Symbols Symbols

Decoding a front page

In March 2016, the international edition of the emblematic newspaper The New York Times (for many synonymous with validity, for others, with dominant rhetoric) presented the refugee issue on its front page. In those days, as in the rather long period that preceded and followed, the refugee issue, Lesvos, and Greece, were in the epicentre of international news: radio and television journalists commented daily on the facts, and we constantly encountered boats full of people wearing orange life jackets crossing the sea between Turkey and Greece. At times, the images presented solidarians, rescuers, coast guards, migrants waiting in groups, and–more rarely–images of the reception units and the inhumane hotspots. Instead of the aforementioned, for the front page of the Times a photograph was chosen depicting temporary shelter in apartments in Athens.

In essence, the  attempts of the relevant authorities to cooperate in the (temporary and, indeed, partial) settlement of the tragedy were highlighted. Indeed, the photograph carries symbolisms, which create associations of wellbeing and social integration, since the central subject of the photograph is holding a mobile phone of the latest technology, resides in an apartment in a densely occupied neighbourhood, and finds himself, in the final analysis, inside the social body. Although this constituted a reality, it merely formed part of the whole situation and of the actual facts. Yet, in the way that it was represented on the front page (and elsewhere within the newspaper), it emerges as dominant–and given the absence of any other representation, as exhaustive.

The photograph’s caption (even though it indicates the location as Athens) inscribes in bold letters the title “Anywhere in Europe.” Yet, it must be noted that even though the photograph is central on the front page, except for its small caption, is not accompanied by any other text: this follows on page 3. However, what is interesting on a second reading is the total composition of the front page (on which the photograph constitutes a dominant element), and the way in which the themes are linked to produce a broader narrative, and speak to each other. First of all, the brief caption of the photograph speaks of migrants (that is, not Greeks) who in Greece “struggle in a dangerous speed race” to be integrated in the EU’s relocation program, and through that program to find themselves in other countries. Yet, the photograph lacks a central title, and so the title of the right-hand column is in an unofficial dialogue with the photograph: “Studies fail to indicate who turns to terrorism.” Therefore it implies, if not suggesting the possibility that the Syrian man in the photograph will become–if he is not already–a terrorist. The title of the column directly to the left of the photograph primes the “conversation” with another symbolic “subtext” of the period, the Islamic State.  The article refered to the capture of Palmyra, an historically and culturally symbolic place, which was under threat of destruction.  Two weeks before the publication of the newspaper, the tragic terrorist attack in Brussels had taken place. Directly below the central photograph of the “refugee issue,” and almost as if it was referring to the photograph,  another incident in Brussels is commented upon,  then suspected to be linked to terrorism, which, in the end, fortunately was not related to such an act. In any case, the article on page 3 describes the agonizing journey of the four residents of the apartment: from Aleppo to Idomeni, from the asylum application to the UNHCR-funded stay in Athens while waiting to be relocated in another country. Indeed, it adds their own words and their own fears of their uncertain future, “especially after Brussels.” 

Despite this, the front page itself does not at all reference the photograph and the vital issues that thousands of the fellow travellers of the person depicted face. Rather, through keywords and the use of symbols, associations of multiple threats and diffuse fear are created. At the same time, the news of the days and the actual living conditions–that is, in other words, what in other articles was characterised as a “humanitarian disaster.”  What is also concealed are the respective genders and ages of other migrants who suffered the consequences of war and flight, as well as the vengeful infrastructures and the torturous life in hotspots.

Orestis Pangalos
December 2019