Part III: The Hunk and the Refugee

In the last two articles (Part I and Part II) I have written about the connection between “beauty” and suffering in media images relating to the European/Syrian refugee crisis. In Part I “beauty” was found in the way in which the horrific image of a drowned toddler moved global sentiment toward a more compassionate view of Syrian refugees, which in turn influenced asylum seeker policies in many countries. In Part II stunning images of refugees rescued from overcrowded boats between Libya and Italy serve as a reminder of the humanity behind the refugee crisis in a time of renewed hostility following the recent Paris terrorist attacks.

Part III focuses on a series of images taken by Claus Fisker (September 2015) showing a police man playing with a Syrian refugee girl travelling along a Danish highway. The images went “viral”, and were Tweeted, shared, and reproduced by the public and the media worldwide. They have an enormous “feel good” appeal, giving a sense of hope in an otherwise grim global crisis. The juxtaposition of a smiling playful policeman, usually associated with authority, punishment, bravery, and no-nonsense masculinity, connecting with a young refugee girl, associated with innocence and vulnerability, as well as illegality and conflict, provides an unexpected visual experience that is very heart warming. This is the kind of photo we all want to see. It would be so lovely to believe that people help people in need. To believe that the goodwill of others (in this case a policeman) is making this complex crisis with no immediate or easy solution turn out all right. We want to believe this little girl will soon have a comfortable place to be, so that she does not have to walk for days and weeks along Europe’s highways towards an unknown future. However, the ironic reality is that Denmark recently opted out of agreeing to an EU collaboration to rehouse 160,000 Syrian refugees.

In his article Framing the Refugee Crisis Marco Bohr writes about a tendency in the news media to choose photos of the refugee crisis that show the “good” or “touching” stories of those who survived the journey to Europe, while avoiding graphic images of those who died. For example, when 71 refugees (men, women and children) suffocated to death in an abandoned truck in Austria, the media would only depict the truck, not the dead (see also Feeling Good About Feeling Bad About Aylan Kurdi). In this way we get a skewed representation of the horrors that are taking place, and that continue to take place, parallel to the horrors of recent events in Paris. This tendency to avoid visualising the suffering of refugees was reversed when media outlets around the world decided to publish the photo of the drowned toddler, Aylan Kurdi (see Part I). However, there is a danger that after the recent surge in negative media attention surrounding the potential terror threat from refugees, the media will again chose to leave out images of refugees suffering.

What I have found disturbing about the above set of images is the superficial attention they have attracted from tweeters and social media enthusiasts. The reason the photograph became so prolific is not just its feel good appeal, but because of the good looks of the police officer. After the release of the photo entire threads on Reddit are dedicated to discussing the merits of Scandinavian men, with additional comments such as “I’d cross the border to see him too” (262mel) and “I’d let him cross my southern border, if you know what I mean” (superhope). The fact that people are so quickly distracted and entertained with shallow chit chat, rather than engaging with the real issue is deeply troubling.

Clause Fisker’s image photoshopped and posted on Imgur.

Clause Fisker’s image photoshopped and posted on Imgur

As a result of Reddit banter some contributors changed the image into “humorous” gag pictures (see more here). Though they might elicit a quick laugh, these photoshop images reveal a lot about the power dynamics between the police man and the girl. The power dynamic in the first picture is reflecting the reality that though little refugee girls are not being directly pepper sprayed by Danish police, they are being detained against their will. The second picture visualises a deep seeded cultural belief that is at the heart of the widespread fear of and resentment towards refugees (muslim refugees in particular): They, including their children, will take over and “kick” out the fair skinned secular civilised Danes (or Germans or Frenchman or Australians) from their own country.

Danish police officers try to restrain a group of Syrian refugees attempting to march through the country. Sept 9, 2015. © The New York Times

In conclusion, the original images by Claus Fisker display two aspects of “beauty”. Firstly, they are beautiful because they show us a situation of tenderness, playfulness and innocence through the juxtaposition of the powerful but kind-hearted policeman and the powerless but joyful refugee girl. Secondly, they are perceived as beautiful in a disturbingly shallow way because of the good looks of the police officer. They capture a moment of true beauty, which celebrates humanity, and simultaneously conceals and distracts from the fact that Denmark has very tough refugee and immigration policies (which they are continuously tightening), and have declined to take part in united EU efforts to fairly distribute some of the hundreds of thousands who are seeking asylum. This reality is visualised in the less well known and less romantic photograph above.