Europa dreaming: design a visual journalism counter-narrative to question the European dream.

The text is the transcription of the Visualized 2017 Conference in Milan

My name is Matteo Moretti and I’m a researcher in Visual Journalism at the Free University of Bolzano. The way we think of visual journalism is a practice across design, journalism and social sciences, devoted to “tell complex and multifaceted phenomena to a broader audience, in a more engaging way.”

Today I would like to talk about “Europa dreaming”, a project developed by a journalist, an anthropologist, a semiologist, a photographer, and an expert on EU policies on migration, with a single aim:

Provide a different narrative on migration, in order to contrast with data and facts the dominant narrative of the “invasion” and the “emergency”, revealing how the “migrant crisis” started in 1995 with the Schengen Agreement, that formed the so called “Fortress Europe”.

Our university is located very close to the Austrian border and we started reading strong and sensationalistic headlines on migration-related topics since 2014, witnessing the arrival of hundreds of refugee every day from Lampedusa island to the city of Bolzano, or rejected at the Austrian border.

The media covered only half of the story, forgetting to mention that the same amount of refugees also crossed the Brenner border in search for a better future in northern Europe.

In April 2016, even the Austrian Government wanted to reinstate the border with Italy (the Brenner border), transforming South Tyrol, the Italian region where we live, into the symbol of EU failure.

During that period, we decided to design a project to support different narratives, open public debates, provide a transparent information, contrast the simplifications, debunk stereotypes about the migration phenomenon.

What personally motivated me in the first place was this picture:

The march to Germany of thousands of Syrian asylum seekers, blocked in Hungary. After the decision by Angela Merkel to welcome Syrian refugees in Germany, they decided to continue their journey by foot.

One of the man leading the march, was holding a European Flag. I’ve never owned a European flag, I don’t know how many of you own a EU flag. Looking at the picture, it seems that the asylum seekers believe more than us, in the European Dream.

This issue emerged clearly from the interviews with some of them, during the making of our project. They stated: “I’m happy, I’m safe, I’m in Europe” , not Italy. Another man told us “in Europe you have human rights”.

Through these works we understood how many things we give for granted, that are out of reach for the remaining 70% of the world and, moreover, that Europe exists, that we are perceived as Europeans, despite our internal divisions.

But which Europe?

Greece farmers clash with riot police in Athens

The EU that discussed Greece not respecting the imposed economical parameters?

The Hungary’s Roszke refugee camp is alleged human rights violations

Or the EU that didn’t discuss with the same strength how Hungary wasn’t respecting the human rights of asylum seekers?

Actually, EU sounds more like Economic Union, more than a Political (and so, humanitarian) Union. So this led us to a question: is this the European dream? Is this the Europe we dreamt of? For this reason we decided to use the dream metaphor to open our project.

“Exactly, what happens? It’s under our eyes every day.

We visualised, for instance, the lack of a shared asylum regulation and the different processing times for asylum requests. Despite the average time of six-months suggested by the EU, the real times last up to 36 months! This visualisation alone helps explaining why asylum seekers landed in Italy or in Greece moved to north Europe, searching for better asylum conditions!

From a metaphorical point of view, we adopted the idea of a ink drop that fits (and often cross) the border, according to the processing time. A rough visualisation instead of a cleaner and more conventional one.

The first reason was to recall the first operation of asylum request, the collection of fingerprints, then to represent the uncertainty of the data. Indeed, we struggled to find reliable data: consider that even the Frontex agency, the EU institution devoted to border access control, provided ambiguous data on border crossing.

The picture above shows a tweet from the agency stating that 710.000 refugees entered the EU in the first 9 months of the 2015. Few minutes after, the researcher Nando Sigona raised the question “@FrontexEU how can you be sure you are not double-counting as not everyone is identified & people cross multiple #EUborders? #refugeecrisis”. Few minutes after Frontex added a clarification on its website, stating:

How can we rely on data if even the major EU institution devoted to border control fails? For that reason we only have two data-based stories: the asylum processing times you’ve seen before and the landing vs asylum applications.

It was the only way to depict the movement of the migrants from the South to the North of Europe and the unsustainability of the Schengen agreement. According to it, the million of refugees landed in Europe in 2015 (83% Greece, 15% Italy, 2% Spain — source: UNHCR) should apply for asylum in the country of landing, but if we look at the first instance asylum request submitted in Italy (83.245) and in Greece (11.370) we quickly understand that something went wrong. Germany, in the same year received 441.800 asylum application despite 0 landings! (source: Eurostat)

Again, from a graphical point of view, we decided to give a radical shift to our visualisations, preferring a more emotional rather than informative approach, to return the humanity behind the numbers, that in this case are not so important. What was important for us was the way the phenomenon was (and still is) managed: as an emergency and not in a more shared and structural way, despite it continues for 20 years and counting.

Indeed, what emerged from an Archive research made by our journalist Massimiliano Boschi, is that history is repeating itself. As Italians we assisted to the dramatic dismantling of the refugee camp in Ventimiglia: it was 2015 and African migrants were stopped in Italy trying to cross the French border. Twenty years before, in the 1995, another camp of Bosnian refugees was dismantled, for the same reason: they were trying to cross the border in order to reach France.

1995–2015 Twenty years lost

In order to differentiate, again, the human dimension from the numbers, we also involved the photographer Claudia Corrent that through her work depicted a real singular and very sensitive side of the phenomenon. She asked the asylum seekers that were trying to cross the Austrian border what was the object that protected them during their travel. Holy bibles, family pictures, crucifix and even one picture of Manchester United! Probably the strongest testimonials have been the pictures of the tattoos, usually with sacred subjects. — photographic project by Claudia Corrent

According to the asylum seekers, they were robbed of everything during their travel, even sacred symbols, specially in Libya, for that reason they decided to have them on their skin, the body as the last barrier. Moreover the tattoos were made by friends or parents. Even though in our western culture tattoos are usually connected to a memory, they lack the strength the ones portrayed by Claudia have. Indeed they embed a triple value: they are connected to a memory, they are used to pray, and finally they connect with their relatives, parents and friends that actually made the tattoos.

It is superfluous to mention how much we learned through the making of this project, as designers, as humans. I would show you some statements from some of the refugees we interviewed thanks to the work of the archeologist Luca Pisoni and the anthropologist Monika Weissensteiner:

Another strong testimonials was from this man who dreamt to go to the US, we tried to explain he was in Europe and the US are very far from here, but he simply answered in this way:

From a communication point of view, we obviously protected the identity of the asylum seekers, for privacy and safety reason, moreover we think that the stories we collected belong to many of them not only to these individuals. For these reasons the subtitles, that are the core of their stories are in the center of the screen.

Finally I would call all the designers (and not only) to:

The text is the transcription of the Visualized 2017 Conference in Milan