Symbolic Ordering: Representations of Flight and Arrival in the “European Refugee Crisis”

Monday, 16 July 2018: 11:00
Oral Presentation
Johannes MARENT, University Trier, Germany
Images, used by media outlets, convey specific worldviews that have an influential impact on public opinion about forced migration. This analysis focuses on the role images played in media representations of the “European refugees crisis”. It offers empirical evidence for how images offer specific interpretations of the nature of group relationships. This article focuses on the front pages of six daily German and Austrian newspapers during a 3-day period, September 5 - 7, 2015, when forced migrants in Hungary began walking towards Austria and Germany, and culminates with their arrival there. The analysis reconstructs iconic constellations and iconological references, the interplay between text and image, and the political context of production. I argue that there was a transformation in the symbolism of German newspapers, one which is not evident in the Austrian newspapers, whereby images of forced migration shifted from presenting a seemingly uncontrollable danger to constituting a political trump card. This shift, observable in the visibility of previously invisible German locals and personalized depictions of refugee women and children, is more than a demonstration of solidarity – it is a move to gain symbolic power. The German media constructs a narrative of second flight to the “West”, reactivating a historic symbolic boundary between Eastern and Western Europe. Images of “the refugee” construct a narrative of a strong Germany (opposed to a disorganized EU) that uses its power for humanity (opposed to Hungary). At the same time, the Austrian media published distancing images which depicted no active part for Austrians, focusing on amorphous masses instead. Although forced migrants are at the center of these images, neither their experiences nor the circumstances for their flight are addressed in them. The marking of difference in these media representations of “the other” primarily serves the collective identity of the nation.