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How to Challenge Stereotypical Refugee Images: A Photographer’s Guide

In our series on Picturing Refugees, World Press Photo winner Kalpesh Lathigra shares his experience of challenging visual narratives of refugees, with advice for working photographers.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Public perceptions of refugees are shaped by the narrow lens through which they are most often presented: drama and victimhood. Photographers, editors and the organizations that commission them all share a degree of responsibility for the “boats and camps” images that dominate visualizations of refuge.

Some working photographers are broadening the narrow lens. Among them is Kalpesh Lathigra, who teaches photography and continues to take a variety of refugee-related assignments. His thoughtful approach to the topic includes recognition of the economic pressure on photographers to please editors and commissioners.

Lathigra, a former staff photographer with the Independent newspaper and winner of the World Press Photo contest, is an advocate for experimental approaches that give refugees a role in deciding how they will be portrayed.

News photographers will continue to depict what they see during periods of mass movement or crisis, but Lathigra argues that life in displacement offers opportunities for more creative visual approaches. The London-based photographer shares his advice to colleagues who want to negotiate different approaches with commissioning organizations, or who look for ways to use assignments for supplementary work that broadens perspectives.

Refugees Deeply: In your own experience, what are some of the drivers of the stereotypically dramatic or victimizing imagery we see of refugees and migrants?

Kalpesh Lathigra: I think we have to understand the nature of news reporting. On-the-spot news comes as it happens – there is no getting away from this fact. If there are situations unfolding in front of you, as a news photographer I don’t know if there is any other way to photograph them. This in turn feeds the news cycle. Stereotypical dramatic images will always be with us. These images show the world what is happening directly.

The question is, How do we report what is happening once the initial news images are made? The answer lies in long-form reporting and essays, and there are some magazines both physical and online that are stepping up to this: I have been recently looking at Topic, which is online, and the California Sunday Magazine and Financial Times Magazine in particular.

When we speak of drivers, it’s complex – there are a few factors. Media representations of the Other sometimes create the narrative – that is, since time immemorial, of the exotic. Charities and NGOs use images that continue [these] narratives to raise funds. Some photographers look for the same narratives because it creates a name for them in their world, which in turn feeds into the economic arguments of how to survive in an industry that is cash-short, supply-high and basically ultra-competitive.

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Refugees Deeply: Working photographers can often feel they have to please editors or commissioning organizations. Without asking people to forego assignments, what advice do you have for photographers approaching the topic?

Lathigra: It’s a harsh reality regarding the economics of photography. In the past I was as guilty of pleasing editors, etc., but maybe because I am older and a little wiser … I also think the climate is changing. I would always start a conversation with the editors and commissioners. If it’s possible, talk about the narratives and ways of making the work, explaining your reasoning. If that cannot be done, and of course [if] the assignment depends on it, I would always try and make [some] work I want to make alongside and let it develop. There is a serendipity to showing the work. Just showing it to the commissioners can often result in the work you want being shown. If not, I would still make the personal work and have it placed elsewhere. At the end of the day, it’s an individual choice and, as I have said before, it’s complex with the economics.

Refugees Deeply: Tell us about more positive experiences you have had in challenging the visual narrative around refugees. What approach did you take and what did you learn in the process?

Lathigra: I have been lucky in terms of challenging the narrative around work with refugees. My initial commissions for UNICEF and UNHCR were a collaborative effort. I was commissioned by these organizations to document the Zaatari camp in Jordan, very much in reportage-style photography. However, I was also on commission for the now defunct the New Review magazine from the Independent. My picture editor at the time, Hannah Brenchley, fought my corner for the idea of making a series of passport photographs of Syrians in the camp using an old Polaroid camera. The idea was to make a democratic portrait very much reflecting the ID photos we all carry, and these were interspersed with landscapes of the camp. The proposal was to challenge the idea of compassion fatigue and make the viewer look at the photographs. Not conform to the ideas of a refugee camp.

This initial project led to a group project with VSCO, where I was lucky enough to be given free rein, as the photographers Benjamin Rasmussen and Michael Friberg had seen my work and wanted me to continue the series in Turkey, which then evolved into a image- and sound-based presentation on the web. The project grew with the concept of social photo studios of the Middle East as one factor playing against the ID photographs. I was lucky that I found a collaborative partner in a Syrian artist Samir al-Kadri, who runs a hub called “Pages in Istanbul,” a cafe, bookshop and arts venue, who produced the scenic backdrops favored by Syrians. I was also very lucky to have met Hrair Sarkissian, an artist based in London, whose book and work inspired the social studio series, and had conversations on representation with Joshua Stacey – these all formed my thinking.

The process is all collaborative, whether that’s the artist, writer or sitters. The one dictate that I had was, when it came to the passport/ID photographs, they had to be just that. But I explained my reasoning behind this process to everyone who took part.

Refugees Deeply: Can you talk us through one of the images?

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Lathigra: If I can, I’ll talk briefly about the idea of the ID photograph being made into a collage. I had previously shown ID photographs as separate entities. The collage of all of them allows the viewer to be enticed by the beauty of the grid formation and color renditions and patterns formed. It’s the bait, if you can call it that. But as the viewer draws closer, the repeating pattern of individual ID photos makes them connect on a simple, basic level and recognize themselves. After all, these are the same photos we all have to use.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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