On the Visual (Re)production of ‘Refugeeness’ : Images, production sites and oppositional gazes

Abstract: This dissertation explores ways in which images disseminate specific kinds of knowledge and shape the way we understand issues of migration and flight today. In the wake of the 2015/2016 ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe, there has been a vast proliferation of photography depicting flight and people fleeing. Bird-eye view images of crowded boats in the Mediterranean, scenes of people arriving at the shores of Greece, Turkey and Italy, precarious living conditions and violent pushbacks along the ‘Balkan Route’ covered the front pages of newspapers for months on end. Presence of such familiar visual cues goes beyond the idea of neutral and reflective messages of the world, rather, they show us how interpretations of the world are made meaningful and carried out in very particular ways. Images represent an integral part of the production and dissemination of state discourses and as such they can be understood as situated in the social, economic and political dynamics at a given point in time, yet embedded in historical discourses such as the long history of colonial constructions of ‘otherness’ through the use of camera and photography. This work aims to contribute to sociological knowledge on the meaning making of flight and people fleeing by looking at the visual (re)production of flight through a feminist, decolonial lens. Together, the articles seek to answer three central questions: (1) What are the dominant visual discourses on flight and ‘refugeeness’ as reproduced in the mainstream media? (2) What is the role of the image makers operating in the production field in constructing visual discourses on flight and ‘refugeeness’? (3) What are the potentials and limitations for challenging the mainstream discourses on flight through visual counter narratives produced by people with personal experiences of flight? To answer these questions this dissertation makes use of visual discourse analysis, qualitative interviews and participatory visual methods.Article I and II explore newspaper cover-page photography and ways in which such images constitute and disseminate knowledge on the issues of flight and people fleeing. Article III moves on to study the production sites of images of flight and points to the complex ways in which visual production of ‘refugeeness’ in the media rests on the intersections of racialized, gendered and classed discourses, making it a field full of ambivalence and tensions as addressed in the article. Finally, in Article IV, I outline the potentials and challenges of using participatory visual methods as a way of challenging the mainstream visual discourses on flight and shifting focus from tropist representations and fixation on ‘refugee’ bodies to the visual narratives on life in exile produced by people with recent histories of flight themselves.