September 9, 2015

Migrant Optics: Taking it to Hungary

As noted before, editorial photography invariably simplifies complex situations, not only reducing stories into binaries but often handicapping them, also — into winners and losers, heroes and villains, who’s up and who’s down, what’s hot and what’s not.

As I wrote yesterday about that “Sound of Music” photo from MSNBC’s “picture of the week” gallery, visual media’s identification with the migrants flooding Europe is empathetically sky high right now. That being the case, you have to expect all kinds of frames articulating their bravery or fortitude at the visible expense of someone. And in light of Hungary’s attempts to obstruct and repel the migrants before Austria and Germany stepped up, well, there’s this stool just waiting for the villain over here in the corner.

Take this photo taken and distributed yesterday, for example. The NYT featured it in their “pictures of the day,” and TIME touted it also. The caption reads:

A Syrian migrant from Damascus, hiding from Hungarian police, sneaked through a forest near the Serbian border. Thousands of migrants have continued to cross into Hungary from Serbia.

For its story value, the photo might as well be a movie treatment — the migrant cast as its dramatic hero. Can he survive on his wits? Can he come through? The sight of his organized pack, and the fact there is no one out there we can see suggests that the well-prepared migrant is up for the cat-and-mouse game. He might be an “outlier,” but up against the unfeeling Hungarians, he’s the one who shows up, the one who sees clear, the one who blends in and aligns with the land. And, as we look over the migrant’s shoulder, we’re clearly “behind” him or “on his side.”

The atmosphere could change at any time. But for now, he’s the ticket, the natural wonder.

(photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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