Flipping Anonymity – unique approaches to photographing migrants

Visual storytelling has reached new heights in the 21st century. With major technological advances within the journalism and filmmaking world, digital media has become so advanced that it can now place a viewer in the United States in the shoes of a young Syrian girl in a refugee camp in Jordan. Last week on this blog, we explored winners of this year’s World Press Photo digital storytelling competition and how their innovative forms of filmmaking help inspire lasting humanitarian action.

While such storytelling is powerful and immersive, there is also something to be said for more withdrawn approaches to capturing social crises, like aerial photography, which allows for an expanded perspective.

In the fall of 2015, photographer Roco Rorandelli packed up his gear and headed to Southeast Europe in hopes of documenting the migration route from above. He ended up with a series of photographs that tell a different story of the refugee crises than shown in traditional media. Rorandelli explained that he hoped to portray the situation as less of a humanitarian crises and as more of a natural phenomenon (migration being something humans have done for over 100,000 years) in hopes that his work might make the subject more accessible.

Image from “Trans Europe Migration”

“At a time when the public debate had started dissecting the current migration by identifying “classes” of migrants, from refugees to asylum seekers to economic migrants, aerial views provided a more naturalistic point of view, void of ethnical or religious discriminants. Those framed under the lens were in fact just humans driven by their natural socio-security instinct – searching for a better life, regardless of their origin and destination.”

A more offbeat but similarly effective photography project is a recent series of panoramic images taken by Irish photographer Richard Mosse. Following the same migrant route as Rorandelli, Mosse documented the refugee experience with help from a military grade infrared camera. The resulting black and white images lack the intimate and emotional aspect that is so commonly seen in refugee-focused projects. But by stripping away the human dimension — much like Rorandelli — Mosse encourages a conversation on the divisions drawn between refugees and migrants and the local populations surrounding them. Mosse’s camera, which captures delineation in heat rather than in light, erases any recognizable distinction of his subjects, challenging the viewer to redraw the lines.

“Moria in Snow” 2016

Both of these photographers effectively flipped the concept of anonymity to create works which offer an emotionally detached viewpoint in a field that increasingly emphasizes more intimate perspectives. Their works are both imaginative and thought-provoking in ways that encourage dialogue on the way we stigmatize refugees.  

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