The film Dirty Pretty Things, although made in 2002, is still extremely timely. It provides a gritty depiction of the exploitation of illegal migrants living in London. The movie is centred on Okwe, a Nigerian ‘illegal’ in London, who works as a hotel-porter by night, and a minicab driver by day, and Senay, a young Turkish woman, also illegal, who earns a pittance working as a maid in the hotel where Okwe is the night porter. One morning, Okwe is instructed to clean up the room of a guest who had been accompanied by a prostitute. He has to unblock a toilet pan overflowing with blood, and finds that the obstruction is a human heart. This discovery leads Okwe and Senay to become embroiled in the sordid underground, illegal trade in human organs. The film reveals the sinister network of control that relies on keeping asylum seekers and migrants, desperate to obtain EU passports, in a state of servility and fear.
In a scene in an underground car park, Okwe delivers a box containing human organs to one of the native English men involved in the trade. “How come I’ve never seen you before?” the man asks. In a calm, quiet, and measured tone, Okwe replies: “We are the people you don’t see. We are the ones who drive your cabs, clean your homes and suck your cocks.” Okwe’s poignant response raises the fundamental question of visibility and recognition of migrants. We see migrants all the time. There has been an upsurge in migrants’ representations in the public mediated sphere. The current ‘Europe migrant crisis’ captures headlines and occupies media programmes. Social media platforms provide spaces for debating migration and platforms for migrants’ self-representation. Yet, as Okwe puts it, all too often we fail to see the migrants. They are strangers who are so morally removed from us that they have no status, no meaning for us.
The media play a fundamental role in feeding how we imagine migrants and in our failure to recognise them. Media representations constitute perhaps the most significant symbolic resources that people draw on to make sense of and make judgements about migration and migrants. So how are we invited by contemporary media images and narratives to imagine migrants? How might we imagine them differently?
I would like to offer three brief answers to these questions.
First, migration often makes its way into the screens and headlines – and therefore into our imagination – within and through the crisis frame: refugees on inflated boats fleeing from disasters in their home countries; crowds in European train stations desperate to enter the borders of European countries.
Women and children are the ‘suitable’ migrants, shown as helpless victims in need of rescue. This is an imaginary of a short-term, unexpected sudden emergency, which lacks a sense of the process that has led up to the crisis image. The immediate picture or story tends to obscure the long and painful journey that preceded it. In a similar way to representations of natural disasters – and indeed the metaphors used to describe migration are often strikingly similar to those of natural disasters: ‘waves’, ‘tide’, ‘uncontrollable flows’ – there is little to no room for understanding the long-term, structural injustices and conditions that have created these crises; recognising that these are, in fact, perpetual and unexceptional crises.
Crucially, this ‘emergency imaginary’ (a concept developed by Craig Calhoun in relation to humanitarian disasters) fits news bites and media cycles: it is immediate, short and fleeting. When we are called upon to imagine human beings in this way, we may be temporarily moved and feel compassionate. However, to nourish deeper understanding and commitment, to open up our imagination, require a longer-term frame which shows migration as a process underpinned by a complex of structural and individual factors.
Second, although migrants are now frequently shown in news headlines, on televisions screens and social media, their voices are still largely muted. Creating the conditions for migrants to give account of their lives is a fundamental starting point for allowing migration into our imagination and moral horizons. New media increasingly allow migrants to speak for themselves about their experiences and hardships, and to voice their frustrations, rage and fears. But we have to ask the critical question of who listens, and whether and how those accounts are valued. The migrants that we do hear and see, may speak, but for the most part, they are not heard. Moreover, those who are listened to, tend to be individuals who have more resources and authority to speak.
Third, ambivalence is all too often suppressed or totally ousted from representations of migration. Stories and images of migration are commonly polarized. On the one hand, we have utopian constructions of ‘dream’ lives that celebrate the promise and benefits derived from migration to a new place. For example, the ‘I am an Immigrant’ campaign of the Movement Against Xenophobia, which included posters with images of real-life immigrants displayed in London tube stations, celebrated immigrants’ successful integration in and contribution to the UK. On the other hand, we have dystopian accounts of ‘nightmares’ which promote an exclusionary politics: ‘our’ safety and national identity is threated by ‘them’, or the dreadful scenarios that exclusively highlight the injustices, extreme hardship, discrimination and racism that migrants experience.
Ambivalence, uncertainty and complexity – which are the crux of everyday life and the experience of migration – tend to be swallowed up in many of the representations we come across. Both ‘dream’ and ‘nightmare’ depictions of migration prohibit ambivalence or incoherence; they do not allow assigning of an object, an event or an experience to more than one category (e.g. good/bad; desirable/undesirable; beneficial/unbeneficial), let alone admit the inability to categorize it at all.
However, visual and textual representations of migration and migrants are capable of transforming, sometimes in unpredictable ways, the rigidity and crude antinomies of the dream and nightmare scripts. They can show that migrants’ lives, even after decades of living in a new place, are always, to varying degrees, liminal, ambivalent, often precarious, fraught with contradictions and incomplete. And they sometimes lack closure – refusing to label migrants and classify migration as a ‘bad thing’ or a ‘good thing’. In my book Media Representation and the Global Imagination I explore some examples of such representations, which are more open, less rigid and conclusive. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman eloquently describes ambivalence as “the waste of modernity.” I think we should seek and demand that our media give us more of this waste. How else can we imagine better possible lives for others and for ourselves?
Shani Orgad is Associate Professor at the Department of Media and Communications at London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), UK. This blog is based on her book Media Representation and the Global Imagination (Polity, 2012) and her research on media representations of conflict, humanitarian disasters, suffering, immigration and gender.