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July 16, 2014

The Importance of News Photography Treating Migrants Like People

There couldn’t be anymore controversy right now over the status of migrants and their portrayal.

With the influx – one might say, the exodus – of immigrants, primarily mothers and children from Central America entering illegally into the United States, there are those who argue for respect and understanding while others look upon these individuals as sociopaths or criminals. (The latter view is reinforced, in many cases, by the fact that many migrants are being held in prison-like detention centers.) What I’m specifically concerned about, however, is the visual treatment. With the polarization engulfing this issue, the objectification and the reflexive casting of these individuals as “other” is not surprising.  The question, however, is where does one draw the line between documenting and exploiting, between reporting and voyeurism?

I saw a great tweet the other day which I unfortunately forgot to save. Effectively, it related how one of the networks, after having talking heads discuss the immigration issue all day, finally and actually interviewed a migrant. In the name of parameters, I wanted to share this pair of photos with you from a Reuters photo gallery I saw featured on their homepage on July 4th. The title of the slideshow was “A Child Migrant’s Journey.” The caption from the photo above, the 15th shot in the slideshow, is self-explanatory. It reads:

A woman and her daughter cover themselves to avoid being photographed inside a bus, while arriving at the Honduran Center for Returned Migrants after being deported from Mexico, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras June 20, 2014.

What took me completely by surprise, then, was the photo that immediately followed it. That caption read:

A girl steps off a bus as she arrives along her mother at the Honduran Center for Returned Migrants after being deported from Mexico, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras June 20, 2014.

We pixelated the face of the girl above. In the published version, the child is clearly visible, stepping off the bus as if skipping merrily off to a school picnic (her mother referenced in the caption, but not in sight). The cheerful expression of the man only makes the innocuousness of the image that much more problematic.

Surely images are published from time to time that slip through the editing process. In this case, I’m sure editors realized the problem because, in the current version of the slideshow — since revised and updated — it has been removed. Still, with all the imagery being published of migrants in every step of the journey from there to here, and with all the coverage of engagement with law enforcement (including all the documentation inside detention facilities), it’s instructive to consider the challenge of dealing with the situation, and these scenes, with as much humanity as the medium and the business will allow.

See our previous posts in this “Immigration in Pictures” series, Im-Migrant Mother, featuring a photo by Michelle Frankfurter, and Despite the Noise, not all Border Ranchers are Haters, highlighting a feature at the Arizona Republic by Nick Oza.

(photos: Jorge Cabrera/Reuters)

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