such images can inspire fear and unease. There is nothing about it that inspire familiarity or identification. At its best, you get a bit of shock value.

Refugees calling. Porta Palazzo, Turin.

I was especially sensitive to the issue because I split my time between two migrant heavy neighbourhoods – Schaerbeek, in Brussels, where I rented a room, and my home, in Neukölln, a heavily Middle Eastern borough of Berlin, where Turkish and Arabic are often more commonly spoken than German. In 2015, both districts were swamped with refugees, sleeping on the street, begging alongside the homeless and Roma.

And, of course, I am a journalist and had been photographing my neighbours, in both cities, for several years. Whenever I could, I would provide my own photos, in lieu of whatever free or wire content we had, to try and break up the consistently slanted framing of refugees in our visuals. Sometimes my work would upset both readers and fellow staff. But most of the time it’d pass.

I first began photographing migrants in Italy. Between 2009 and 2014, I got a first-hand glimpse of African and Arab asylum seekers every day. Few places inspired a sense of urgency more than what I witnessed in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto, and Via Padova, where I’d watch heavily armed soldiers undertaking large-scale roundups of Arab and African men, interring them in prison vans.

I’d shoot what I could before security personnel would inevitably wave me away. Using early Android phones and compact cameras, the results weren’t always great. But the experience was enormously educational and illuminating.  I’d often find that the best photos I’d take were shot during random moments on the street when nothing ostensibly significant was going on.

African selling Africa, Porta Palazzo.

The photos in this instalment of Aperture Priorities were taking in this same spirit. Shot in Turin over the last few days, they indulge a more everyday life ethos than those taken documenting the act of migration, or during a political demonstration. In that sense, they are less about people arriving than about diversity and its physical undeniability in Italian society.

I won’t deny that I’m partial to this kind of framing for political reasons, as I personally accept the act of migration. By capturing refugees and asylum seekers after the fact of their arrival, I am by default identifying them as residents or citizens, not guests or new arrivals, though in certain instances, I will, through the use of captions, highlight something to that effect.

The focus is also autobiographical, of working out the naturalness of being a foreigner here, as I am also a migrant, albeit one with a visa, from a developed country. But I am also a Jew, and an Israeli citizen, and I both have a memory of homelessness and immigration, of my own, and hail from a country at the centre of two refugee crises – of the Palestinians, and African migrants.

The first photograph plays on the notion of marching, and mass movement, bemoaned by European rightists, such as Northern League chief Matteo Salvini. The other two are portraits of Arab and black migrants in scenes ascribed to refugees, captured in front of pro-asylum seeker graffiti, and selling their otherness, in all of its exotic glory.

As an editor, these are the sorts of photos I have always preferred to assign to news stories covering immigration. Lots of agency reporters shoot this kind of stuff but don’t put it up for licensing, as agencies tend to prefer photographs related more directly to current events in which asylum seekers obviously figure.

Commentary by Joel Schalit. Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.