March 31, 2016

Wire Services, Instagram and Migrant Despair: Woohoo!

AP migrants Instagram.jpeg

News photos can offer different angles on a story. Still though, they should deepen our understanding of events and situations, not contradict them.

That’s what’s so concerning about the photos of the migrant crisis posted by Reuters and AP this week on Instagram. If the photos were part of a larger focus on the story, that would be one thing. What with the U.S. presidential campaign, the Brussels attack and college basketball’s March Madness dominating domestic attention, however, it’s possible these were the only photos from Idomeni, Greece many followers might have seen.

Reuters Instagram

Above you can see the photos in the Reuters feed over the past few days. The Reuters feed has 688K followers and AP has over 60K. Another factor to consider in terms of context is that these services only publish a few photos a day on Instagram.

Reuters migrant Instagram.jpeg

From this Reuters photo, and even more so, the caption accompanying it, one would imagine that things were pretty stable in Idomeni, enough so the refugees could afford a good time. The caption reads:

Migrants and refugees sing and dance during a party at a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece, March 27, 2016. 

As of this writing, by the way, this photo had garnered 3,845 likes.

Reuters migrants Instagram 2.jpeg

This photo was published on the Reuters feed two days later. It currently has over 3,400 likes. Not much more helpful, the caption reads:

 Children play at a makeshift camp for migrants and refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece, March 29, 2016. #Idomeni #Greece #ReutersPhotos #ReutersMigration #picoftheday

As for AP, the photo of the child flying through the air at the top of this post was published on their account. You can also see it in this screen grab of their feed:

AP Instagram

Their caption, at least, informs us the prospects of the refugees are hardly soaring. It reads:

A person is thrown and caught as migrants gather and have a party in the northern Greek border station of Idomeni, Greece. More than 11,500 migrants and refugees are still at the makeshift camp, even though Macedonia has shut its border to them, as have other Balkan countries along what used to be the refugees main route to central Europe. The Greek government wants to empty the Idomeni encampment by next month, but has ruled out using coercive measures.

If the AP caption is more conscientious, though, the larger question is how to account for the frothy tone?  Perhaps the scene was that irresistible. Frankly though, don’t the newswires have a responsibility to represent the larger story — not to mention, the drastic shift that has taken place in the migrant situation over the past several weeks? It’s hard to see what’s buoyant or uplifting (for the Syrians, Iraqis and Afghani refugees, in particular) about the Balkan countries shutting down their borders, cutting off the route to Europe and stranding thousands of people in the most squalid of conditions.

How far off are these pictures in terms of the visual politics? The scene in Idomeni is so dismal that a spokesperson for the German immigration organisation, Pro Asyl, noted how European hardliners are welcoming the photographs of squalor hoping they might dissuade more refugees from coming. The situation at Idomeni is so dire, the Greek Interior Minister compared it to Dachau.

To be completely fair, photos on Instagram — and this tends to include the photos posted by news organizations — strongly skew to the lighter and prettier, the more colorful and entertaining. Back in the day, the editorial category used to be called “human interest.” At the same time, though, one could make the argument that “cheery migrant” photos on the Instagram platform, providing such an idyllic picture in such an exclusive grouping, are so grossly misrepresentative that it’s better not to go there at all.

For balance, because the migrant crisis has grown old and mostly buried by the domestic press, I could give you links to a photo story or two of the Idomeni purgatory. Or, I could offer you photos of the migrants doing a different group activity. The last link, from VICE, for example, has one photo where the caption reads:

Young men try to pull down a tree with a rope in Idomeni. Shortages of firewood have led many migrants to burn plastics and clothes creating a toxic smog over the camp at night.

Because this post, though, has to do with singular images, I’ll leave you with this counterpoint.

Refugees in camp at border of Greece and Macedonia near town of Idomeni. The refugees are being stopped from moving beyond Greece and have been languishing in the rain and the mud and the cold with insufficient food and medical care while sleeping in small tents. by James Nachtwey

As part of a slideshow at TIME, this is one of James Nachtwey’s photos taken from the Idomeni camp on March 13th. Hopefully more informative, I’m sorry to say it’s probably a lot less likable.

(photo 1: DarkoVojinovic/AP. photos 2 and 3: Marko Djurica/Reuters. photo 4: James Nachtwey for TIME. caption: Refugees seek warmth in a camp at the border of Greece and Macedonia near the town of Idomeni. The path that more than a million asylum seekers had used to reach Germany last year, going from Turkey to Greece and up through the Balkans is no longer possible because of border closures, leaving thousands stranded in Greece, March 13, 2016.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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