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The imagery of asylum seeker politics

By Barcham - 24 July 2013 116

Johnboy just sent me this interesting story by The Conversation about the imagery used in Rudd’s anti-asylum seeker campaign.

Worth a look, even if just to remind yourself to remain skeptical about what images you are shown.

Woman

Worth a thousand words: the imagery of asylum seeker politics

By Phillip George

The history of Australian asylum seeker policy is studded with iconic if often distressing imagery.

In the most recent addition, officials at Christmas Island filmed and photographed a young Iranian woman, supposedly at the moment when she learnt that she will never be allowed to live in Australia, due to the Rudd government’s recently announced immigration policy.

Department for Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) says the image is intended to be seen around the world as a warning to other asylum seekers of what may happen to them if they catch a “leaky boat” to Australia. It now sits alongside images of “children overboard” and the Tampa affair in Australia’s political narrative.

But is this picture targeted towards overseas or domestic audiences? Who is the government most trying to reach with this undeniably affecting image – the boat people or the vote people?

The Conversation spoke with Professor Phillip George from the School of Media Arts at the University of New South Wales about the history of political images of asylum seekers and their effect on the body politic.


What does the image of the Iranian asylum seeker show us?

It looks like we are seeing a couple of people sitting on a floor weeping, heads in hands, and everything is thrown out of focus. I would probably say that because they were interviewed by a migration worker that it is a legitimate image and we can probably trace down the worker from the Immigration Department.

It would not be as contentious as say the “child overboard” images because we did not know who they were – but this image looks to be an easily verifiable image.

The iconic Tampa image used to boost the Howard government’s re-election campaign. AAP/Wallenius Wilhelmsen

Can we be sure the image depicts what DIAC says it depicts?

I do not think we can be sure. You have come off a plane, a boat, you are jet-lagged, you are tired, you have been travelling – they could just be tired. They could just be emotional because they have finally got to their destination and they could actually be happy. We do not know because the image is thrown out of focus and you cannot read that body posture. Is it posture of despair? Is it relief? Is it exhaustion? Is it “I am really tired of being in this queue and people asking me these stupid questions”?

I would say that you could read a whole range of answers into that including: “I have just landed and I am not going to get into Australia and I am devastated.” It could be all of or none of the above in reading of that image.

Being a crowd photograph, you find someone who is doing what you want and you quickly turn your lens on that subject and you capture it. And it is a very cleverly warped image. I understand that the image has been shown in Indonesia and off-shore so it is advertising the event very quickly.

Is it an attempt to collect a political narrative?

This has been part of a re-election campaign. This is Labor’s Tampa image. I remember speaking to a Labor parliamentarian and they actually called it the “good-ship Tampa” and that it, in a way, a guaranteed re-election of the Howard government. So I think the image-makers are crafting an explicit and powerful, pertinent image for their re-election campaign.

The children overboard saga was used as a political football in the Howard government’s re-election campaign AAP/Defence

How does the image compare to the “children overboard” image and the Tampa image in terms of its political message?

I think for the Tampa image the aerial photograph was a very dynamic, very powerful image of all these people sitting on the decks of boats and that was used by artists all over Australia for years after that.

But what the Tampa image did not do is actually show us human beings’ faces. We never saw the face of humanity on board. We only saw an aerial photograph.

With the “children overboard” we saw a scurrilous image of people in the water. Now were they in the water because the boat was sinking and they were trying to save the children by throwing them overboard? All we saw was a frame of people in the water. We were told what we were seeing there.

The interesting thing we have seen with this image is that it has been thrown out of focus. But if we left that video or camera running and put it in focus we could actually see faces looking up at the camera. It would be interesting to see the before, the after and the during of the taking of that image – so we could see the human faces.

What we do not want to see is the human faces because we get emotional, we have compassion. So the images are thrown out of focus so we have an icon, so we have a representation of someone’s face. But if we let the camera run, if we refocused and watched the image it would tell us a completely different story.

If the boats “keep coming” will the Rudd government or another future government need a tougher or more distressing image? Is this the method of political communication we have now established when it comes to communicating messages about asylum seekers?

I think we can almost guarantee that – particularly as we work into the election campaign, as Rudd ticks off all the boxes for his re-election. The icon of the Tampa and the “children overboard” are iconic images. The timing of this image is also quite exquisite. It is not only telling you that “you cannot come” but it also says, “look at this – we are showing you: you can’t come”.

Phillip George does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation
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This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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116 Responses to
The imagery of asylum seeker politics
Dilandach 4:15 pm 24 Jul 13

For those that whimper about the poor asylum seekers who pay tens of thousands of dollars to get to where they want and are supposedly are in despair over the recent activities reported from Manus Island. I ask you this:

Those same people that are doing the violent actions, burning down buildings, serious sexual assaults, intimidating others into performing acts of self harm and stock piling weapons with the intent to kill those who supervise them in the centers. Do you still think that placing those exact same people into the community would have been a good idea and do you still support placing those same people into the community?

460cixy 4:08 pm 24 Jul 13

Why can’t we just let them all in the poor souls

neanderthalsis 3:38 pm 24 Jul 13

astrojax said :

DUB said :

Majority of asylum seekers claim that if they are returned to their country of origin they will face death.
Yet, as soon as they get Aussie Citizenship granted, they effing go off to their country for a holiday every year. What happened to ” I will be killed if I return”?

It should be compulsory to strip them off the Australian citizenship if they are found to be doing just that.Only the real refugees shall be allowed. That means we’ll probably have only couple of hundred genuine refugees every year at the most.

sorry, evidence please? what a bollocks load… and they don’t get citizenship until they fulfil all relevant obligations – including period of residency. So, a minority of those who acquire citizenship later return to the country of their birth. what of all those refugees like les murray and co who fled persecution in european countries now denizens of democracy – time can wrought change, you know.

Well, one must concede that many of our Vietnamese and Lebanese refugees from the 80’s have visited their country of origin now that they are politically stable and free from civil war. I don’t know of too many Iraqi’s, Afghani’s, Tamils or Iranians that are too keen to go home though.

And as for Les Murray: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Xs1lUK4jas

harvyk1 3:23 pm 24 Jul 13

Whilst I am sure that a part of the plan is to advertise heavily in ways that western Sydney voters will have maximum exposure to “tough on boat people”, I don’t actually disagree with the plan.

I don’t remember exact percentages, but the largest number of refugee arrivals in this country come by plane (more than 90% if I remember correctly). The reason why we hear so much more about boats is usually a plane ride is pretty uneventful compared to seeing a boat load of asylum seekers drowning off the coast.

Whilst I will admit I have not read the full extent of this policy, my understanding is that it removes the product which Indonesian people smugglers sell, aka a life in Australia. It does not stop someone from coming here and claiming asylum, what it does however stop is people smugglers selling spaces on unseaworthy boats for large amounts of money.

Whilst we talk about it, people arriving here without a visa and claiming asylum regardless of the method of arrival is perfectly legal. The large majority who arrive here are given refugee status, and they are not taking “our jobs’. The majority of them even once they are allowed to work take the jobs which the average Aussie does not want to do. The majority of them don’t bring the troubles from their home land here either. I’m not going to say that every refugee which comes here is an angel, but I do believe the percentage of refugee’s who do cause trouble are in the very low percentages.

astrojax 1:51 pm 24 Jul 13

DUB said :

Majority of asylum seekers claim that if they are returned to their country of origin they will face death.
Yet, as soon as they get Aussie Citizenship granted, they effing go off to their country for a holiday every year. What happened to ” I will be killed if I return”?

It should be compulsory to strip them off the Australian citizenship if they are found to be doing just that.Only the real refugees shall be allowed. That means we’ll probably have only couple of hundred genuine refugees every year at the most.

sorry, evidence please? what a bollocks load… and they don’t get citizenship until they fulfil all relevant obligations – including period of residency. So, a minority of those who acquire citizenship later return to the country of their birth. what of all those refugees like les murray and co who fled persecution in european countries now denizens of democracy – time can wrought change, you know.

neanderthalsis 1:42 pm 24 Jul 13

justin heywood said :

neanderthalsis said :

It is a sad and sorry state of affairs when the most logical and indeed the most compassionate policy on asylum seekers is from the Palmer United Party.

Palmer’s (PUP’s) policy is …. “Revising the current Australian Government’s Refugee Policy to ensure Australia is protected and refugees are given opportunities for a better future and lifestyle”

The policy sounds good, but how do we achieve it? (Palmer says says that we should talk to Indonesia about ‘enforcing maritime laws’). Oh really, it’s that simple?

This is my problem with the whole debate. Howard’s hardline stance was widely criticised as inhumane and excessive, given the low numbers. Rudd’s more ‘humane’ approach (2007) actually resulted in a flood of asylum seekers and a lot more deaths and misery. The Greens are encouraging us to be much more ‘humane’ in our approach than Rudd ever was (abolition of detention, immediate access to welfare etc)

It seems to me the the more accommodating we are to people who arrive without papers from Indonesia, the more will come, given market forces. Do the critics of a more hardline approach believe that we should welcome anyone into Australia, no matter how they get here? Would that not result in an ever greater influx of people claiming to be refugees and thus more deaths at sea, overwhelming pressure on DIAC, the Navy and social services. Should we have borders at all?

My own view is that we should vastly increase our humanitarian immigration intake (we can afford it), but take a hardline on the boats. Let the insults fly.

Clive, earlier this year, said that we should fly the asylum seekers to Aus at their own expense rather than have them pay 10k to a people smuggler. Once onshore, they could be processed and either released into the community or sent back if found not to be a genuine refugee.

While this won’t placate the queue jumper argument, it is more sensible than shipping them at great expense to PNG or the Somolons.

PUP policy

IrishPete 1:35 pm 24 Jul 13

Ah yes, let’s turn a discussion about the rights or wrongs of using photographs of asylum seekers, into a discussion about refugee policy generally.

There’s a very simple way to use someone’s face – you ask their permission. Also the idea that pixellating it makes it impossible to recognise is wrong – people who know the person may still recognise them, and also I think there are computer programs which will depixellate. So if they say “no” to using their face, you probably shouldn’t use their photo at all.

Since the original writer has floated some conspiracy theories, here’s another – it was an actor and pixellating their face prevents them being recognised as an actor.

The Immigration department does seem to be entering the political arena in the lead-up to an election, much like it and Defence were in the Howard era. If you happen to work in any of those departments, please don’t leave your conscience in the car. You are a public servant, and that sometimes means saying “no” to your political masters.

IP

Postalgeek 1:15 pm 24 Jul 13

Roundhead89 said :

Don’t be fooled by this, it isn’t an attempt to crack down on illegal asylum seekers it is purely a short-term political fix to neutralise the illegal boat people issue in the western suburbs where the illegal aliens are dumped and causing huge social problems.

Graham Richardson said on Sky News that this “PNG Solution” is only intended to run in the leadup to the election to wedge Tony Abbott. Labor has to constantly appease the Left and their fellow travellers in the refugee/human rights lobby.

The only solution to the illegal asylum seeker issue is the reintroduction of the Howard policies including Temporary Protection Visas and towing back the boats by the Special Forces. Only then will we be free of illegal asylum seekers swarming into the country and all the damage they are doing.

Hmmmm, time for a quiz:

1. Point to the Australian Commonwealth laws being broken by ‘asylum seekers’ (hint: Trick question. The UN Refugee Convention (to which Australia is a signatory) recognises that refugees have a lawful right to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive or whether they hold valid travel or identity documents.)

2.What’s the mode of transport used by the bulk of people applying for refugee status in Australia (hint: it’s not boats)?

dungfungus 12:52 pm 24 Jul 13

If we let the camera run and see their faces there will be privacy issues and some bleeding heart taxpayer funded human rights lawyer will sue the Commonwealth for damages.

devils_advocate 12:44 pm 24 Jul 13

Roundhead89 said :

Only then will we be free of illegal asylum seekers swarming into the country and all the damage they are doing.

Could you please elaborate on the numbers that constitute a ‘swarm’ and also the damage that is being done by said swarm.

justin heywood 12:24 pm 24 Jul 13

neanderthalsis said :

It is a sad and sorry state of affairs when the most logical and indeed the most compassionate policy on asylum seekers is from the Palmer United Party.

Palmer’s (PUP’s) policy is …. “Revising the current Australian Government’s Refugee Policy to ensure Australia is protected and refugees are given opportunities for a better future and lifestyle”

The policy sounds good, but how do we achieve it? (Palmer says says that we should talk to Indonesia about ‘enforcing maritime laws’). Oh really, it’s that simple?

This is my problem with the whole debate. Howard’s hardline stance was widely criticised as inhumane and excessive, given the low numbers. Rudd’s more ‘humane’ approach (2007) actually resulted in a flood of asylum seekers and a lot more deaths and misery. The Greens are encouraging us to be much more ‘humane’ in our approach than Rudd ever was (abolition of detention, immediate access to welfare etc)

It seems to me the the more accommodating we are to people who arrive without papers from Indonesia, the more will come, given market forces. Do the critics of a more hardline approach believe that we should welcome anyone into Australia, no matter how they get here? Would that not result in an ever greater influx of people claiming to be refugees and thus more deaths at sea, overwhelming pressure on DIAC, the Navy and social services. Should we have borders at all?

My own view is that we should vastly increase our humanitarian immigration intake (we can afford it), but take a hardline on the boats. Let the insults fly.

DUB 11:58 am 24 Jul 13

Roundhead89 said :

Don’t be fooled by this, it isn’t an attempt to crack down on illegal asylum seekers it is purely a short-term political fix to neutralise the illegal boat people issue in the western suburbs where the illegal aliens are dumped and causing huge social problems.

I think so too. There was an interview with Iranian man yesterday morning on ABC radio, who is in Indonesia at the moment, waiting for his boat trip to Australia. He said that he does not mind going to PNG, as he will still be getting all the benefits paid as if he was living on Australian soil, so do many others in his camp near some village think.

I am all up for unmarked submarines, practising live target shooting off the coast of Christmas Island.

DUB 11:46 am 24 Jul 13

Majority of asylum seekers claim that if they are returned to their country of origin they will face death.
Yet, as soon as they get Aussie Citizenship granted, they effing go off to their country for a holiday every year. What happened to ” I will be killed if I return”?

It should be compulsory to strip them off the Australian citizenship if they are found to be doing just that.Only the real refugees shall be allowed. That means we’ll probably have only couple of hundred genuine refugees every year at the most.

Roundhead89 11:28 am 24 Jul 13

Don’t be fooled by this, it isn’t an attempt to crack down on illegal asylum seekers it is purely a short-term political fix to neutralise the illegal boat people issue in the western suburbs where the illegal aliens are dumped and causing huge social problems.

Graham Richardson said on Sky News that this “PNG Solution” is only intended to run in the leadup to the election to wedge Tony Abbott. Labor has to constantly appease the Left and their fellow travellers in the refugee/human rights lobby.

The only solution to the illegal asylum seeker issue is the reintroduction of the Howard policies including Temporary Protection Visas and towing back the boats by the Special Forces. Only then will we be free of illegal asylum seekers swarming into the country and all the damage they are doing.

neanderthalsis 11:03 am 24 Jul 13

I consider myself a conservative, more wet than dry though, and I was appalled at the stance of Rudd has taken on this. Is this his re-birth as a hardcore neo-conservative modeled off Thatcher?

Rudd, in 2006 said:
Another great challenge of our age is asylum seekers. The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear. The parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to a vulnerable stranger in our midst. That is why the government’s proposal to excise the Australian mainland from the entire Australian migration zone and to rely almost exclusively on the so-called Pacific Solution should be the cause of great ethical concern to all the Christian churches.

Has he abandoned his morals and given up on ethical solutions just to be popular? Rudd won the 2007 election by claiming he was Just Like Howard, but a younger, friendlier version, now he wants to be Just Like Tony, but an angrier, more bitter version.

It is a sad and sorry state of affairs when the most logical and indeed the most compassionate policy on asylum seekers is from the Palmer United Party.

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