Narratives of Journey: The Politicisation of Images and the Voice of the Refugee

This project aims to understand how the choice of language and definitions by international and state actors has interacted with the agency and voice of the refugee. It will require an understanding of the emerging historical approach of “Refugeedom”; a perspective that is inherently transnational.[1]

The questions at the heart of this project stem from identifying stark differences in the institutional depiction of refugees following the Second World War, and more recently in the twenty-first century. I will be seeking to discover what role language and images played in the interplay between depiction and agency, and through a diachronic approach, ask how this has changed over time. Subsequently, I hope to establish whether there are emerging institutions or groups that are challenging the historical status quo; if there are, whether they are doing this effectively, or falling into the same traps.  

This depiction does not occur only in written language; that of conventions or legal articles, but also in photographic imagery and more general media. By taking two images of a refugee family, one from the mid-twentieth century, and the other from the twenty-first, I hope to be able to trace the development of language patterns and usage, as well as the progressive politicisation of images and descriptions to influence the treatment of, and policy-making around refugees.

The analysis of language development would also need to account for a spatial awareness; that is, the influence that a refugees’ geographical background has on their reception, and ultimately their depiction. It seems as if there is a “European / Other” divide within descriptors and institutional treatment; which lends itself to a trans-spatial analysis. I believe this research would benefit from a look at Koselleck’s work with Conceptual History: understanding the development of “refugee” and “migrant” in order to gain the broader, social picture of “Refugeedom.”[2]

The politicisation of even the term “refugee”, poses subsequent questions to the discipline of oral and public history. In an attempt to avoid ‘top-down’ narratives, the obvious solution seems to suggest seeking out the “Voice of the Refugee”. However, through this project I need to maintain an awareness that this is not “black-and-white”, and there are underlying constructs of agency even within oral history. Any sources I therefore find, need to be treated with caution, for the interviewer, or photographer, had their own agenda: hearing what they wanted to hear, asking specific questions, or targeting certain subjects in their photographic compositions. This is not to avoid using these sources, but instead to approach them with the knowledge that “voice/life stories” are no more immune to politicisation than the more typical, parliamentary source.[3]

There is a quote from Prem Kumar Rajaram, who says ‘humanitarian agencies represent refugees in terms of helplessness and loss.’ ‘By stripping the refugee of the specificity of culture, place and history the refugee becomes human in the most elementary sense, dislocated from a territorial state. The resulting abstraction establishes the refugee as voiceless and without political identity or the corresponding possibilities of agency.’[4] I think that the development of this “voiceless victim”, and the subsequent treatment of them, can be traced historically over the past seventy years.

Acknowledging this politicisation and the danger of “top-down” narratives has led me to the area of Subaltern Studies, in particular Spivak’s essay, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ By using this lens as a framework within which to challenge what I read, I hope to discover who has the permission to narrate when it comes to the voice, and story of, the refugee. I believe that the approach of “Refugeedom” has the capacity to break the refugee out of the ‘silent, silenced centre’, and rediscovering their place in the historical record.[5]

Sadly I do not believe that there will be a day that there will be no refugees, and therefore this conversation continues to be of utmost importance. Through trying to understand the historical process of language development and the tension of agency, I hope to discover a fresh perspective on the place afforded to the voice of the refugee.

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[1] Peter Gatrell, Anindita Ghoshal, Katarzyna Nowak and Alex Dowdall, ‘Reckoning with Refugeedom: Refugee Voices in modern history’, Social History, 46:1, (2021), p.75.

[2] Reinhart Koselleck, ‘Social History and Conceptual History’, in Margrit Pernau and Dominic Sachsenmaier (eds), Global Conceptual History: A Reader, (London, 2016), pp.55-74.

[3] Nicki Kindersley, ‘Southern Sudanese Narratives of Displacement, and the Ambiguity of “Voice”‘, History in Africa, 42, (2015), p.203.

[4] Heather L. Johnson, ‘Click to Donate: Visual Images, Constructing Victims and Imagining the Female Refugee’, Third World Quarterly, 32:6, (2011), p.1029.

[5] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Rosalind Morris (ed.), Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea, (New York, 2010), p.252.

Project Proposal: Narratives of Journey
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