ortorhoto : Italian navy rescues asylum seekers traveling by boat off the coast of Africa on the Mediterranean, June 7, 2014. Massimo Sestini—Polaris.
Community Building Seminar, IMéRA, 2 November 2017
Krista Lynes, IMéRA Fellow 2017-2018, Associate Professor at University of Concordia, Communication Studies, Canada Research Chair in Feminist Media Studies, Director Feminist Media Studio.
The boat moves across the water, its edges cutting the ocean’s waves and creating white eddies along the vessel’s path. In its berth, five hundred migrants look up, fixing the helicopter above and the reporter with his camera looking down. They are travelling the narrow but never-ending channel between Libya and Italy. It is 2014. The ‘migrant crisis’ has not yet come to define the image or the crossing. The boat is in movement; its motor hasn’t failed. It isn’t bobbing helplessly upon the waves waiting for a coast guard rescue or humanitarian ship. The photographer is also in motion, circling high above the crossing ship. Despite all of this, the picture is still. All the movement is reduced to light, pattern and colour. The spray of the waves, the overcrowded conditions, the sparkling sun, the smell of surf and gas are flattened and condensed into a vivid pictorial image.
Massimo Sestini took the photograph from an Italian navy helicopter in 2014, repeating a shot he had taken in identical circumstances the year before. Sestina said about taking the image: “I thought if I could get the right angle straightaway, directly above 500 people who have spent five days and nights on a boat, they would probably all look up, ask for help, wave—so this year I thought I’d try again and it worked” (1).What is this photograph? So pictorial, vivid, and dense with connotation? How does it capture and encapsulate something of the moment of crossing? What does it miss? What relation does it posit between those looking up and those looking down? How does the very act of looking down transform the material conditions and social relations of migration into a picture?
We are living in a world governed by what Martin Heidegger has called the rise of the world picture:
“a world picture […] does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as a picture […] The world picture does not change from an earlier medieval one into a modern one, but rather the fact that the world becomes picture at all is what distinguished the essence of the modern age” (2).
The image is not a moving image, in the sense that the movement in the image is arrested in the photograph’s frozen frame, and yet is about the scale of human movement—the overcrowded boats, the trajectories of travel, apparatuses of surveillance, and desires of those who flee their homes or places of departure. The image, then, could be said to arrest the forward trajectory of the migrant boat, freeze it in time and space, produce (through an image operations) an omen or portent of the stalled zodiac boats that would trap migrants adrift in the sea in 2015 and beyond.
Beyond the movement depicted (and yet arrested) in the image, there are other movements, not the least of which include the movement of the image itself. Even as the image was celebrated in 2014 for distilling the conditions of migrant crossing, it has a significant afterlife in the theatre of the 2015-16 ‘migrant crisis’. The photograph won a World Press Photo Award in February of 2015, a distinction that was announced across news platforms, humanitarian and human rights organizations, and arts magazines. Not only does it appear among the top images in Internet search engines on the term migrant crisis, it is also homologous with the iconography of that crisis, forming a dense and ossified form for symbolizing the terms and grounds of the crisis.
For instance, on September 15, 2015, almost two weeks after the death of the drowned Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, Google announced a new donation matching program, donating at a 1:1 rate for every dollar given up to $10 million dollars. The donations received through Google were shared between Doctors Without Borders, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, and UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The campaign included four images as backgrounds for their funding drive, the Sestini image figuring among the four. The image thus migrates through a series of material, technical, juridical and humanitarian infrastructures as a potent icon of the crisis of migration, signified by the mass of bodies contained in the small vessel, surrounded by the turbulent sea.
What are pictures, and what is their significance to understanding social life? Are they tied to regimes of truth, to the positivist and empirical sciences? Are they instruments of ideology? Are they aesthetic objects? What role do they play? What status do they hold? What effect do they have on culture? On our relation to the external world, to ourselves and to each other? Even while we live in the age of ‘spectacle’, or the era of ‘surveillance’, we still don’t have (in WJT Mitchell’s view) a powerful account of visual representation that is dictating the terms of cultural theory. Pictures instead form a point of friction across a broad range of intellectual inquiry (3).
Perhaps the first first-principle of visual analysis is that image regimes are constitutive of social life. Not only can you not go a day without seeing an image, but there is a daily instrumentality to image culture. In other words, images form, reflect and inflect our sense of the world. We might have said in previous approaches that images represent or pictorialize experience, but they do more than this. They are not only artefacts, but mediating interfaces in the complex social relations of the world. They act; they have material weight; they circulate, accrue value, bind communities together through common sentiment; they operationalize various other technologies (military, economic, medical). The afterlives of images are thus constitutive of their meaning. They form and inform how they circulate, what they evoke, how they are embedded in other systems of cultural value.
My interest is in how vision articulates and constitutes the contentious aspects of political and social life—sites of social struggle—and how it works to bind communities in different forms of affective belonging and/or solidarity. How to understand how events are constituted and articulated in and through different multilayered, frictional but interconnected cultural spheres in the global system? Without prejudice and without guarantees? Through an approach that does not restrict itself to one genre, media, form, audience etc. but sees the whole of the visual regime as an interlocking uneven image field, one which includes news reportage, documentary film, social media memes, museum art, performative activist strategies, journaling and blogging, tweets, and even the visual character of academic scholarship as significant sites for the articulation of a social event.
One of the key tasks of visual culture is to understand how complex pictures come together. They are not, as Nicholas Mirzoeff stresses, created from one medium or in one place, and yet the divisions of academia are only equipped for this sort of analysis. Visual culture instead directs our attention away from structured, formal viewing settings like the cinema or museum toward the centrality of visual experience in everyday life (4).
There is a precedence for thinking visual analysis beyond the frame of the image, particularly if one is interested in social/political effects of imaging processes, but these paradigms frequently presume an encounter between a viewer, a media object and the producer of that object. It is far less likely that most of the images we encounter in our everyday life have such a singular path. Instead, in the contemporary moment there are a whole series of “largely uncontrollable events that come together to create a complex cluster of meanings that goes well beyond the images’ efficacy at any specific point in time”.
Jens Eder and Charlotte Klonk, in an anthology which follows from a conference held in Berlin in 2014, argue that images are not only representational, referential or illustrative but augment and create significant events – i.e. they have real material effects (5). Images don’t stand alone but are combined with text, speech, music etc. They form parts of multimodal texts, intertextual networks, referential chains. They are in their terms ‘image operations’. The question is not who puts these images into operation because there is a complex, diffuse, multiple and sometimes simultaneous network of agencies—personal, technological, affective, political—at work. Images themselves act (they have a dynamic of their own, suggest certain operations, shape certain operations. Some images have a kind of ‘liveliness’ – they move almost on their own, gather up velocity and accrue value.
What becomes important for me in this analysis is that the image operations at play in the constitution of events or issues goes beyond the frame of the image, beyond the institutional frame, beyond discourse analysis or accounts of culture and identity. We need tools to understand the velocity, direction, and effects of the dynamic quality of visual culture.
We need also to understand how images become ‘moving images’—not only how they move, through which channels of production, circulation and distribution, but how they move us. Media practices and technologies are carriers and mechanisms that “articulate, direct, intensify, orient feeling with context-specific social and political configurations”(6). Affect is the primary communicational medium for the circulation of ideas, attitudes and prescriptions for action among them. Affect theory provides tools and frameworks for analyzing the work that feelings and emotions do in bringing people together, and shaping and moving social collectivities in the process of popular organizing and movement mobilization.
It’s for this reason that—rather than focusing on media objects—visual analysis must focus instead on what Sarah Kember & Joanna Zylinska call processes of mediation, processes which are technical, biological, social, and political. Mediation in their view involves “being in and becoming with the technological world, our emergence and ways of interacting with it, as well as the acts and processes of temporarily stabilizing the world into media, agents, relations, and networks” (7). For Kember & Zylinska, mediation comes before media. In other words, there is always already mediation, and media objects are simply ongoing stabilizations of a media flow. They call them temporary ‘fixings’ of technological and political becoming.
These insights impact not only our understanding of media but our media analysis also. Because media analysis is part of processes of mediation, it is also situated, recursive, inside rather than outside. For Kember & Zylinska this means that academic work is also media enactment. Rather than rejecting that complicity, they celebrate an engaged model of working on, in and with ‘media’. This involves critique, combined with participation and invention.
These concepts point the way to new methods of visual analysis in the context of the technological, social, economic, and geographical forces that bring events into being. They present contingent methods for analysis in the midst of an expanded visual landscape on the move. And they hold firm the notion that to do such broad interdisciplinary analysis, one must be situated, in its midst, with critical mediating practices that take on the task of producing better accounts of the world, in Donna Haraway’s terms “in order to live in it well and in critical, reflexive relation to our own as well as others’ practices of domination and the unequal parts of privilege and oppression that make up all positions” (8).
(1) “10 Moving Photos of Europe’s Migrant Crisis”. BBC News Magazine. 4 September 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34137358. Last consulted on 3 November 2017.
(2) Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. New York: Harper Perennial, 1977: 130.
(3) W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
(4) Nicholas Mirzoeff, “The Subject of Visual Culture” in The Visual Culture Reader. Nicholas Mirzoeff, Ed. New York: Routledge, 1998.
(5) Jens Eder and Charlotte Klonk, Image Operations: Visual Media and Political Conflict. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016.
(6) Carrie Rentschler, “Affect” in Keywords for Media Studies. Laurie Oulette and Jonathan Gray, Eds. New York: NYU Press, 2017.
(7) Sarah Kember & Joanna Zylinksa : Life after New Media: Mediation as Vital Process. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012: xv.
(8) Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991 : 187.