That Midair Migrant Child

In this Sunday, March 27, 2016 file photo a young migrant is thrown into the air during a party in the northern Greek border station of Idomeni, Greece. Darko Vojinovic / Associated Press

We’re used to images like this — the color palette, skin color, cinematic lighting, children with scared but steadfast expressions surrounded by those who ‘look’ like family or neighbors. There’s enough in this particular frame to stop scrolling — we know the child is falling, but from where? Maybe from the top decks of a ship caught just out of frame, since so much of the visuality of the refugee crisis centers around water, oceans, and waves (of people).

But then we see the phone held up in what feels like a Westernized (but not WorldStar) gesture by the person on the right, and then the cup of what can’t be medicine but must be something that tastes good… and the frozen, hooded screamer at the bottom left — why didn’t we first see him as happy? Is there a joy to this picture that hides behind the non-normal normalizing of the ‘grit’ aesthetic embraced by the breaking news work by photojournalists about the migrant crisis?

As consumers of visual news media, we expect the sincere feature work on the refugee crisis to come as exoticizing portraits of families in Western locales (we can make them American!) or at least families in moments of peace or domesticity. How can the Other be shown as loud, in your face, while also carefree and happy? How can the child be alive, floating in air, rather than dead in the water? And, as we return to the velcro sneakers, open hands, clean clothing, we can’t help but wonder how a smile would change things, but also what would happen if the people were cropped out.