Lydon, Jane: Worth a thousand words – how photos shape attitudes to refugees

Lydon, Jane

Friday essay: worth a thousand words – how photos shape attitudes to refugees‘, The Conversation, 29 July 2016

Looks at the politicisation of migration over the last two decades and how ‘[p]hotography has mapped a distinctively Australian version of this global story’. The author uses a 1966 photograph to show how we let ourselves in those days ’empathise with the fear, anxiety and hope felt by newcomers, poised between old and new, tradition and change’.

By contrast, today the Australian government seeks to suppress photographs of asylum seekers, seemingly from fear that such images will prompt empathy with them and undermine border security policy. As asylum seekers have come to be widely viewed as a security threat, refugee policy has been militarised, displacing attention from the situation of those attempting to reach Australia to their supposed menace to our way of life.

The article deftly juxtaposes photographs with political reactions to show ‘the intense politicisation of media representations of these events’. The author refers to ‘the Australian government’s profound fear of the power of photographs to provide a counter-narrative to its own policies, and specifically, to create empathy between Australian public audiences and asylum seekers’.

Finally, the author contrasts the reaction to the pictures from the Northern Territory.

I suspect that most Australians would feel just as sad, angry, or ashamed if they witnessed conditions within offshore detention centres: yet so far most Australians have not been prepared to insist on seeing into these places, nor to demand that we soften our policy of mandatory offshore detention.

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