Images shape our understanding of global politics. Any phenomenon, for instance, a terrorist attack, ecological disaster, or protest demonstration, reaches a broader public effectively via visual media. With the visual turn in international politics, the public’s response to any event depends upon how dramatically its visual impressions represent the issue in question.
The political dynamics of a picture become acute when it enters the mass and social media. To cite a recent example, the picture of Alan Kurdi, taken in 2015, had a substantial impact on the narrative of the refugee crisis both in the Middle East and Europe.
The Power of Photography: How did the Image of Alan Kurdi Impacted Migration Discourses?
The photograph could shift the epistemic terrain of migration discourses from mere lifeless statistics to an icon of living human struggles. Moreover, it could evoke an iconic victim effect ingrained in the viewer’s collective consciousness, which led to empathetic reactions. Public support grew instantly, and stringent immigration policies were relaxed to welcome asylum seekers.
The visuality of that photograph, not any political movement or international summit, gave the migration question the needed momentum. So a photograph not only captures the varied dimensions of human life but generates a perspective upon each moment it captures. Social and mass media play an integral role in transforming the status of an issue from local to global. Today, the power to produce, distribute or access a photograph is widely democratised. Photographs mainly provide an authentic depiction of the world. They also deceive the viewer. It can render an illusion of reality.
Photograph: An Aesthetic Choice
Photos reflect certain aesthetic choices. Each picture captures the world from a distinctive angle. A single picture cannot essentially reflect every angle of a story. Therefore it excludes certain dimensions as much as it includes some others. As long as it looks into its grim realities, it cannot take up an all-appealing neutral position.
Every image is the product of choice and composed by an individual. The production, reproduction, and circulation are done with some intentions. Some images are targeted while some others are not. Once an image is taken, it leaves behind alternative ways of picturizing the same reality. Hence no single photograph becomes ultimate.
Security, Borders and Migrants Through the Eyes of Photography
Securitisation of borders and the plight of migrants have long interested photography. Photojournalists around the world have documented the issues from multiple perspectives. They have brought to light the paradoxical sense of security ensured by guarding borders. People often use terms like border and boundary interchangeably. A boundary is any abstract line that separates the territories of two states. It can take many forms like concrete walls, wired fences, militarised checkpoints, and so on, while borders are areas adjacent to boundaries.
A boundary stands between political spaces, and nationalistic energy often charges it. It invokes the idea of an imagined community, which reinforces sovereignty and thus leads to the creation of identities. So borders are decisive in distinguishing what is internal (or domestic) and what is external (or foreign).
Eventually, unwelcomed cross-border migration to prosperous countries from poor or conflict-ridden countries resulted in hostility. So management of borders became a weighty job for governments. Management process comprise of granting or preventing physical access for people. Any infringement on territorial security through unlawful actions, insurgencies, or illegal migration invited stringent legal action.
Furthermore, the attitude of the host country’s population also plays a vital role in securitisation. John Herz argued that humans choose their form of self-organisation based on how well it will protect them. This explains the adoption of immense surveillance tactics and the deployment of defence personnel on international borders. Instantaneously borders have become sites of international conflict and nation-building for as long as the state system has existed. The inviolability of frontiers formed a core norm of international relations.
Hegemony and Homeland Security
In the wake of the 2000s, people believed that globalisation would eventually lead to a borderless world. The unprecedented rise of trade, the flow of information, people, and the integration of economies put pressure on states elsewhere to open up their borders. Nevertheless, the United States was an exception.
United States’ Fortification Policy
While being the champion of western liberalism and the core of the globalisation network, the Americans decided to keep their borders intact. Its domestic security agenda focused on protecting the American’ homeland’. So fences were erected, especially along its southern border, to check unwanted migration.
However, the fortification does not mean that the US has shut its doors completely. Those ‘friendly neighbours’ whose ideology and foreign policy correspond to the United States are allowed to sustain the interaction. The US wanted its immediate neighbours to comply with US homeland security interests. This move of harmonisation seems effective in reinforcing American hegemony on securitisation and border management. The 9/11 incident has further aggravated the US’s obsession with total security. It gave the government a reason to go back to the state-centric security narratives.
Trump’s Dream: The US-Mexico Border Wall
The spectacle of Donald Trump’s administration was the billion-dollar border wall project that fortifies the territory of the United States from the adjacent state of Mexico. The US- Mexico border wall has become the most controversial structure of our times. Intended to curb illegal immigration from Mexico, ‘the wall’ is expected to stretch along the 1954 miles of the national border. It is a complex blend of both physical and virtual barriers. The wall is not a continuous structure of concrete running through the entire southern border; instead, it becomes wired fences and militarised checkpoints at some places.
Further, surveillance cameras, sensors, and Homeland Security patrols act as a virtual wall that filters out the ‘unwanted’. It needs to be looked at from alternative angles to unravel the impact this wall has engraved into the psychological and physical reality. The following photos of the US-Mexico border by three eminent photographers showcase distinct and sometimes unexplored layers of ‘separation’ inflicted by a wall.
Politics of Separation through Visuals
Image 1 of the US-Mexico Border Wall
The first photograph was taken by Belgian photographer Thomas van Houtryve from the US-Mexico border in 2018. He states that, over time, people start to see frontiers as permanent. According to him, if you are born on one side or the other of a border, it decides how prosperous and free you are. Houtryve captured a photo of waves splitting by the wall along the US- Mexico border at Tijuana, Baja California, and Imperial Beach, California. At the western tip, it cuts into the ocean. Taken from above, the image was a part of his drone series ‘Implied Lines’, which explores how the border wall divides everything.
Seen through the prism of contemporary politics, this line between two countries can take dramatic and distorted meanings. The image was a still from a single-channel video installation, ‘Divided’, that illustrates the artificial barrier which splits waves from the Pacific Ocean as they crash perpendicular into it, dividing Baja and California. The view from above, where a wall is striking the relentless lines of waves, disrupts the usual aesthetics of a sea shore landscape.
What Does the Image Symbolise?
The collision and division captured by Houtryve symbolise centuries-long immigrant struggles at the US- Mexican border. Their journey, seeking a better life and prosperity, has always collided with the host nation’s immigration policies and erected physical barriers. Immigrants are filtered and separated from their kind based on pre-imposed criteria. Some are allowed where some are destined to wait, and the rest are kept captives and subjected to inhumane treatments. Like waves, the relentless flow of immigrants also ends in friction and separation.
With drones, Houtryve offers the viewer a birds-eye view of reality which invokes the surveillance experience. Seen from above, the steel fencing appears as a thin line cast by its own shadow. In the high-contrast black and white image, the impression made by the border wall looks like nothing more than an architectural frieze.
The wall loses its sense of performativity to a drone that can fly over it. Therefore, the view renders the physicality of the structure completely irrelevant. The fencing and waves also represent the consistent contradiction between two foundational ideas; the permanence of a nature-induced movement and the transience of human-induced blockades.
Image 2 of the US-Mexico Border Wall
Griselda San Martin, a New York-based photographer, captured the second photograph in our discussion in 2018. At the western end of the US-Mexico border, there is a half-acre of land, which is known as ‘Friendship Park’. The US government allows people on both sides of the wall to visit each other at the designated place.
Since 2015, San Martin has been visiting the Mexican side of the Friendship Park in San Diego, capturing the truth of the ‘granted’ cross-border interactions. After three years, she did an exhibition of a series called “the wall”, combining multiple images she had captured over the period. In the park, people on either side see and talk to each other through a metal fence. The above photograph captures a man interacting with his family member through the wall. San Martin’s photos picture those on the US side as just shadows, creating an unsettling image from far away.
The “Prison” Visit
On the American side, the visits are regulated to a few hours on weekends, for some ten people at a time. Nevertheless, the border patrol of the Homeland Security department closely observes their interactions, making the whole arrangement reminiscent of a prison. There is a stark difference on the Mexican side of the wall, where people come not only to visit loved ones but also to sell things, hang out at the beach, and paint the grim fences with colourful strokes. At most cross points, there are murals and wall art decorations on the wall.
Image 3 of the US-Mexico Border Wall
The third and last image was taken by photojournalist Benjamin Rasmussen in April 2018, shot for his investigative story on Wired about the collaboration of a private tech firm called Anduril in border defence.
The company, Anduril, was in the news because its founders are vocal supporters of the Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance Policy. This firm provides Homeland Security with surveillance equipment. The image is of an Anduril surveillance tower erected in southwest Texas. Many such surveillance towers are planted across the border to create a virtual fence to deter people from crossing. They also employ AI algorithms to track people from far distances.
Rights vs Laws
Beyond the typical visual representation of surveillance, Rasmussen wanted to reveal the contradiction between the right to privacy and the sense of security each American citizen experiences. They cannot entirely enjoy both rights together. On the dividing line, rights become weak and laws stringent. The Anduril tower’s algorithm decides what is and what is not human. It critically reflects how the border patrol uses camera systems to target and apprehend immigrants. Using a drone-mounted camera and thermal imaging technology, this image reveals how the borderlands look from the perspective of weaponised photography.
In contemporary times photographs have become international icons. They stretch across different genres. Created and recreated numerous times over and again to fit into the newly emerged spheres of meanings. Diverse fields of studies have reinforced the moral position photography enjoys in bringing brutalities to the public’s attention. However, it also tries to present the plight of victims with agency and integrity. The emotional politics of images is evident in their performativity. The significance of the image and the message it communicates are constructed discursively through the policies they are supposed to justify.
The management of border crossing and the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers who flee Central American countries resonate with Giorgio Agamben’s ‘homo sacer‘. Deprived of any legal status, these people claim no entitlement to civil rights as migrants or refugees. Their mobility is strictly restricted and possesses no legal protection. Ultimately, they are illegible to the state and live outside the pretext of law.
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About the Author
Anaina M Raj is a freelance writer and an avid observer of world politics. She tries to explore the alternative narratives and latent dimensions of interstate and intrastate relations. She holds MA in International Politics from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Her research interests include international security, geopolitics, IR theory, securitisation and foreign policy.