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The Complexities in Representations of Women Refugees

Written by Julia Krantz

How are refugees represented in the media? The photograph from the project How Shall We Greet the Sun (2021-ongoing) (fig. one), by Thana Faroq, depicts Kimiya who moved to the Netherlands from Iran a few years ago.[1] Representations of people fleeing from their homes flood the media daily. The western media is overcome with images of overcrowding, violence, suffering and poverty. With European countries’ current attempts to help people from Iran, Yemen, Palestine, Syria, and now Ukraine (as well as many other countries) flee their home countries, these documentary images populate the media more than ever. But Kimiya is depicted differently from mainstream representations, as Faroq states that she is portrayed “from a place of deep understanding of empathy and carnal experience.”[2]

Faroq is a Yemeni photographer and educator based in the Netherlands and her personal connection to Kimiya’s experience is that she is a refugee as well. The word “refugee” may have some negative undertones, but to look for another word to describe the refugee experience is to make the experience taboo. As Faroq says, “it is true, the term “refugee” is problematic for the process of forming a sense of belonging or creating a new home, but it is a reality and a condition that I will reflect on with pride and privilege, not as a victim.”[3] But what is the difference between Faroq’s representation of Kimiya and the mainstream depictions of refugees? You can argue that mainstream media representations raise awareness, but are there alternative ways to raise awareness that do not reduce people to simplistic understandings of what it means to flee one’s country? 

As an artist, Faroq photographs women who went (or still are going) through the process of seeking refuge. Some of her photographs include portraits of those in refugee camps while other photographs capture women in the process of accepting the Netherlands as their new home. The photograph from the project How Shall We Greet the Sun (fig. one) depicts Kimiya confronting her vulnerability and personifying strength. Faroq explains the title as, “it is difficult to look directly at the sun, but we are embracing the light that comes from within.”[4]  

The chapter “The Spectacle of the Other” (2013) by the cultural theorist Stuart Hall focuses on representations of the African American body in the media. According to Hall, stereotypes take a few “simplistic, vivid, memorable, easily grasped and widely recognised characteristics” and in the case of the refugee, it simplifies and reduces these representations to characteristics of dehumanising suffering.[5] This ignores the complexities of each person’s story. By using this reductionist approach, mass media representations split people into binary opposites, into Westerners and refugees. Hall states that stereotyping is due to “gross inequalities of power” and in this case, this can be seen in the reluctance of Western countries to accept refugees, especially from countries outside the West.[6]

But how is this narrative countered by Faroq’s portrayal of Kimiya? Hall discusses certain counter-strategies used in the African American community to counter racialised representations of themselves and one of these strategies applies to the portrait in question. Hall calls this counter-strategy “positive and negative images”.[7] This includes the adding of positive imagery to the sea of mostly negative or stereotypical imagery to represent the complexities of the “othered” identity.[8] The photograph (fig. one) portrays Kimiya looking at the camera while standing on the beach. The grey background of the Netherlands reflects the emotional landscape Kimiya (and Faroq) explore as she reflects upon her personal journey, displacement, and future under her new refugee status. The photograph dwells upon constructing new cultural identities in the Netherlands as well as how displacement, memories and nostalgia for home affect one’s identity. Faroq expresses the changes that women counter in the process of relocating and settling in their new home without representing Kimiya in a stereotypical manner. Kimiya is represented with her dignity intact, as Faroq focuses on archiving the complicated emotions that come with her experience.[9] 

Faroq’s intention in the creation of her project, How Shall We Greet the Sun, is to explore how displaced women confront their emotions in terms of their different social and familial situations while constructing new identities. Faroq explores how to represent this in a visual manner.[10] In the photograph, there are feelings of honest intimacy and shared experience between the artist and Kimiya. Faroq’s intimate approach to her photography dissolves Kimiya as a mere spectacle and increases the range of approaches to representing refugees.

By Julia Krantz  

I am a third-year Arts, Media and Society student at Leiden University and I am currently doing a minor in Gender and Sexuality in Society. Alongside my studies, I am doing a curatorial internship at FOTODOK in Utrecht which is an institution that explores the relationship between documentary photography and society. FOTODOK has organised a conference called (IN)VISIBILITIES: Photography and Gender in the Netherlands between the 6th and 8th of May 2022 in which the artist, Thana Faroq, will introduce her project, How Shall We Greet the Sun (2021-ongoing). For more information on the event, view FOTODOK’s Instagram.

Appendix

Figure One: Thana Faroq. How Shall We Greet the Sun, 2021-ongoing, photograph.

Bibliography

Faroq, Thana. Interview by Julia Krantz. The Netherlands, 17 March 2022.

Hall, Stuart. “The Spectacle of the ‘Other’.” Chapter in Representation, edited by Stuart Hall, Jessica Evans and Sean Nixon, 2nd ed., 215–67. The Open University, 2013.

[1] Faroq, Thana. Interview by Julia Krantz.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Faroq, Thana. Interview by Julia Krantz.

[5] Hall, Stuart. “The Spectacle of the ‘Other’”, p. 247.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 262.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Faroq, Thana. Interview by Julia Krantz.