Worth a thousand words: How photojournalists are changing the way they capture migrant life

The body of a small boy lies face down on the wet sand, the cold water lapping around him. In another scene, a mother runs from plumes of thick gas, her hands holding tightly to her two children.

These images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi and 39-year-old Maria Lila Meza Castro are often the only representation of life as a migrant or refugee that the public sees. The image of Kurdi was taken in 2015 during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. The one of Castro was made more recently, published in newspapers in 2018. Most of the visuals captured by photojournalists depicted the hardships of fleeing by boat, living in refugee camps and barely surviving with each passing day.

“International news, to Americans, usually means tragedy,” said Keith Greenwood, associate professor of photojournalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, who studied how refugees are depicted in images in the media.

After seeing the constant visuals of refugee children, women and men in images reinforcing the victimization that they were experiencing, Greenwood explored the disparity between negative, and often shocking, images of the Syrian refugee crisis, and positive photos of those who were able to make a new life in a new country.

A Syrian refugee near the Syria-Lebanon border. Photo by Mustafa Öztürk.

After sifting through 811 photographs relating to the crisis submitted for the 2016 Picture of the Year International competition, Greenwood and his colleague TJ Thompson found that more than 600 images  showed refugees in a place of dependency upon outside organizations. Many of the photos presented refugees waiting in migrant camps, being detained or interacting with foreign aid and military workers.

Of the hundreds of photos that Greenwood examined, only 56 images showed the everyday care and work that humanized the two million Syrian refugees leaving violence. These included images of people praying, eating, bathing, playing. Only one image showed them in an educational setting.

For Greenwood, the findings were clear. Overwhelmingly, the majority of photos circulated internationally to inform the public of the reality of the Syrian refugee crisis portrayed refugees as, according to the study, “idle, powerless and parasitic.” Yet, this is only part of the story.

“Journalists are writing and following up on news. But it’s harder to then find the people once they have resettled and continue to tell their story in a more intimate way,” Greenwood said. “It takes time.”

Simply capturing moments of a person’s life while in a refugee camp–which are stressful and unstable places–shows only one aspect of the experience. As the study found, it shows the viewers the chaos that follows migrants but little else.

“I think it’s really hard to be the next generation of photographers looking at the 100 most influential pictures of our time being only images of shock,” said Sebastián Hidalgo, a freelance photojournalist based in Chicago. “That kind of projects that those are the types of images that will make you, and I don’t think that’s true.”

Melissa Lyttle, an independent visual journalist based in Los Angeles, said journalists need to reach beyond breaking-news stories.

“I do think there’s a tendency to jump on ‘the’ story and put the blinders onto the rest,” said Lyttle, the immediate past president of the National Press Photographers Association. “I wish there was continued coverage, more in depth coverage, and peripheral stories told rather than regurgitating the same story.”

In 2017, after spending time in Juarez and Nogales, two Mexican cities known for wide-spread violence, Lyttle discovered the importance of telling stories that were largely neglected by the media, she said. In doing so, Lyttle brought stories of hope, struggle, addiction and growth from the communities into the light. These stories went beyond crime and murder; they showed the complexities of each city and their people.

Photojournalists need to do the same in covering migrants at the U.S-Mexican border, she said.  “I don’t want to diminish the work was done,” she said. “There have been images made that are burned into my memory and that epitomize the human condition and struggles of people in search of a better life. “I just wish there was more and that we didn’t stop shining a light in the darkness just when we were starting to scratch the surface.”

Hidalgo, who has been telling the stories of migrants in the United States through photography for the majority of his career, commented on how only publishing photos of migrants and refugees during times of insecurity can create muddled version of reality that might go on to influence public opinion, policy making and political strategies.

“I do believe that photography has the power to change people’s mindsets about these certain issues,” Hidalgo said. If the public is only consuming images that portray a certain group of people in a negative light, then those images are what will influence their treatment of, say, their Mexican neighbor, he noted. As a photojournalist, Hidalgo wants to change this.

“I go by a saying, the pain of one is the pain of all, the glory of one is the glory of all. That meaning is that one’s pain is not unique in any way, that there are other people who have experienced similar things,” Hidalgo said

While it is important for news organizations, both locally and nationally, to capture these moments of instability, it is also important to photograph the moments of growth, contribution and development within the refugee and immigrant communities.

For Hidalgo, one way to capture the complexities of migrant stories is to hire journalists of color who have lived the stories themselves.

“Those are the types of journalists that can bring so much more into the actual story, and those are the types of journalists that wouldn’t just go after shock value or wouldn’t censure it either,” he said. “They would want to tell it, but they would want to balance it out. Because there is a morality there, there is a passion there that it will only result in something hopeful.”

For Greenwood, he hopes that his findings will show news organizations the importance of covering life beyond the immediate event and that, over time, there will be a shift in the way newsrooms will decide who is creating what kind of content and how that is distributed.

As for the dozens of aspiring journalists that he teaches, he has one simple message:

“Pursue the topics that you are passionate about. Find that ‘other’ story. Find that thing that you just kinda keep your eye on and you keep coming back to and you keep getting a little deeper in and you keep focusing on. That’s where I think this deeper stuff is going to come from.”

Marin Scott is a correspondent for GJR based in Chicago, where she is a student at DePaul University and vice president of the student SPJ chapter. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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