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Looking Back: Temporal and Spatial Connections of Post-War Migration and Displacement Through the Eyes of the Toronto Telegram

Image Representation of Refugees: An Analysis of Terence Wright's Article, "Moving Images: The Media Representation of Refugees"

The selection of material for this digital archive, much like any archive, is subjective to what the presenter would like to show. The collection in which I was given to select photographs was already heavily influenced and biased by those working at the Toronto Telegram. In 2002, Terence Wright wrote the article, “Moving Images: The Media Representation of Refugees,” which discussed the stereotype and iconography of ‘the refugee’ through image representation and its perpetuation in the media (i.e., photographs, news reports, and to an extent, documentary films). Wright contends that refugee images are embedded in Christian iconography (p. 54); meant to elicit an emotional and moral response from the public. Images of ‘the refugee’ hold a social purpose and “act as a way of coping with a social ‘problem’” (p. 56). Wright asserts that the roots in Christian iconography establish the “iconography of predicament” (p. 64), and outlines four distinct categories of typical refugee photographs rooted in Christian iconography (p. 57):
  1. “The Fall of the Man” – based on the story of Adam and Eve, the refugee is seen as degraded, isolated, the picture of poverty, and expelled from their homeland.
  2. “Flight into Egypt” – the story of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay, the refugee is “displaced but necessarily destitute”, has possessions and a means of transportation.
  3. “Exodus” – Exodus is typically referred to the story of Moses traveling across the Red Sea with the Israelites to be free from Egyptian-forced slavery, the refugees are part of a mass expulsion of people, and it is inferred through the image that this group is being pursued.
  4. “Madonna and Child” – the picture of Mary and Baby Jesus, which has also “attained a broad secular appeal” (p. 59), this image is a woman photographed with children, and can be combined with any of the above categories. 
Perhaps it was the time this article was published, where the images of refugees that saturated the media were of starving African villages, the Rwandan Genocide, the Yugoslav Wars, and the Chechen Wars, because only a few of the images from this digital collection reflect any of the criteria Wright puts forward. “Flight of Man” is a category that can somewhat characterize photographs in this collection, however, this category does not describe the plight of the refugee, but the modern-day (im)migrants looking to improve their living conditions. The Exodus is the only category I can accurately place a few of these photos, however, the Exodus category is hardly acknowledged, and Wright does not offer further elaboration, which is the category that compares most to the 2015 Syrian Refugee Crisis. And, any similarities I could find to "Madonna and Child" do not look as though they portray the stereotypical refugee or individuals that have had their lives uprooted. 

Although an interesting read that holds valid criticisms of Western media in its attempt to dilute reality into a specific depiction of suffering, Wright’s argument of refugee images and media portrayal as represented through Christian iconography is narrow and temporally inapplicable. Images of children smiling upon their arrivals and departures in Toronto does not indicate the same, if any, form of suffering expected to be seen from the typical refugee.  Furthermore, the categories in which he typecasts refugee images are not strictly limited to Christian iconography, but in studying global religions, it can be seen that poverty and expulsion lie within, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.

Wright, Terence. "Moving Images: The Media Representation of Refugees." Visual Studies 17, no. 1 (2002): 53-66.

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