Photography Needs Drawing
The Migrant Image Group, Lampedusa: Image Stories from the Edge of Europe
Book Review by Jennifer Good
The Migrant Image Group, Lampedusa by Armin Linke
Published by: Spector Books
Lampedusa is a Mediterranean island with a divided identity. Italian, but geographically closer to Tunisia, its pedigree as a tourist destination has been overtaken in recent years as its tiny community has found itself at the centre of the international migrant crisis. The huge numbers of migrants arriving on its beaches have begun to alter the island’s infrastructure and daily life; never more so than in October 2013 when a boat carrying over 500 people sank off its shores with the loss of approximately 360 lives, and the island became a household name.
The challenge of visually representing the migrant crisis has been approached in a range of ways in recent years, including creative documentary projects such as Carlos Spottorno and Guillermo Abril’s photo-based non-fiction graphic novel La Grieta (2016) and Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s film installation The Bureaucracy of Angels (2017). These works and others are prompted by what might once have been called ‘compassion fatigue’ but is, more accurately, ‘form fatigue’ – a search for new forms of storytelling that sometimes needs to resort to the jarring, bizarre or simply novel in order to help viewers comprehend such an overwhelming humanitarian disaster. Lampedusa is a valuable contribution to this effort, which can best be compared to a kind of portfolio or dossier; an experimental exploration of as many aspects of the ‘migrant image crisis’ as possible.
The Migrant Image Research Group was assembled in 2014 in response to the growing tide of reductive and repetitive imagery of the migrant crisis. It began, in fact, with a kind of refusal of photography: artist Armin Linke was invited to the island to participate in a photographic project, but instead of taking a camera, he used the opportunity to interrogate, by means of a range of other media, the many photographic images that were already being made and circulated there. The group consists of illustrators, artists, photographers, publishers, a graphic designer and a photo historian, each of whom has made original and contrasting contributions to this book. There are interviews with photographers and photo editors; stories told in, around and about photographs that focus on migrants, NGO workers, Red Cross volunteers and Lampedusian families, and essays in which photo historians and researchers write about particular photographs and their circulation, all through a richly contextualised range of perspectives that resist the simplification of the mainstream news narrative. One of the interviewees, researcher and film-maker Charles Heller, says that the problem with stereotypical photographs of migrants is that they are ‘pre-understood’. What is most needed, he says, is imagery that can ‘rupture’ – breaking through by any means necessary. Simply put, this is a project that engages with two themes: both the migrant crisis, and photographic representation of the migrant crisis. It is a work of deeply pragmatic visual literacy – reflecting on photographs slowly, carefully and contextually, without resorting to theoretical abstraction.
The most striking of the book’s various forms – and the one that makes it so original – is drawing. Illustrators Emilie Josso, Paula Bulling, Haitham El-Seht and Mohammed El-Seht have used the graphic novel form to tell stories about photographs in a very subjective manner, depicting members of the research group as they meet people on Lampedusa and learn first-hand about the web of photographers, subjects and histories on the island. These vignettes are dispersed intermittently through the book in a way that serves to alter its pace and tone with great effect. Publisher Jan Wenzel boldly argues in his introductory essay that "now more than ever, the photographic image needs drawing and illustration as a counterpart". In his view, the overt subjectivity of drawing can offer a more appropriate way of accounting for, translating and inscribing such a multi-faceted subject. "The current historical moment", he continues, calls for drawing as "a more trustworthy medium, a means of representation that is more suited to the complexity of the world than photography".
One of the reasons Wenzel puts forward for this is that historical trust in photography is waning. But arguably it is also due to the fact that drawing attests so openly to its own subjectivity rather than negating it, or seeming to negate it, as photography in the mainstream news cycle so often does. The idea of historical trust in photography is also, of course, complex, as is the history of photography’s relationship with drawing. Historian Karin E. Becker has written about the tendency for European newspapers to continue to employ wood-engraved hand-drawn illustrations of news events well into the 1880s, long after the half-tone process (for the mass reproduction of photographs) had been invented. Drawings continued to be favoured, while the camera was for a long time considered an inadequate witness, "stiff and too dependent on the luck of the machine".
Photography is presented throughout this book not as inadequate, however, but as partial and constrained. Its great value is not diminished through critique – rather it is given a kind of space that has been lacking in the past five years of alarmist news coverage. This book is addressed at us, the privileged, documented, European citizens whose witnessing is most challenged not by any lack of authenticity in the photographs we see; but by the depth of attention they are given and the variety of views they are allowed to present. It is a lesson not just about the migrant crisis, but about seeing.