Unveiling the European Border Regime: Review of Stefan Kruse’s The Migrating Image
IRENE PRAGA | 18 APRIL 2020
Title screen of The Migrating Image, available on Vimeo.
The word ‘migrants’ often designates vague and blurred crowds of people in transit subject to fluctuating and precarious scenarios. Theirs is the opposite to a settled, stable living. The figure of the migrant has hit mass media headlines over the last decade, especially since the Lampedusa shipwreck crisis in 2013. Yet this is nothing new: the ceaseless movement of migrants has captured critical and public attention at least since Homer’s time. It is well known that Ulysses was one of the first migrant characters, as reflected on the foundational and exemplary telling of his way to Ithaca. The classical paradigmatic hero longed for his home during his erratic voyage across the mythical Mediterranean. In 2020, while European authorities remain unmoved, thousands of anonymous travellers experience first-hand the journey Ulysses made across the sea.
Over the last century, the democratisation of new technologies has helped strengthen migrants’ narratives and stories of displacement. Robert Capa and Gerda Taro’s snapshots of thousands of civilians fleeing the Spanish civil war in 1936-39, one of the first worldwide reported warfare, laid the way for a prolific and necessary exercise: to collect evidence through photography. As Roland Barthes posits in his essay Camera Lucida (1980), ‘Thanks to the Photograph, the past is as certain as the present, what we see on paper is as certain as what we touch’. The French critic argues that the subject of the photograph stood in front of the photographer when the shutter button was pressed. Therefore, photographs are evidence of corporeal realities and factual truths.
Republican refugees being marched down the beach to an internment camp. Le Barcarès, France, March 1939. Photograph by Robert Capa.
That said, images are likely subject to manipulation, especially if information covering the delicate subject of (im)migration is at stake, as Stefan Kruse argues in The Migrating Image video-essay. Kruse, a Danish critical theorist with a background in graphic design, explores the prevailing technicalities surrounding current trends of images of migrants within European mass media and EU political organisations during the so-called ‘refugee crisis’. In his debut as a filmmaker, Kruse reconsiders the migrants' journey from Northern Africa to Europe by focusing on the cartography of a great variety of images depicting crowds of people in motion with the basic Five Ws of journalism: who, what, when, where and why took the image.
In The Migrating Image, things are not merely things. Instead, things seem to be things – it is therefore not surprising that ‘seeming’ is the most oft-quoted word. And the way things seem inevitably depends on the way they are seen. As Kruse’s video-essay subtly reveals, it is remarkably easy to influence the opinion of mass media audiences on migration issues through a manipulated use of visual content. In this respect, whereas extensive research has been recently made on the objective information conveyed by those images – for instance, how many people were on a vessel rescued in the Mediterranean? – little attention has been given to the reporting mechanisms, production and editing. It is clearly not the same to film large groups of travellers crossing the yellow-coloured Balkan wheat-fields with a standard phone camera than with a GoPro which allows for long-shots. While the former creates a proximity effect minimising the total amount of migrants to a few recognisable faces and voices, the latter seems to portray an unstoppable army of anonymous travellers. Hence, the perspective is political just as much as politics is a matter of perspective.
Migrants crossing the Balkans during summer 2015, The Migrating Image (21:11). This image featured, among others, on The Guardian and Russia Today.
In the film, a neutral, attractive male voice describes the images’ technicalities in seven chapters, each covering a genre: screenshots, satellite imagery, coast guards’ security cameras, mass media artefacts. As the voice says, ‘the migrants' journey begins before it takes place’ with paradisaical representations of the Western world on social media – Facebook, Messenger. These images would flame the light of the imagination of potential migrants to then embark on the hazardous journey to Europe. It is evident that social media unifies the collective imaginary and the individual imagination into one single image. In this image, the term ‘migrant’ voids identity and personal statements.
Once on the trip, migrants’ movement is monitored by a number of different institutions. The voice concisely describes, for instance, the technique used by Frontex, the European border and coast guard agency, to track and record pateras in the Mediterranean with its newest satellites. It is worth noting that many of the migrants carry their smartphones on their journey which allows them to contact their relatives and increase the visibility of sea monitoring. In this respect, GPS has become a double-edged sword, allowing migrants to be rescued, but also exposing them to unfriendly border patrols. It is the same border patrols that simultaneously advertise their security policies through a series of videos showing committed and engaged workers during serious meetings at Frontex’s cutting-edge facilities in Brussels. Despite monitoring the Mediterranean Sea, Frontex workers never get wet.
Frontex workers monitoring the Mediterranean, The Migrating Image (4:46).
Notwithstanding the controversial content of many of the images, the narrating voice always stays on the margins in a non-political position. His is a strictly technical reading. In a recent interview for Go Short, Stefan Kruse clarified the striking absence of moral reflections as: ‘the viewer has to make his own opinion, basically. I don’t feel I am in the position to take a stance on this kind of footage… First and foremost, I wanted the film to be about images, and not about politics.’ Rather than imposing an ideological narrative, Kruse’s focus on the photographs’ techniques allows us to freely take a position on the content of their images. We have no chance to click ‘like’ or write ‘#’ on his technique analysis.
At a time when everyone seems to have an opinion on almost everything on earth, one of Kruse’s major merits is to leave judgement to the viewer. In what I consider the climax of the argument, the voice devotes time to the subjective camera of an Italian man from the coast guard rescue team. Since the i-Camera is attached to the man’s helmet, the spectator has the impression of seeing exactly what his eyes are seeing: the rescue of a pregnant lady from a vessel adrift. However, not a word about her belly, or those of her comrades still in the precarious vessel. Therefore, it is inevitable to think that the hero and protagonist of this story is the iCamera of the Italian coast guard. Once more, perspective proves to be political.
A pregnant lady being rescued by the Italian coast guard, The Migrating Image (13:10).
The Migrating Image opens with a quote from the philosopher Vilsem Flusser: ‘Human beings forget they created images in order to orientate themselves in the world. Since they are no longer able to decode them, their lives become a function of their own images: Imagination has turned into hallucination’. As the video-essay argues, in 2020 we live in a hallucinatory world where we are no longer in control of our images; rather, images control us. This thought-provoking argument leads us here to one of the greatest hallucinations ever constructed: the European geopolitical borders and its bureaucratic labyrinth that prevents migrants from entering into the system and becoming citizens with equal rights. It is the same system that does not prevent migrants from being tracked, filmed and photographed, as Stefan Kruse shows in his video-essay. Theirs is a second-class, passive, outsider position.
In essence, The Migrating Image is a story about pronouns: ‘them’, the migrants, versus ‘us’, European citizens. The question now is: who is telling the story of migration? And why?
Irene comes from Valladolid, Spain. She is a MA candidate of the Comparative Literature programme at the University of Geneva, where she is researching on reimagining migrants narratives and biopolitics. A vocational writer and reader, she takes a particular interest in the political agency of literature that she believes can help redefine the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ into ‘political opportunity’. She loves coffee, cheese and long discussions.
You can find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/irene.praga