A different view on refugees in the media

Almost daily, we see photographs and videos of refugees in the European media. These images often unconsciously frame ’the refugee’ as a victim or a threat and play into the hands of anti-migration sentiments. Cultural scholar Jeroen Boom discovered ambitious filmmakers who experiment with other, more responsible ways of portraying migration. Boom will obtain his PhD on 6 March for his research on alternative representations of refugees.

A long stream of people moving through a wasteland, overcrowded refugee camps full of tents, heavily loaded rubber boats in the Mediterranean. "The European media keeps showing the same images. On the internet, on the news, in documentaries. Even in advertisements to support refugee aid projects," says cultural scholar Jeroen Boom.

How refugees are portrayed and framed in the media has been the subject of much research. "They are often portrayed as masses, usually filmed by drones from above, so that the viewer literally looks down on them. The presence of security is also important. Men patrolling the fences of a camp with weapons. Emergency workers wearing face masks to protect them from diseases. As a refugee, you are either a victim or a threat," says Boom. The researcher believes that these recurring images create an unequal relationship between ’us’, the viewers, and ’them’, the refugees, and play into the hands of populist ideology.

Experimental documentaries

Boom wondered whether there were any alternatives - different ways of addressing the viewer - and in order to explore this question, he delved into a number of recently released essay films, in which the makers mix documentary and experimental elements, with the aim of making the viewer part of the experience of migration. One example is Purple Sea , a film by Syrian filmmaker Amel Alzakout, who fled across the Mediterranean in a boat and capsized near Lesbos. The film consists of raw footage from the GoPro camera that was strapped to her arm during this tragic moment. "As a viewer, you become disoriented and experience the violence of the sea, and therefore the violence inflicted on refugees who are forced to cross that sea."

In addition to conveying these experiences, essay films also have another function. "The films I researched do not try to capture ’the refugee’ in a single image, but rather disrupt this process," says Boom. "They question the political role of imaging and representation by, for example, only depicting refugees out of focus, as in Philip Scheffner’s film Havarie . These films thereby make us as viewers aware of our own gaze that constantly looks for certain visual features to confirm prejudices."

Starting point

These kinds of experimental documentaries are not usually shown on television or in the cinema. These are often one-off screenings, for example at a film festival or as part of an exhibition, and they attract an audience of higher-educated white people. "These are intense images. This kind of film does not make for a fun, relaxing night out," acknowledges Boom. Nor does he wish to argue that essay films are the solution. "But these kinds of alternative images can play an educational role, by sparking discussion about the politics of representation," says Boom. "This is really needed right now, also in view of the rise of populism. We need images that tell us more about the complexity and ambiguity of what it is like to be a refugee, rather than presenting it only as dependent or threatening."