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On Political and Visual Refusals

Kyveli Lignou-Tsamantani


 [R]efusal can be part of inclusions and exclusions, 

or self/other distinctions, 

and of the categorical and material denials

 generated in the wake of such divisions.


Carole McGranahan, 2016[1]



A photograph is supposed not to evoke but to show.

That is why photographs, 

unlike handmade images, can count as evidence. 

But evidence of what?


Susan Sontag, 2003[2]



Photojournalism has always provided visual evidence for the ‘news’; evidence for something that happens elsewhere, out of one’s immediate sight. Photojournalism continues to be the most prominent source of images of the refugee and migrant crisis of the 21stcentury in the Mediterranean Sea.[3] Images of floating boats; rescued boats; people walking with the hope of finding a European refuge; people in reception centres or refugee camps; drowned people. What all these images highlight is that the refugee and migrant crisis is not a single event, but many different journeys which started with ‘[p]ersecution, conflict and poverty’.[4]


June 2018. The international media are flooded with the news about ‘Aquarius’, a rescue ship full of migrants that has been refused a port by Italy and Malta.[5] The refugee and migrant crisis is again on the news. In reality, the crisis has never stopped. As the journalist, Daniel Trilling writes, ‘The cameras have gone – but the suffering endures’.[6] Yet, neither did it start in 2015, the year when the numbers of people that reached or attempted to reach European land rose; rather, as Lorenzo Pezzani notes, ‘between 1988 and November 2012the press and NGOs reported more than 14,000 deaths at the maritime frontier of the EU’.[7]


The increased numbers of arrivals in 2015 and deaths at sea in 2016 highlight what in the context of this exhibition is called a ‘political refusal’.[8] The verb to ‘refuse’ means to ‘[i]ndicate or show that one is not willing to do something’.[9] Hence, a ‘political refusal’ inscribes in it the inability or unwillingness of the political world to react promptly to a contemporary humanitarian crisis and provide refuge to people in need. The exhibition’s title - Refuse/Refuge with a slash - is trying intentionally to create ambivalence and make one pause to think: is the word ‘refuse’ a verb or a noun? Its primary reading in this context is as a verb; however reading it as a noun could symbolically highlight the non-registration of all human lives as equally ‘grievable’, to use Judith Butler’s concept.[10] Or as Benjamin Zephaniah poetically writes in his verse, ‘I am told that modern history books / May forget my name.’[11]


Despite this ambivalence, the main aim of this exhibition is to provide an alternative to the prevalent visual narrative. To my mind, the European refugee and migrant crisis can be visualised within two contradictory ‘frames’.[12] One is political: the meetings of European politicians; the other is the different representations of human suffering.[13] Yet, the instant that these two ‘frames’ are set in parallel, the difficulty in representing something so abstract as a ‘political refusal’ becomes obvious. How can one depict the inability (and possibly the unwillingness) of a political system to take ethical responsibility towards an/other’s life? At this point, the works in this exhibition should be examined through the concept of the ‘visual refusal’ in order to highlight the potential limitation of a photojournalistic lens. Nevertheless, the importance of the existence of photojournalism is unquestionable in this context, as it is the main means that provides even a ‘constructed’ understanding of events that happen at a distance.[14] At the same time, refugees gradually started to use photography in order to make their own reality visible.[15] If, when, where, and why they will be photographed in many cases starts being a process of an ‘emergency claim’, in Ariella Azoulay’s terms.[16]


On September 2nd 2015, the most iconic image of the crisis highlighted this ‘emergency’ status. On that day, Nilufer Demir photographed in Bodrum, Turkey, the dead body of the three years old Alan Shenu, or Aylan Kurdi as he became known.[17] Aylan’s iconic image captured a situation that would have otherwise remained invisible.[18] As Homi Bhabha puts it, this ‘single shot (…) abruptly brought the plight of the long living hell of millions of refugees to the world’s moral attention and captured the global imagination’.[19] At the same time, hundreds of other refugees remained anonymous, unidentified and unregistered even in their deaths.[20] That is the main reason why still today the data regarding the dead and missing people in the ‘Mediterranean Situation’ - as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees terms this crisis – are only a rough estimation.[21] The unwillingness to accurately count these ‘border deaths’ can, and probably should, be seen as another declaration of what I have been calling a ‘political refusal’.[22]


Yet, even if every death had been captured by a camera lens, one’s ethical stance towards this crisis may not have been affected. That could be explained with reference to the debate surrounding ‘compassion fatigue’, which can be understood as a kind of ‘apathy’ when seeing the suffering of others.[23] By employing ‘visual refusals’, one can actively contemplate one’s ethical responsibility towards the photographs of suffering that are reproduced on a daily basis in both official and social media, and consequently towards the people in need of refuge. 


Refuse/Refuge asks you to reconsider the political failures that partook in the European refugee and migrant crisis, not by seeing another reproduction of the photograph of Aylan, nor any other documentary style imagery. In this context, the concept of the ‘refusal’ takes an intentional and more positive connotation. What does it mean to refuse to show something in an exhibition, not for purposes of censorship, but in order to think about what you have been accustomed to looking at? In an anthropological analysis of ‘refusal’, Carole McGranahan suggests that a ‘[r]efusal is insistence on the possible over the probable’.[24] By refusing to represent a violent act in a constructed space of spectatorship- namely that of the gallery - that points one understanding towards specific questions, the possibilities that open are enormous, while the probability of ‘compassion fatigue’ is diminished. 


The questions in Refuse/Refuge are posed by the artworks, their materialities and words. The artworks in this exhibition, through different artistic mediums, can be seen as comments on both types of ‘refusals’: the ‘political’ and the ‘visual’. The combination of these two lies at the core of Ina Lounguine’sartwork – ‘Staring Quietly at the Backwash’ (2016) - where, as already noted, the ‘crisis’ is visualized by a paradoxical pair of ‘frames’: one an image of politicians having meetings and another an image of the sea, the cause of human suffering and death for many. The contradiction of these two frames is highlighted by this work. In this case, the artist refuses to show the viewer another photojournalistic image of the arrival of refugees on a European coast. This piece – which is comprised of appropriated visual and aural material – is described by the artist as ‘a forced encounter between imagination and reality’.[25] A ‘forced encounter’ that depends on one’s willingness to choose to wear the headphones to listen to the disturbing sounds of a humanitarian disaster. Sounds that clash with the peacefulness of the sea and the warm handshakes, in a way that makes one wonder about the limitations of what is seen and heard in a situation underlined by multiple failures. 


‘Failure Requires Faith in Humanity’ writes Maria Tzanakou, in her rather perplexing visual statement. How can we approach the relationship between ‘failure’ and ‘faith’? In order to fail, one needs to have had faith first.[26] This contemporary humanitarian crisis highlights a great political failure towards humans, their humanism and humanity as a whole. Not only do the causes of these human movements remain unresolved, but their lives are still unprotected. A great percentage of European citizens felt that they failed, or that their politicians failed in their expectations to prove the ‘values’ of the European Union.[27] However, at the same time, the solidarity networks and NGOs that have been aiding refugees indicates a deep faith in humanity. 



The same contemplation returns in ‘Corrections’ (2017-2018), where with a poetic tone, Tzanakou underlines the failure of contemporary politics to save people’s lives and provide refuge. These three pieces have a significant materiality – seaweed – and through their aesthetic approach, guide our understanding on many different levels. Hundreds of dead people have been left unregistered. Many are still missing. ‘We swam the same seas, even if we never met’, writes Tzanakou on one of the seaweeds. A phrase that could initially be seen as a romantic outcry, uncovers a gruesome reality. Through the use of this material, Tzanakou makes conceptually visible the invisible – the unregistered deaths of thousands of people in the Mediterranean sea. The title of the series has a literal aspect. Tzanakou uses correction fluid to inscribe on it a new message. How would our world be if we could correct ‘political refusals’ that cost the lives of so many people? 



An equally poetic take of the crisis is made by Janne Malmrosin her work ‘Shifts and Contrivances’ (2017), where the shape of a simple boat is taken from a diagram in a Victorian travel book by Francis Galton. This diagram provided a simple design for a boat that someone could make with wood in order to escape by crossing a river. The vast majority of refugees would use something similarly basic to escape. Most of the boats are rubber, and in many cases, they were left to float for many days as the piece by Forensic Oceanography shockingly highlights. Malmros does not show the disastrous outcome that could be created from such a simple boat, creating thus another type of ‘visual refusal’.  But at the same time, what her piece can make us consider is how strongly linked the refugee crisis is with the figure of a boat and a first-aid blanket. The cruelty of this visual link is unpacked on reflection: so many people are seeking refuge by using the most basic means of transportation through a highly problematic system of trafficking – and that has become just a fact. 


The idea of the means one can access to flee a place is also central in Majid Adin’s piece, which comments on the nature of contemporary political and legal systems. One is a citizen. Today not all citizenships have the same power. What would it mean if the power of different passports was equated? Hundreds of refugees and migrants would not have been drowned; they would have had the opportunity to safely leave places of war, poverty, and suffering. Although there are hundreds of counterarguments to such a proposition, passports are precious objects, whose power we do not understand as long as we have the right one. Powerful because they give us access. Powerful because they allow us to be citizens, while the majority of refugees seeking asylum remain in a limbo of ‘non-citizenship’. By enlarging the size, Adin draws attention to the visual nature of a passport – how many times have you looked at your passport with gratitude? In ‘The Power of Passports’, Adin creates an exercise for contemporary empathy, and asks the question: how would your life be if you didn’t have the right passport? 


A gruesome answer to this hypothetical question can be traced in the video report ‘Liquid Traces: The Left-to-Die Boat Case’ (2014), by Forensic Oceanography. The video uses ‘animation’ to follow an incident that took place during the NATO military intervention in Libya in 2011 and lead to the ‘slow death’ of 63 people.[28] As Lorenzo Pezzani – a researcher at Forensic Oceanography, and one of the directors of the video – explains, ‘we have sought to develop methodologies to document violence at and through the sea by reappropriating the multiple surveillance means that have been deployed to detect acts of illegalized border crossing’.[29] Forensic Oceanography underlines the violations of human rights that this system perpetrates. In this way, a new kind of visibility is produced; a visibility that stresses the importance of a scientific approach of forensic analysis to a situation that is otherwise saturated with images that seek to emotionally move their viewers. 


Refuse/Refugehighlights that through artistic interventions, which use and produce different types of ‘visual refusals’, we can – and should – rethink our ethical responsibility toward what becomes visible through photography, what remains invisible, and what will potentially always remain unrepresentable; namely the ‘political refusals’ that contributed to this complicated humanitarian crisis. And maybe then we will remember that we should not stop calling: ‘Don’t Refuse Refuge’. 





[1]Carole McGranahan, ‘Theorizing Refusal: An Introduction’, Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 3 (2016): 320, accessed 3 June 2018, https://doi.org/10.14506/ca31.3.01.

[2]Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Penguin, 2004), 42.

[3]In the context of both the exhibition and this text, the term ‘crisis’ is used for purposes of common understanding. The term ‘crisis’ as well as the common interchangeable use of the words ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ in the media, are an issue that needs to be further critically discussed.

[4]Description for ‘Mediterranean Situation’, on ‘Operation Portal: Refugee Situations’, UNHCR, accessed 25 June 2018, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations. An interesting account of the different reasons why people embark on such journeys can be found on the documentary  Human Flow directed by Ai Weiwei (2017), see, Human Flow (website), accessed 25 May 2018, https://www.humanflow.film.

[5]‘Italy's Matteo Salvini shuts ports to migrant rescue ship’, BBC,11 June 2018, accessed 20 June 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-44432056?intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/cnx753je2q4t/europe-migrant-crisis&link_location=live-reporting-story.

[6]  Daniel Trilling, ‘Five myths about the refugee crisis’, The Guardian, 5 June 2018, accessed 20 June 2018,https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jun/05/five-myths-about-the-refugee-crisis

[7]Lorenzo Pezzani, ‘LIQUID TRACES: Spatial practices, aesthetics and humanitarian dilemmas at the maritime borders of the EU’ (PhD diss., Goldsmiths University of London, 2015), 89, accessed 15 June 2018, https://research.gold.ac.uk/12573/1/Redacted_ARC_thesis_PezzaniL_2015.pdf. For an account of the history of migration, displacement and refugee movements, see, Caroline Moorhead, Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees (London: Vintage, 2016), xiii-xviii and 21-40. 

[8]For the data see, ‘Operation Portal: Refugee Situations’, UNHCR, accessed 20 June 2018, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean.

[9]Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. ‘refuse’, accessed 5 June 2018, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/refuse.

[10]Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2010). 

[11]Benjamin Zephaniah, ‘We Refugees’, accessed 25 June 2018, https://benjaminzephaniah.com/rhymin/we-refugees/

[12]Here I follow Butler’s notion of the ‘frame’. For more, see Butler,Frames of War

[13]My thinking here is influenced by Ina Lounguine’s artwork  - displayed in this exhibition – which juxtaposes these two ‘frames’ visually (see further discussion below).

[14]‘Awareness of the suffering that accumulates in a select number of wars happening elsewhere is something constructed’, wrote Susan Sontag in her book Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Penguin, 2004), 17. 

[15]For an indicative example see, refugee.tv, accessed 20 June 2018, https://www.refugee.tv/about/.

[16]Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, trans. Rela Mazali and Ruvik Danieli (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 198.

[17]‘Death of Alan Kurdi’, Wikipedia, accessed 20 June 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Alan_Kurdi.

[18]For an analysis of the iconic – or viral – status of this image see, Vis, F., & Goriunova, O. (Eds.), The Iconic Image on Social Media: A Rapid Research Response to the Death of Aylan Kurdi*(Visual  Social Media  Lab, 2015), accessed 3 June 2018, http://visualsocialmedialab.org/projects/the-iconic-image-on-social-media.

[19]Frank Schulze-Engler et. al., ‘“Even the dead have human rights”: A conversation with Homi K. Bhabha’, Journal of Postcolonial Writing(2018): 8, accessed 20 June 2018, DOI: 10.1080/17449855.2018.1446682.

[20]Vladimir Hernandez and Nassos Stylianou, ‘Buried without a name’, BBC, 10 May 2016, accessed 3 April 2018, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-91f3683c-5e3c-4a2e-92eb-7d7f6a024c02

[21]‘Operation Portal: Refugee Situations’, UNHCR, accessed 20 June 2018, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean.

[22]Here I borrow the term ‘border death’ from the research project ‘Human Costs of Border Control’. For more see, accessed 5 April 2018, http://www.borderdeaths.org/?page_id=7.

[23]David Campbell, ‘The Myth of Compassion Fatigue’, in The Violence of the Image, ed. Liam Kennedy (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014), 102. For another critique of ‘compassion fatigue’, see, Stanley Cohen, States of Denial (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2001), 168-195. 

[24]Carole McGranahan, ‘Theorizing Refusal: An Introduction’, Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 3 (2016): 323, accessed 3 June 2018, https://doi.org/10.14506/ca31.3.01.

[25]‘Staring Quietly At The Backwash’, accessed 10 June 2018, https://www.thelivewildcollective.com/staringquietlyatthebackwash

[26]This cannot fail to bring in mind the hashtag accompanied the image of Aylan #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik (trans. as ‘humanism washed ashore’).

[27]For more see, ‘Goals and values of the EU’, accessed 20 June 2018, https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/eu-in-brief_en.

[28]Forensic Architecture, ‘Contesting the Violent Architecture of the EU’s Maritime Frontier’, Contra Journal, Issue 1 (January 2018): 49. 

[29]Ibid.: 48.