Visibility and Navigation: New Images of Flight

Tom Holert

The image of flight is mostly one of refugees. The visual representation of cross-border movement, of waiting in reception centres, or of the (successful and failing) integration into societies with high immigration makes up the standard repertoire of humanitarian and journalistic photography. Being photographed and filmed is just as much a part of the life of a refugee as is its reverse: invisibility and the denial of an image that would have a chance of wider distribution and of generating a public profile. Because of their political consequences and the individual human fates that are involved, flight and migration are invariably also motifs of the culture of spectacle, even if the image producers renounce the idea of capitalizing hardship, poverty, and suffering. In other words, flight and migration are a spectacle—even in their visual absence, when the existence of refugees and migrants remains merely a rumour without an image to go with it, and therefore perhaps all the more susceptible to being used for ideological purposes. Thus the urgent question arises as to the possibility of active participation in the community of images. When and how are refugees and migrants the subjects of image production? When and how do they achieve visual agency?

Migrant Image Research Group, section of the picture story: Photo agency Contrasto, Rome, illustrator: Emilie Josso. Exhibition Other Testimonies, Zephyr - Raum für Fotografie in den Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, Mannheim, 2017 © Migrant Image Research Group, Photo: Andreas Langfeld

By equipping refugees and migrants with cameras with which to document their daily reality living as refugees or awaiting deportation, video and photo projects like Blackbox Abschiebung (Blackbox Deportation) or RefugeeCameras have succeeded in recent years in drawing attention to the actual or potential visual work of the people concerned. The next step, which takes into account the technical development in smartphones and other handheld devices that has since taken place, involves a study of Internet-supported communication among refugees and migrants. Mapping Refugee Media Journeys, a joint study by the Open University and France Médias Monde, whose final report was published in 2016, render convincingly the role that the availability of digital communications technology plays in the everyday reality of refugees and migrants. Smartphones are an irreplaceable means of coping with mobility in conditions that are often life-threatening. They ensure connectivity—i.e. contact with relatives, who may be back in their country of origin or on the move as well—for migrant communities at the place of destination and provide a hook up to the entire infrastructure of translocal mobility, from trafficking organizations to immigration authorities. Because the phones of most migrants are also Internet-capable and have cameras for digital imaging, they are also production resources, distribution media, and archives for photographs and videos. We may follow media theorist Paul Frosh, who speaks of a coupling of the physical, geographical mobility of migration with the “kinaesthetic sociability” of the “gestural image”, as embodied, for example, in the selfie genre; many images produced by migrants on their journeys, are also designed to document for other members of the network, deictically as it were, the presence of the person filming or taking photographs in a certain location. But, beyond that, smartphones and their use by migrants is characterized by a specific ambiguity. On the one hand, they are icons for the reality of modern-day mobility: images of refugees holding their mobiles in the air in search of a functioning network are part of the stock of images in contemporary reportage photography. On the other, smartphones in people’s bags are also a prerequisite for being able to monitor the paths and routes travelled by migrants; they ensure that they are visible to the state law enforcement agencies, because the signals coming from them allow their trails to be tracked by means of satellite-supported localization and navigation devices. The tracing of a route for surveillance purposes serves as a complement to the kind of a route projection carried out by the subjects of migration. GPS not only enables monitoring but also makes it possible to generate and utilize cartographies of flight. Sociologist William Walters speaks of “viapolitics”, a politics of itineraries and route-making. Its visuality is naturally not limited to the graphic displays of navigation apps but is embedded in the complexity of a comprehensive struggle (one that also relates to the aesthetics of the media) for the right to move. As Vassilis Tsianos, Dimitris Parsanoglou, and Nicos Trimikliniotis examined in their 2014 book with the eloquent title Mobile Commons: Migrant Digitalities and the Right to the City, media strategies for giving visibility to the struggles of migrants are intimately connected with the practice of mobile technologies. Here it is also the case that the functions of photography and the photographic image can only be appropriately analysed as elements of a techno-social assemblage. For the photo that a migrant takes to give visual expression to their situation of mobility is permeated with vast quantities of metadata and location information. A picture of this kind is thus always a means of navigating through the physical and digital realm, through impassable undergrowth in a coastal area on the way to the smugglers’ boat, or across social media platforms in search of relevant cartographical material and signs of life from the network.

Translation: Stephan Glietsch

Tom Holert (*1962) is an art historian, curator, and artist. Following his studies in Hamburg and Paris, he was editor of Spex magazine in Cologne as well as a professor at the Merz Academy in Stuttgart and the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. He is co-founder of the Harun Farocki Institut in Berlin.