Tag Archives: photography

Photos Shape Attitudes to Refugees: View from Australia

July 30, 2016

Over the last two decades we have seen the unprecedented politicisation of immigration. Many Australians remember the wave of immigration after World War II when our rapidly developing industrialised economy addressed its labour shortage. Yet, like many Western countries, since the end of the Cold War we have worked to prevent refugees from seeking asylum by making our borders impenetrable.

Today, we distinguish between migrants, who arrive via our Migration Program (currently up to 190,000 places per year), and refugees, admitted through our Humanitarian Program, (providing 13,750 places in 2016-2017). Migrants make a conscious choice to seek a better life elsewhere. Refugees are forced to leave their country because of persecution.

Photography has mapped a distinctively Australian version of this global story. Once migrants were represented as complex, vulnerable, diverse people, as in David Moore’s iconic 1966 photograph, Migrants arriving in Sydney. This image allows us to empathise with the fear, anxiety and hope felt by newcomers, poised between old and new, tradition and change.

David Moore Migrants arriving in Sydney 1966, gelatin silver photograph.
Art Gallery of NSW, gift of the artist 1997 © Lisa, Michael, Matthew and Joshua Moore

By contrast, today the Australian government seeks to suppress photographs of asylum seekers, seemingly from fear that such images will prompt empathy with them and undermine border security policy. As asylum seekers have come to be widely viewed as a security threat, refugee policy has been militarised, displacing attention from the situation of those attempting to reach Australia to their supposed menace to our way of life.

The power of photos

Researchers have long debated the impact and ethics of photographs of those very far away or different from ourselves – how do such representations allow us to empathise with their subjects’ plight? Do our responses to such photos prompt political or social change? Or, after a moment of compassion or shame, do these feelings simply subside, letting us return to business as usual and thereby reinforcing the status quo?

Clearly, Australian government and military officials believe, very deeply, in the power of such imagery to undermine – or conversely, support – their agenda.

Two episodes in our recent history reveal the power of photography to shape attitudes and influence public debate. The first is 2001, the year of the Tampa incident, Children Overboard, and the Pacific Solution. The second is the increased border protection measures introduced by the Abbott government from 2013, still in place today.

During the late 1990s, increasing numbers of people attempted to travel to Australia by boat to seek asylum, including Afghanis, many being members of the persecuted Hazara minority. In August 2001, the Norwegian vessel MV Tampa rescued 438 mostly Afghan refugees from their sinking boat, around four hours from the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

The Australian government blocked the Tampa from landing on Christmas Island. Indonesia, which had not ratified the 1951 Convention on Refugees, refused to receive them. When the Tampa entered Australian waters without permission, the Australian military intervened. After much delay, the refugees were taken to Nauru.

Australian citizens’ understanding of these remote events was necessarily highly mediated. A review carried out by researchers from the University of Queensland examined the visual representation of asylum seekers on the front pages of two prominent Australian newspapers at this time – The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald.

The boat carrying asylum seekers pulls up alongside the Tampa.
Wallenius Wilhelmsen/AAP

Their analysis showed the predominance of pictures of boats, mostly from a distance, as well as those depicting asylum seekers as large groups (42%). In contrast, there was a striking lack of images showing individual asylum seekers with clearly recognisable facial features (only 2%).

The researchers concluded that the effect of this pattern was to dehumanise refugees and frame the refugee “problem” as a potential threat that demanded mechanisms of security and border control.

Perhaps the most widely circulated image from this crisis was an aerial view of the Tampa showing the rescued refugees sitting on the deck in rows, in a space defined by shipping containers. Powerful as it was, this image did not show a single human being’s face.

Asylum seekers on board the Tampa.
Wallenius Wilhelmsen/AAP

Following the Tampa incident, a new border protection initiative titled Operation Relex implemented a restrictive public affairs plan that tightly regulated the collection and circulation of information and images.

The Director-General of Defence Communication Strategies, Brian Humphreys, later testified to the Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident that Defence Minister Peter Reith had explicitly instructed personnel, “Don’t humanize the refugees”.

The inquiry concluded that this restrictive public affairs plan intended to retain “absolute control” of the facts,

to ensure that no imagery that could conceivably garner sympathy or cause misgiving about the aggressive new border protection regime would find its way into the public domain.

Visual theorists express concerns about the ethical use of images of suffering. They argue that such images exploit their subjects by violating their privacy or showing them as abject and less-than-human. In addition, there are well-grounded fears that identifying individuals may render them vulnerable to persecution in their home countries.

However, the complete suppression of images by the state also acts to erase the social experience of suffering. In this way, the absent image may be as powerful, and terrifying in its effects, as images of suffering.

Empathy overboard

John Howard’s government did, however, make active use of photographs to advance its agenda at this time. In October 2001, in the immediate lead-up to a federal election, a boat designated Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel 4, carrying 223 asylum seekers, was intercepted by HMAS Adelaide north of Christmas Island, and then sank.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock claimed that passengers had thrown children overboard as a means of forcing the Australian navy to rescue them. Defence Minister Peter Reith and the prime minster repeated this claim, and on 10 October released photographs that supposedly proved it.

An October 8, 2001 file photo of video footage of refugees being rescued in seas off Christmas Island by defence personnel from HMAS Adelaide.
Defence PR/AAP

However, journalist Virginia Trioli challenged their status as proof during a radio interview with Reith, pointing out

Mr Reith, there’s nothing in this photo that indicates these people either jumped or were thrown?

Reith responded

Well, quite frankly, if you don’t accept that, you don’t accept anything I say … they are clear as day. A mother and her presumably son, aged seven or eight clearly in the water and clearly being assisted by a female member of the Royal Australian Navy … Now, we have a number of people, obviously RAN people who were there who reported the children were thrown into the water.

However a later Senate inquiry found, on the basis of evidence provided by senior Navy personnel, that the photographs offered as evidence of children thrown overboard on 7 October were actually pictures taken the following day, 8 October, while SIEV 4 was sinking.

The inquiry concluded that the Howard government had deliberately told lies about these events and suppressed the truth for political purposes.

A different picture

In mid-2003, meanwhile, an anonymous source published photographs of the rescued asylum seekers taken by Navy personnel aboard HMAS Adelaide in October 2001.

Aboard the HMAS Adelaide
Courtesy Project SafeCom, Jack H Smit.

These photographs show how these rescued people responded aboard the navy vessel. Note the good health and happiness of the children. Imagine the effects on the Australian public in October 2001 of seeing these happy, relieved families: would our political history have been different?

Children drinking milk.
Courtesy Project SafeCom, Jack H Smit.

The Howard government’s response to the “children overboard” affair was “The Pacific Solution” – establishing Nauru and Manus Island as offshore processing centres. According to a report compiled by parliamentary library staff using a variety of official sources, the policy was effective in halting boat arrivals in 2001.

With the election of the Rudd government in 2007, after six years of operation, Manus was closed. However a sharp rise in arrivals of asylum seekers by boat up to 2012 led to the re-opening of offshore processing centres under then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

In October 2011, meanwhile, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship announced a new media policy designed to control media access to asylum seekers. A key part of this policy was to regulate the use of images and, in particular, to prevent journalists from showing the faces of asylum seekers, justified as protecting the individual’s identity. This policy remains in place.

After the election of the Abbott government in 2013, Operation Sovereign Borders was mounted, a key component being the Regional Deterrence Framework, at a cost of A$420 million. This is still in place.

Part of this campaign entailed the production of a video and poster, captioned “No Way. You will not make Australia home.” This stated,

Any vessel seeking to illegally enter Australia will be intercepted and safely removed beyond Australian waters.

At sea

In response to these official campaigns, those seeking to arouse empathy with asylum seekers and counter aspects of the Australian government’s policies have also turned to photography.

In 2014 Hazara refugee Barat Ali Batoor’s photo on board an asylum seeker boat between Indonesia and Australia won Photo of the Year in the Nikon-Walkley Award for Excellence in Photojournalism.

Barat Ali Batoor, The First Day at Sea
Courtesy Barat Ai Batoor

Batoor was lucky to survive the two-day voyage. The boat he and 92 other asylum seekers took from Indonesia ran aground on rocks before reaching Australia. His camera was ruined, but his images survived. He was officially recognised as a refugee and resettled in Australia in 2013. In response to his photo, the Walkey judges said:

For all the years of debate about asylum seekers, this is the first time we’ve seen what one of those boats look like. No-one else has been there. The processes Barat Ali Batoor went through to get on that boat, and facing the possibility it could sink – which it did – that took phenomenal courage and commitment to telling a story. Batoor broadened the debate and helped us visualise what happens before the boats arrive at Christmas Island.

Since 2014, we have seen ever-increasing tightening of control of information about detention centres. In July 2015, reporting of abuse within the Manus Island centre was made illegal, prompting a campaign of civil disobedience by staff.

Events such as the tragic death in February 2014 of Reza Berati, a 23-year-old Iranian national, have aroused great concern. Medical staff have repeatedly testified to the trauma for inmates of these places, especially children. The Australian government has continued to invest heavily in media programs to discourage refugees.

Commissioned by the Immigration Department, the telemovie Journey cost $5.6m and was filmed in three countries, screening in 2015 in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. It aimed to inform audiences in “source countries” about the

futility of investing in people smugglers, the perils of the trip, and the hard line policies that await them if they do reach Australian waters.

In September 2015, however, photographs of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, whose body had washed up on a beach in Turkey went viral on social media.

Aylan Kurdi, Bodrum, September 2015.

Aylan had drowned with his brother Galip, who was five, and his mother Rehan as they tried to reach the Greek island of Kos in a small, overloaded rubber dinghy.

European newspapers debated whether or not to show the image, because historically, publishing images of dead children has been taboo for Western media. But the next morning most European newspapers ran the photo on the front page. British prime minister David Cameron’s initial response was to reiterate his policy that “we can’t take any more people fleeing from war”.

But within hours of seeing Aylan on all the front pages he admitted that he was deeply moved, and within days he announced that Britain would accept 20,000 more refugees.

In Australia, our papers carried the photo the following day. Initially the tragedy was represented as a European problem, with headlines such as “The images that stopped Europe”. Tony Abbott expressed sorrow but blamed the choice of refugees to flee by boat:

Well, I’d say if you want to stop the deaths, if you want to stop the drownings, you’ve got to stop the boats …

For a week, refugees were the subject of almost every radio and TV debate. Pressure from voters and Coalition backbenchers caused the prime minister to pledge $44 million in emergency aid to refugees still detained in camps, and on September 9, Abbott announced Australia would resettle an additional 12,000 refugees from the Syria/Iraq conflict.

There is a clear link here between the empathy aroused by such affective images – of which Aylan’s was perhaps only the most shocking – and its concrete political consequences.

Shutting our eyes

The Australian government currently has obligations under various international treaties to ensure that the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees in Australian territory are respected and protected.

As a party to the UN Refugee Convention, Australia has agreed to ensure that asylum seekers who meet the definition of a refugee are not sent back to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened. This is known as the principle of non-refoulement.

Australia also has obligations not to send people to third countries where they would face a real risk of violation of their human rights under these instruments. On April 26 this year, Papua New Guinea’s supreme court ruled the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island illegal. Offshore detention was among three areas of concern raised by the UN’s recent universal periodic review of Australia’s human rights record. Our refugee policy remains a troubling and unresolved question for the nation.

Authorities respond to an inmates’ hunger strike at Manus Island in January 2015.
AAP Image/Refugee Action Collective

This recent history reveals the intense politicisation of media representations of these events. Official responses with their focus on border protection have framed immigration and asylum seeking as a military threat, constituting asylum seekers as invaders and enemies of the state.

Increasingly, we have seen our government move from attempting to control images of events such as shipwreck or rescue or conditions in detention centres, to simply prohibiting them.

The more troubling aspects of these policies – such as effects upon asylum seekers and particularly children and families under indefinite detention – remain invisible.

We forget that the occupants of offshore processing centres are not enemy soldiers but refugees – they are already victims of conflict in their home countries. Many of them are children, and we have specific responsibilities towards them under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The examples I have reviewed here demonstrate the Australian government’s profound fear of the power of photographs to provide a counter-narrative to its own policies, and specifically, to create empathy between Australian public audiences and asylum seekers.

They show that in certain contexts, displaying and circulating images, or conversely, restricting them, may have a significant impact on viewers’ attitudes and subsequently on events.

Harsh national border defence policies are maintained at the expense of refugee well-being. Many atrocities have been committed in the shadow of such secrecy: only this week Four Corners revealed terrible conditions prevailing within onshore juvenile detention centres as well, prompting immediate public outrage, and leading Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs to call for a wide-ranging inquiry into Australia’s detention culture.

I suspect that most Australians would feel just as sad, angry, or ashamed if they witnessed conditions within offshore detention centres: yet so far most Australians have not been prepared to insist on seeing into these places, nor to demand that we soften our policy of mandatory offshore detention.

As ethical – and privileged – Australian citizens, there is a moral imperative for us to engage with and respond to what these pictures show us.The Conversation

Creative Commons

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related on F&O:


jpegviewJane Lydon is the Wesfarmers Chair of Australian History at the University of Western Australia. Her books include The Flash of Recognition: Photography and the emergence of Indigenous rights (NewSouth, 2012), which won the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards’ USQ History Book Award. Photography, Humanitarianism, Empire has just been published by Bloomsbury.










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Photographic manipulation: trickery, art, or illusionism?

A detail from Giorgio Vasari’s 1563 fresco, The Studio of the Painter – which depicts Zeuxis at work on his trompe l'oeuil images. Wikimedia Commons

Tricksters appear throughout art history, from the trompe l’oeil (literally meaning to “fool the eye”) of the 5th-century artist Zeuxis to modern photography. Above a detail from Giorgio Vasari’s 1563 fresco, The Studio of the Painter – which depicts Zeuxis at work on his trompe l’oeuil images. Wikimedia Commons 

By Phillip George, The Conversation
June, 2015

The very act of picking up a camera and raising it to your eye to frame what lays before you is a form of photographic illusionism. What was it that made you reach for the camera in the first place? And what compelled you to frame one part of the scene and not another? Why do so many people take particular photos – say of unusual weather – and post them online?

Games around what is real have been a dominant theme throughout the history of art, from the trompe l’oeil (literally meaning to “fool the eye”) of the 5th-century artist Zeuxis to the tricksters who faked images of a waterfall descending off Australia’s Sydney Harbour Bridge.

When an image is presented to the public, we must always be on the lookout for tricksters like these.

In 1917 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the great analytical mind of Sherlock Homes no less was fooled by two young girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, when the girls produced a constructed photograph of the infamous Cottingley Fairies.

Conan Doyle was a spiritualist who was pre-disposed to accepting the photograph presented by the girls as evidence of the fairies he wanted to believe in. The idea of spiritualism flourished in the early 20th century, as did the leading edge photographic technique of the day – the double exposure.

For example, a photographer would re-photograph pictures of a deceased family member or members onto corners of a sheet of film, then re-expose the same peace of film with the living family member in the centre of frame. The resulting print would show the living family member miraculously surrounded by their deceased kin.

At the same time Frank Hurley, the famous Australian adventurer and first world war photographer, “made” war photographs.

Frank Hurley war images. Creative Commons

Frank Hurley’s photo composites outdated historians. Above, Hurley’s “Episode after Battle of Zonnebeke,” 1918. Image from State Library of NSW, Creative Commons

Hurley once claimed that “to get war pictures of striking interest and sensation is like attempting the impossible”. He thought that photographs should express ideas, tell stories and excite emotions – in much the same way as paintings do.

To achieve this, he began to manipulate war pictures to give in his mind a greater understanding of the complex panorama of the battlefield. Hurley grouped negatives together in the darkroom and made photographic composites, to better represent the battlefield.

This process outraged the official Australian war historian Charles Bean, who considered Hurley’s photo composites as “fake” and attempted to stop Hurley making his “unreliable” images of war.

Bean represented the reportage/photographic documentary tradition and Hurley the picture-making tradition common in historic panoramic paintings. Both traditions are alive today within photojournalism, contemporary art and cinema.

Over time, the Hurley images have become sanctified via our historic institutions. And in this past week of ANZAC remembrance, you might have spotted documentary footage of the Gallipoli landing shot by Alfred Rolfe at Tamarama Beach in Sydney in 1915.

The footage is now so old it has also been incorporated into the “real” footage of the event.

An unambiguous use of photomontage was deployed against the Nazis by John Heartfield, a collage artist who was born Helmut Herzfeld in Germany and anglicised his name in an anti-nationalist protest.

Through his cut, copy and past technique, Heartfield reconfigured and re-deployed Nazis propaganda images into anti-Nazi propaganda. The Nazis despised him and his work so much he was placed onto a death list.

Speaking of propaganda, in a now infamous speech to the United Nations on February 5 2003, then Secretary of State Colin Powell produced faked documents about Iraqi nuclear weapons development in an attempt to take the USA and its client states to war.

Colin Powell’s fabricated evidence only ever really worked if, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s and the fairies at the bottom of the garden, his audience was pre-disposed to accepting the “evidence” to reinforce their cultural, political, religious or ideological positions.

Like any skilled illusionist the Pentagon also needed to construct a fitting end to the invasion of Iraq when they decided to leave in 2003. They needed the right image.

The one produced was constructed in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. We see a statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down by what the USA would have us believe are outraged locals. Pan the camera frame back and what is revealed is a near empty Firdos Square controlled by US military at each end. It’s now widely argued that the photo was staged.

The technologies by which we bring about photographic illusions might have improved – but the will of the tricksters is still alive and well.

Creative Commons

The Conversation

Phillip George is Associate Professor, UNSW Art & Design at UNSW Australia.


Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Rwanda revisited 20 years later.


Ntarama, Rwanda. By Greg Locke © 1995
…click to enlarge

I could say it seems like just last year, but it’s been twenty years this month that the first journalists headed into Rwanda, on news that a mass slaughter of one ethnic group by another was taking place. A civil war turned genocidal and an estimated 800,000 would die in just 100 days in the small central Africa country. The mass killing ended when Paul Kagame’s forces swept in from neighbouring Uganda and took control of the country, but the ongoing conflict carried on across the border in eastern Congo, and continues to this day with various factions and proxy militias.


Associated Press photographers  Jean-Marc Bouju and David Guttenfelder relive their time in Rwanda in Revisiting the Rwandan Genocide: Origin Stories From The Associated Press, by Pamela Chen on the National Geographic website.

Bouju’s quote rang true for me and I’d guess everyone who has covered conflict, war and continuous refugee crisis.


“What I saw was a vision of hell,” Bouju describes, “A particular hell where you have daily life going on, people shopping, but meanwhile other people are butchering each other right there in the same street. The nonchalance of death was astonishing. And I cannot get that out of my mind. To this day, I don’t understand it. But I left a little bit of my soul there somewhere.” …Jean-Mac Bouju


The nonchalance of death is striking. But maybe only to those from the west, where life is supposed to be so precious and sacred, with urban violence only occasionally spilling over into middle and upper class suburbs. One thing for sure, it proved to me that the banality of evil is true. A year later, as I stood among the bones of thousands who died in the little church in Ntarama, Rwanda after a day-long orgy of murder, I could not help but think of the methodical and bureaucratic order of the slaughter. When the killers grew tired of using their machetes they herded everyone inside, and fired rocket propelled grenades into the church. The casualness of how one human being or group can dismiss, objectify, demonize and kill another is frightening and the lesson does not always have to be from a civil war in a far-off developing country.

— Greg Locke

Under a Malaria Moon is Greg Locke’s photo-essay, with field notes, from nearly a decade in Africa. (Subscription required)

 Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O serves, and is funded by, readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Our original work in Dispatches, Think and Photo-Essays is available for a $1 site day pass or at a modest subscription price. Use the SUBSCRIBE  form, right, to receive our free Frontlines blog and notices of new work.


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Greg Locke in Maclean’s

Offshore Oil by Greg Locke © 2013 - www.greglocke.com
The semi-submersible offshore oil exploration drill rig, Henry Goodrich, working on Husky Energy’s White Rose offshore oil field 300km south of St. John’s, Newfoundland. Photo by Greg Locke © 2013

Greg Locke, Facts and Opinions’ managing partner, visual, is profiled this week in Maclean’s, Canada’s national newsmagazine. The Maclean’s feature, online and in the magazine on news stands, includes a gallery of Locke’s photographs of Atlantic Canada’s offshore oil industry.


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