Crisis as appearance

Some journalist are claiming that the 2015 European refugee crisis is one of the most photographed crisis in human history. Yet, it is important to understand what kind of messages these representations convey and how they reproduce the hegemonic narrative of this crisis. When one attempts a google search using the term ‘refugee crisis’ the first image that comes up is this one from Massimo Setsini. An image shot from above picturing a boat packed with human bodies in the midst of the sea. One of the main hegemonic claims of the 2015 refugee crisis is that it began with the appearance of certain bodies on the shores of Europe. This is a very problematic notion, not only because it basically equates the presence of these bodies as the starting point of the crisis and, therefore, directly implying that these human bodies are the ‘problem’. But mainly because it forecloses, and thus keeps hidden and invisible the reasons of this appearance: war, genocide, and unbearable oppression these bodies experience in their countries of origin. Conditions that, for example, could be related to the US, the UK, and France invading and bombing Syria. In other words, the starting point of the 2015 European refugee crisis should be traced and portrayed differently, exposing the reasons of the appearance of certain bodies of the shores of Lesvos. But, this would be a story not so genteel for the European values that are supposedly threatened so much by the presence of these bodies. A story that would have to narrate Europe’s colonial histories, a story that would not easily result in the construction of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. The appearance of whose body and where can be seen as the beginning of a crisis? Which crises are declared and why and which remain undeclared, invisible, hidden and thus not recognised as humanitarian disasters that lead to international protection? The disappearance of whose bodies constitutes a crisis? 

Looking at Setsini’s image I cannot stop thinking that the viewer is looking down to a boat packed with people, the gaze comes from above. This is the state’s gaze, using drones and other technologies of surveillance to generate visual testimonies of the others, always the others. This is a gaze that places the viewer outside of this boat, what would be like to have an image shot from inside this boat, at this same moment as a visual example of Europe’s refugee crisis? 

I can’t help but remembering Susan Sontag’s claim that the function of the camera is similar to that of a gun, we ‘aim’ and we ‘shoot’ an image. ‘Just as the camera is a sublimination of a gun, to photograph someone is a subliminated murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time’ (1979: 15).

Myrto Tsilimpounidi
December 2019


An image shot from above picturing a boat packed with human bodies in the midst of the sea.
Photo by Massimo Setsini, 2014