Politics, News

The problem with pseudo-humanizing refugees

These people remain the subjects of photographers, vehicles of storytelling, and objects to be "liked" on social media.

I have asked the same question of every journalist I have ever met: “What’s your role, as a journalist?”. When I’m met with indecision, I grow frustrated, even though I can offer no particular answer of my own. Advocate, activist, educator, storyteller, moderator, observer, all of the above, none of the above – I vacillate between these answers from day to day, story to story.

Although the role of a journalist remains ambiguous, the power of a journalist is unequivocal. Journalism shapes the direction of discourse and debate. A journalist has the capacity to collect and share people’s narratives, but the responsibility to do so in a way that contextualizes the larger issue.

Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed on my phone one day, I noticed a link a friend had shared. Prefaced by a quote highlighting the “human stories” behind the refugee crisis, the link led me to photos as a part of HONY’s (Humans of New York) refugee series.

Brandon Stanton, the man behind HONY, is not the only photojournalist to document the stories of migrants and volunteers across Europe and the Middle East, trying to put faces to the refugee crisis and make the masses of migrants more than a series of statistics. Countless news media organizations, freelance photojournalists, and amateurs have gone where many could never fathom going – refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Greece, Austria, and Germany. Instagram has become the new stomping grounds of the focused raconteur.

These powerful, candid images circulate the Internet, on news and social media sites; we click, share, favorite, and retweet, praising the photos and photographers as singular endeavors to humanize refugee. We call upon others to do the same. After all, photography can depict people and their lived experiences in a way that words cannot, and one picture can capture the attention and shift the views of more people than any article ever could (take, for example, the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi). Coupled with the immediacy and reach of social media, photos can inspire empathy – or perhaps, pseudo-empathy.

Admittedly, photojournalism has its limits. A photo depicts a partial story. Context is integral to a photograph, and a photograph that goes viral often times loses the context surrounding it.

We may remember a jarring photo of a dead child’s body, but that does not mean we will remember the crisis or historical event behind that image. We come face to face with that picture, but we neglect the bigger picture. The policy issues, need for humanitarian aid, plight and journey of refugees fade into the background  – literally and figuratively. We cannot share a story without contextualizing the issue at large.

We make symbols and archetypes out of people, out of children, just as we notably did of Aylan Kurdi. We aim to put faces to the crisis – faces, as in a plurality. But we ended up with one when Kurdi was neither “…the first refugee child to die this year, nor was he the first one to be photographed,” as pointed out by Irinia Dumitrescu in The Washington Post. Then this Washington Post headline: “A dead baby becomes the latest heartbreaking symbol of the Mediterranean refugee crisis.”

But how are we really humanizing refugees by sharing these pictures – photographs taken by complete strangers, of people as seen through someone else’s eyes (or literally, lens)? These people remain the subjects of photographers, vehicles of storytelling, objects to be liked (or in the case of Facebook, reacted to) on social media. We remain observers, members of an audience or peanut gallery, bystanders. This all serves as only the pseudo-humanization of refugees.

As freelance photojournalist David Gross candidly reflects back on photographing Syrian refugees, “If journalism is supposed to make things better, then the reporting on the Syrian war isn’t working well enough.” How many images of dead children must be shared to enact real change, to get people to care enough to act? How exactly does clicking “share” on the picture of a refugee’s lifeless body help the plight of refugees?

I am not disparaging photojournalism or the laudable undertakings of photojournalists to cover the Syrian refugee crisis; the impact of photojournalism is undeniable and impressive. I am not merely airing disillusionment or cynicism. I am not proposing everyone acquire the means to directly engage with refugees, or on the other extreme, we turn away from the unsettling reality depicted by photographs and stop sharing them altogether. I am, however, asking you to reconsider your motives, your intentionality, your frame before you share that photo of an unidentified refugee’s corpse, and with it that refugee’s story.

The responsibility of providing context when sharing others’ stories falls not on solely journalists, but on consumers as well. That is the only way we can do that person – and their narrative – justice.