We’re told a picture is worth a thousand words. But what if the same thousand words pop up time and time again, spoken to us through images that frame crises from the same angle?
Both photographs are part of a larger collection of images documenting efforts of migrants to get to what they hope will be a better life. The Kurdi photograph called attention to the mass migration of refugees from Turkey through Greece to Eastern Europe. The Ramírez photograph is the latest in ongoing visual coverage of people seeking entry into the United States.
Both crises have been visually presented in similar ways. We’ve seen long lines of people walking toward the hope of a better future. Families traveling together. Parents carrying their children. We’ve seen encampments of migrants waiting for the next steps in their journeys. We’ve seen people waiting at barriers. We’ve seen them interacting with government officials, sometimes violently. In the eyes of the migrants, we’ve seen both hope and resignation.
These scenes are important, but as photographs, they are all painting the same pictures. As a result, they can contribute to a sense that the scope of the migration will overwhelm resources, that the conditions in camps reflect the migrants’ worth as people. The photographs relay events that are a part of the issue but not the whole issue. There often is more to the story.
To understand this phenomenon, I looked to the annual Pictures of the Year event, a photography competition hosted by the University of Missouri. In 2016, the event included a special category for photographs made of the refugee migrations the previous year. Nearly all the photographs were of people fleeing war and persecution through Turkey and into Europe. Photographers and editors from around the world enter their best work every year, which gives us some insight into what photographers are able to capture.
Of the 811 photographs a colleague and I studied, three-quarters captured the hardship of the migration. They showed the size of the crowds of people, the cramped conditions in camps, the barriers that stood in their way. They showed migrants as victims, without much agency in their situation or humanitarian sorts of interactions. Some photographers did try to expand the story, but those images were limited. Only a few photographs showed migrants receiving medical attention in the camps. Only one photograph showed an attempt to create an educational setting for migrants in a camp.
We know that’s not the whole human story. Earlier migrants in the Syrian exodus had found communities to settle into, had found jobs and were working toward reestablishing their lives as part of a community. People entering the United States through the southern border are more than just their pain and suffering, too. They are building communities, leaning on each other as they await fateful determinations of their asylum requests. Photographers are trying to follow them as they establish new lives, get jobs, send their children to school and become neighbors. Yet we are not seeing those photographs to any great degree.
That’s partly a limitation of photojournalism, and of journalism overall. It’s easy to depict events. It’s harder to visually communicate issues, and these are complex issues that take time and resources to report and for readers and viewers to digest. It’s also hard to break through the impressions we have built up ourselves. If the photographs we see tell us there is danger there, we’re not inclined to seek out the photographs that challenge our beliefs.
Photojournalists may be limited in the access they can gain to a situation, such as with the detention camps being operated along the border, or simply by the difficulty of photographing everything in a short time. Photojournalists are pursuing those stories and doing great work writing the later chapters of the overall story. It’s vital that we see how Óscar and Valeria died. But how they lived matters, too.