SOAS University of London

Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies

Taking Pictures: Pity, Fear, Security and Solidarity at the Border

Dr Heather Johnson

Date: 21 October 2015Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 21 October 2015Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: G52

Type of Event: Seminar

Throughout the spring of 2015, images of migrants crossing the Mediterranean flooded the public space. Often, the pictures were of the drowned bodies of migrants who had died during the crossing; at the end of August, the image of a drowned child on a Turkish beach seized public attention and imagination, going viral across social media networks. Policy change – in some cases seemingly representing a major about-face in state responses – swiftly followed. The policies, however, remain flawed by perpetual short-term thinking, and the public support for migrants shaped by the image of a dead child is heavily influenced by the overarching politics of representation that operate and condition humanitarian and security responses to unauthorised border crossings.

The humanitarian community working on behalf of refugees and irregular migrants relies heavily upon creating in the public imagination a particular ‘image’ of a migrant in need of assistance. They depict individuals (often women) in camps or, after arriving in a host country, trying to rebuild a fractured life. The security community invested in controlling the border similarly relies upon an image of the migrant. This representation, however, is rooted in imaginations of criminality, of threat, and of individuals (often men) wrongfully subverting the asylum system. These imaginations mark the border as the deciding ‘creative’ moment in determining both the character and the identity of the migrant. Individual political agency disappears to create a figure that can be mobilized in support of a particular agenda.

I argue that the politics of representation in asylum are framed by the border itself. Our imagination not only of the border, but of the political agency and subjectivity of the irregular migrant, is informed by these representations and by discourses of gender and race. I ask how these dynamics shape the policies and politics of asylum, and how we might productively reshape these politics towards a spirit of long term solidarity.

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Dr Heather Johnson Taking Pictures: Pity, Fear, Security and Solidarity at the Border

About the Speaker

Heather Johnson is a Lecturer in International Studies in the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast. She received her PhD in International Relations from McMaster University in 2011, and she teaches in international relations and conflict studies. Her research focuses on irregular migration and asylum seekers, border security, and the practices of resistance, solidarity and protest of non-citizens. She also writes about visual representations of refugees, particularly through a gender studies lens. Her book, Borders, Asylum and Global Non-Citizenship: The Other Side of the Fence, was published in 2014 with Cambridge University Press. Her work has also appeared in journals such as International Political Sociology, Security Dialogue, and Third World Quarterly.

Organiser: Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies

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