To Look Into the Eyes of a Refugee
Social media give us access to other peoples’ realities, but only if we are willing to see.
(A slightly different version of this piece was published yesterday in Norwegian in Bergens Tidende, where I write a column every fifth Sunday.)
Over the last few weeks my Facebook feed has been full of Syrian refugees. Along with nearly 90,000 other Norwegians, I joined the group “Refugees Welcome to Norway,” and once I started liking posts from there my newsfeed overflowed with generous people finding ways to help the refugees. Most of all I am fascinated by the many shared posts written by the refugees themselves: sharing photos and stories of their travels, thoughts, fears and gratitude.
Then I discovered the Twitter hashtag #refugeesNOTwelcome. It shows an entirely different reality. Angry people post photos with slogans. A crowd of men, and the text: “No women no children. Apparently only men flee ‘war zones’?” Two images side by side: A naked, starving African child standing in the red dust of a refugee camp. Men on a boat, discussing something. The child is a real refugee, the text says. The men are not, according to the text: “They are soldiers of Islam. Don’t let the media fool you.” Don’t let this media fool you either: those men probably have nothing to do with the current refugee crisis, and there are many fake images.
Who decides what the world should look like? For a long time we had to trust the mass media if we wanted to learn about the world beyond that which we can see with our own eyes. Those who were directly affected by wars and catastrophes were not able to communicate directly with us to tell us about their experiences. Letters from soldiers were usually only read by the recipient and perhaps a few close friends. After wars, diaries like Anne Franks have had enormous influence, but we have not been able to read or see these first hand testimonies until after the war, after the famine, after the catastrophe. And by then, it has become distant.
Images can be more immediate than words, and images we have seen in newspapers and on television certainly affect our feelings of empathy for the suffering of others. Susan Sontag’s books On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others tell us about how images can both define and trivialize suffering. “To aestheticize war is to anesthetize war,” she wrote.
Maybe the reason that we can bear to look at the starving African child is that the photograph allows us to see the child from a distance. We don’t have to worry that the child will look back at us. The photograph cannot speak, it cannot respond, it cannot require anything of us. We can turn the page, scroll down, and never have to deal with it again.
Before digital cameras and smartphones there was something ritual about taking a photograph. We only took photos of special events: birthdays, weddings and holidays. In the 1960s, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote about what was “photographable”, and about how we pose for the photographer in a way that was never meant to be natural.
Family photographs on the living room wall show the ideal, not simply in the sense that we try to appear better (happier, more beautiful) than we really are, but in the sense that we show something greater than ourselves in our family photos. Our wedding photos and baby photos aren’t only about individuals. They’re about Family, Love and Happiness.
The photograph of the starving African child that #refugeesNOTwelcome positions as the ideal image of the refugee also shows something beyond the individual: Hunger, Need, Despair. The naked child has its back to us. Its feet stand on red, dry sand. It stands alone. Other people, just as emaciated, huddle in blankets, curled up. To the far right there is a tent. This reality is unfamiliar to me. Neither does it in any way resemble the reality the people posting to #refugeesNOTwelcome know.
This child is not shown as an individual. It is a symbol. A symbol that is marked by difference and distance. Images like this affect us, but do not touch upon our lives at home.
The Syrian refugees we meet in social media are much closer to home. Geographically, culturally and communicatively: these people are close to Europeans.
I scroll through photos on Instagram and see a photo of a young man looking into my eyes, with other young men behind him. They could be Norwegian hikers, wandering through the mountains, but I know they are refugees making their way through Europe. I can see some of the man’s arm in the photo. He took this photo himself.
Katie Warfield has described the arm that is often visible in a selfie as an embrace. The man in the Instagram photo is pulling us into an embrace that pulls us into his world. A selfie, Warfield argues, is far more intimate than a portrait taken by somebody else. A selfie speaks directly to the viewer: Hello. I am. I am here. Do you see me?
The refugee-haters are on Facebook as well of course. I hardly ever see them though. They hardly ever see me, nor do they see the 80,000 strong Facebook group where we talk about how to give clothes, blankets, houses and support to the refugees who are arriving every day. Facebook’s algorithms keep us safely apart. We do not need to see each others realities.
A few days later I take another look at the Syrian’s Instagram account that I found. There are new images, with Arabic texts that are beautiful but incomprehensible to me, although Google’s machine translation suggests possible meanings. The images themselves need no translation, though. I see a new selfie of the same man, sitting at a table in a café. He looks calmly into the camera. Maybe he is relieved to have arrived at a safe place.
There are images of birds. Birds flying. A pigeon. The most recent image is a drawing of Syria as a black map opening up into a swarm of black birds flying away.
Social media let us see the others, see those who are fleeing or suffering, and to see the ways in which they are like us.
I see photos on Facebook of a suburban street that could have been anywhere in Europe, with a photo next to it of the same street in ruins after being bombed. The street could have been my own street. Just as the drowned boy in the red t-shirt could have been my child.
The refugees have smartphones and Instagram and Facebook accounts just like we do. Used smartphones are cheap nowadays. Over 2,6 billion people in the world have smartphones. Soon all refugees from all wars and catastrophes and famines will use the internet to share photos, find help and tell their families that they are still alive.
One day we will see photos taken by starving children as well. When we see those images, we’ll see photos that show how they see the world. We’ll see them as individuals and not simply as symbols of Hunger, Need and Despair.
Maybe it is the images in social media that will let us see each other and understand each other, despite the languages and cultures and algorithms that keep us apart.
If we want to see each other. Because in social media, you only see the realities that you want to see.