October 2016

Engaging Refugee Narratives: Perspectives from Academia and the Arts

June 20 and 21, 2016 


Workshops, seminars and performances

Open to the public


October 2016

Images of Exception/Exceptional Images

Graduate Institute, Geneva

On 21-22 October 2016 the Graduate Institute in Geneva (GI) brought together scholars, students and practitioners from around the world for a series of presentations, workshops and discussions around the role of images and visual media in the context of current and ongoing refugee issues.  Under the title ’Images of Exception/Exceptional Images,’ the participants sought to analytically, methodologically and ethically engage a body of images that might be deemed ‘exceptional’ – both in terms of the conditions of those depicted, who are often in but not of a place; and more activist efforts to ‘look past’ more conventional visual renderings of such populations.

The first day of the workshop saw presentations from scholars with a variety of disciplinary and geographical specialisms, united by a shared interest in the ways images have on the one hand been complicit in the subjugation of ‘exceptional’ populations while also, when put to work differently, providing an effective counter narrative. Day two invited presentations and reflections from practitioners which ranged from conceptual artistic approaches to those more explicitly grounded in the documentary tradition and photographic realism.

Programme & Recordings

Professor Patricia Spyer, Graduate Institute

In her introduction, Professor Patricia Spyer of the GI – who co-organised the event with Dr. Ruth Mandel from UCL – noted that a growing number of unmoored images correspond to a growing number of disenfranchised, invisible or even disappearing people, and posed the question: under these circumstances, what is the image of a refugee, an asylum seeker, a migrant, or a person in flight? Spyer went on to note that often the ways in which such people are imaged works to enhance rather than alleviate the conditions of exceptionality to which they are subjected, but that images may also visualise desired change, making it possible for the view to be ‘provoked to see something – or someone – differently’.


The Horrific Story of a Dead Syrian Child, September 2015: A Historian's Perspective
Professor Davide Rodogno, Graduate Institute

Situating the saddening Alan Kurdi photographs –which momentarily gripped the global public imagination in September 2015 – in a broader historical context, Davide Rodogno asked: what, if anything, was new about this event? While many invoked the myth of the ’golden rule of not showing dead children’ to suggest that the widespread publication of the photographs marked the transgression of an ethical boundary, Rodogno finds many historical parallels.  


The Decisive Burqa
Professor Rachel Lehr

Shifting geographical focus, Rachel Lehr discussed the well-known ‘burqa photograph,’ which became omnipresent at the onset of the most recent war in Afghanistan to elaborate a variety of subjective views about the traditional role of women in Islamic societies, in a different context: her own experience working with the NGO Rubia. Set up to produce and market hand-embroidered fabrics made by Afghan women, Rubia needed to visually represent those making the product without unwittingly creating problems for the local Afghans through the public visual representation of women. Lehr explored the manifold ways in which the image tested the geographies of purdah for the Afghan community while challenging the expectations of the market with which it was hoping to engage. 


Dr Ruth Mandel

Ruth Mandel’s talk raised questions about the theme of exceptionalism and different sorts of images of refugees.  She analysed a number of different self-conscious artivists whose work directlyand literally engages the politics of the current refugee ‘crisis,’ but also compared these to other works of art that employ different sorts of aesthetics.  Mandel’s presentation problematized the ethics of aesthetic decisions, addressing issues of abjection, risk and resilience, and demonstrating ways that exceptional images can be harnessed in processes of social change.


'Doing Mundane Things': Banal Aesthetics and the Art of Being/Showing the Ordinary
Dr. Shireen Walton

Switching from the consideration of a single iconic image to the work of a broader corpus of imagery, Shireen Walton presented her work on the efforts of Iranian photobloggers — both in Iran itself and in the diaspora — to produce ’remedies and cures’ to some of the stereotypical visual representations of Iran. Against the backdrop of what one of Walton’s informants described as ‘a lazy western media portraying all Iranians with the same brush and creating a false illusion of Iran as an enemy state,’ they employ ‘banal aesthetics’ – ‘christmas, food, women smoking in public, couples sitting on a bench kissing’ — on blogging platforms and popular social media accounts like @everydayiran in an attempt ’to invite the world into Iran to see it for what it really is.’ As Walton explained, by ’playing with aesthetics, but also epistemologies and ways of seeing,’ theirs is an attempt to ’communicate the real as a soft political statement.’


Tora Bora Palestinians in Gaza: Tunnels and Cinema
Riccado Bocco and Milena Pellegrini

Exploring the representation of tunnels into Gaza in Palestinian cinema, Ricardo Bocco and Milena Pellegrini presented and analysed a selection of ‘visual testimonies,’ asking the questions: who is filming and what, in a symbolic sense, can be seen? Conceptualising filming as an act of resistance — in the sense that it collects images and voices that would otherwise remain invisible, and thus silenced — they contend that such documentaries are an attempt to show the extent to which the tunnels are woven into daily life in the Gaza Strip, in contrast to mainstream media narratives which typically emphasise their use for the smuggling of weapons.


Artist Presentation
Merel van der Velde

Presenting and reflecting upon a selection of her own work, Merel van der Velde explored the refugee experience – both transitory and in the Netherlands – and its representation as a microcosm for exploring the relationship between art and society, and her own position as an artist seeking honest engagement with contemporary social issues. 


Artist Talk
Oren Ziv, Photographer and Co-Founder of ActiveStills

Photographer Oren Ziv presented a selection of work from the archive of the Activestills collective, which he co-founded, and which has extensively documented political and social issues in Palestine/Israel over the past ten years. In particular, Activestills engages in work concerning Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, as well as with displaced Bedouin in Israel.  Conceptualising the collective’s photographic work as a form of protest, Ziv detailed their efforts not only to produce work but also to make it available in different mediums and contexts, including the display of work in the street — pasted onto walls and hoardings — where members of the public may then choose to add to, or in some cases deface, the work. Ziv also spoke about their decision to create an ‘open archive’ — one that is freely downloadable by members of the public — as an attempt to improve the visibility of the communities with whom they work and wish to support. This has seen the use and adaptation of their images not only by people in other parts of the world, but also by the subjects themselves.


Photography in Movement: Exercises in 'Looking Past' in the Balkan Corridor
Marie de Lutz

Anthropologist and photographer Marie de Lutz spoke about her time photographing and filming the passage of refugees passing along the ‘Balkan Corridor’ between September and December 2015, and her own evolving response to this. Out of respect for the desire expressed by many refugees to not be filmed or photographed, de Lutz switched her focus to non-refugee groups that are nevertheless an integral part of this story — volunteers, NGO workers, border guards and police — in an effort to overcome the ‘ethical bind of representing persons preoccupied by a concern for reaching safety,’ and questioning the purpose of photographing under such conditions.


Photography, Ethics and Statelessness in Calais: Notes from the Field
Rob Pinney, Documentary Photographer

Documentary photographer Rob Pinney presented two series of work — one a personal project, the other a commission, but both produced in the recently demolished Calais ‘Jungle’ camp in northern France — in order to illuminate some of the ethical tensions that emerge when seeking to humanise a story as a corrective to certain mainstream narratives while respecting the commonly-held desire for visual anonymity expressed by many of the camp’s residents. Among the questions raised, Pinney argued that while ethical boundaries are, in an abstract sense, somewhat rigid, their practical application often feels deeply situational. He also spoke of the importance of informed consent, but suggested that power relations between photographer and subject complicate the validity of this, an issue only worsened when working with those who have been rendered stateless, and thus without the legal rights and protections enjoyed by citizens.

Professor Bruce White, of Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan,  and founder of OICD (Organisation for Identity and Cultural Development) served as a discussant; in the final session he identified common themes and questions that arose from the two days of presentations. 

A further discussion focussed on the future projects and aims of a consortium, EMAST ((Education, Media and Arts for Social Transformation), whose members are the GI; OICD; UCL; and the Armenian Institute in London; and ArtEZ University of the Arts, Arnhem, NL.

The workshop was made possible by the generous support of the University College London Global Exchange Leadership Fund.