Photography and 21st Century Migration

The issue of migration is often portrayed with popular photographic motifs such as a group of people on the move or an overcrowded boat, but these kinds of images invariably oversimplify and do not address the complex circumstances of leaving one place for another. Climate change, as well as violent conflicts, including those in Syria and Ukraine, have contributed to the movement of people around the world, but there are many forms of migration, including both forced and voluntary, as well as temporary and permanent, and experiences vary significantly according to factors including citizenship, financial resources, and identity categories.  

Photographers and photo-based contemporary artists play an important role in the way migration is understood, and some practitioners offer nuanced interpretations of both photography and migration through their work. Our aim for this session is to foreground research on, and creative practice by, photographers and photo-based artists on issues such as (but not limited to) experiences of displacement and diaspora, questions of identity and belonging, and responses to disenfranchisement. We welcome proposals for research papers addressing photographic projects that go beyond common tropes and stereotypical portrayals of 21st-century migration. 

Session Convenors:  

Sarah Bassnett, Professor of Art History , Department of Visual Arts, Western University  

Blessy Augustine, PhD candidate in Art and Visual Culture, Department of Visual Arts, Western University  


Olga Smith,  Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellow at the University of Vienna, Austria  

The Right to be Invisible: Limits of Photographic Witnessing 

Since the increase in forced migration to Europe in 2014 the press in the European countries has tended to represent the refugees and the displaced people in negative terms, “as a problem, rather than a benefit to host societies.” (Press Coverage of the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in the EU, 2015). The photographic illustrations have played a key role in promoting these dangerous narratives. In response, artists working with photography have developed sophisticated strategies of representation that invest the primary components of photojournalism — narrative, event, and social concern — with a personal concern, commitment, and recognition of ethical limits placed on the act of photographic witnessing.  

In this presentation, I focus on the work of three such artists: Laura Henno, Tobias Zielony, and Samuel Gratacap. Their projects from 2015-2020 take as their focus refugee camps in Choucha, Tunisia, illegal migrant encampments in the vicinity of Calais, France and refugee protests in Hamburg, Germany. While distinct in approaches and methods, a number of common threads emerge in these projects, of which I focus on two in particular: 

1. Commitment of extended periods to research and observation as a part of photographic project, expending into months and even years, which I interpret as opposing the instantaneity of the press photograph;  

2. While giving visibility to displaced persons, whose presence in Europe’s public spaces is often met with downcast eyes, photography is often used by artists to protect sitters’ anonymity through strategies that obscure or hide faces.  

I draw on the arguments presented in Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s Dark Mirrors (2022) and Hilde van Gelder’s Hilde van Gelder’s Ground Sea: Photography and the Right to Be Reborn (2022) in considering the role of photography in the ongoing violation of fundamental freedoms. I interpret strategies aimed at obscuring faces as means of facilitating claims to anonymity and a new identity, unmarked by the trauma of immigration and free from stigmatizing attitudes: “right to be reborn.”  

Raquel Villar Pérez, curator at Impressions Gallery, Bradford, UK

Repurposing the Archive. Recounting Latin American Women’s Stories of Migration 

Repurposing the archive. Recounting Latin American Women’s Stories of Migration will present the work of two Latin American women artists living in the UK; the Mexican Mónica Alcázar-Duarte and the Venezuelan Lucia Pizzani. It will show how both image-makers approach and repurpose the photographic archive in two very different ways to address the notion of migration and reflect on the negotiation of transnational and transitive identities. Alcázar-Duarte’s practice foregrounds women, race, migration, and modern technologies. In her recent project Second Nature, Alcázar-Duarte examines the vast digital archive of the internet to reflect on the role that search engine algorithms have in reinforcing and perpetuating racial discrimination biases by pre-sorting out the images that are displayed on the browsers. She focuses on the migratory experience of women-identified individuals of Mexican origin. Alcázar-Duarte visualises these stories in a series of self-portraits that are activated by way of AR by the audiences who are then confronted with their own biases acquired by Western socialisation. Pizzani’s ouvre broadly addresses the condition of movement and sense of misplacement. 

She combines materials and stories from different territories trying to reconciliate that distance. In her latest project Tajinaste Cattleya, Pizzani incorporates archival images of flora endemic to Venezuela – her place of birth – and to the Canary Islands – where she lived in her youth – and stoneware ceramic pieces resembling facemasks and other female organic shapes to reflect on a common history of migration between these two territories as well as colonial routes and trades. 

Encarni Pindado, Freelance photojournalist, MSc in Migration, Mobility and Development at SOAS University, London  

Central American Women Migrants on the Move and Examination of Violence and Identity Through Photography 

This paper examines the collages created by Central American migrant women in transit through Mexico, based on images of women like them taken by photojournalist Encarni Pindado in the 10 years she has worked in the area. The images are reinterpreted and reconstructed to tell their own migratory history. 

  Using a cross-cultural feminist imaginary, the images of the migrant women offer narrative landmarks that guide us on the journey. These findings are discussed and framed in dialogue with a feminist theoretical framework to situate spaces of violence along the route and identify the types of violence embodied by women while recalling their often-overlooked agency. 

  While women’s mobility can be a form of resistance and can become a tool to escape violence, and migration the possibility of a safe space, it does not necessarily mean that immobility is the opposite. It means that it can sometimes be the best option, while immobility can also be a survival strategy when the situation requires it. Women’s resistance strategies and practices such as silence, dissimulation and passivity can also be practices of resistance used by women when there is no way out.   

  Migrant women navigate between invisibility and the over-representation of the eternal victim in need of protection, a narrative that perpetuates gender norms and patriarchal and hegemonic attitudes and obscures their capacity for agency.  

Andrew O’Brien, Associate Professor, Department of Art, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga 

Drift Alignment: Astronomy, Celestial Navigation, and the US-Mexico Border 

Drift Alignment is an ongoing body of work that engages the complex and contested history of the US-Mexico border through the practices of astrophotography and celestial navigation. The work is driven by an examination of the technical, material, and ideological conditions that led to the formation of the border, as well as its lasting relationship with colonialism, and the tragic consequences of immigration enforcement. Throughout the series, works oscillate between attempts at precision and its inverse – both subjective experience and mathematical error – to arrive at a poetic exploration of 21st century migration in the southwestern United States. 

A central component of the series involves the process of retrieving images of the night sky that correspond to the view directly above the sites of migrant deaths in the southern Arizona desert. This highly technical and ongoing facet of the project involves thousands of records of migrant deaths from the Arizona Open GIS Project for Migrant Deaths, the use of NASA-GSFC sky surveys, and Python code developed by the artist. 

Connections between imagery – including alternating references to sky and ground – cultivate an awareness of place, the body, and the ways in which the sky shapes our understanding of the land. Within Drift Alignment, the status of the image is important for its past and continual use in mythologizing the American west. Thus, various strategies for image production are put into conversation with one another, allowing the viewer to consider how the iconography of the western United States factors into our understanding of territorial sovereignty and ongoing debates about who can rightfully occupy- and move through this landscape. 

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