Review: Magnum Photos Present: On Migration @ Barbican Centre

Since September 2015, Magnum Photos has commissioned its photographers to document the migrant crisis across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. In what is considered the largest migration of people post-World War II, the panel discussed whether the resulting photographs are driving social change or if it is a case of compassion fatigue. The Mango Lab was present, taking notes and bring you our summary.

mark power za'atari

Migration is at the forefront of our minds, but how it is presented to us visually is far more interesting than our made-up perception of it. For example, Matt Black photographing an international relief aid depot in Dubai is a largely different interpretation to the refugee crisis than Mark Power’s (above) pictures of the Za’atari refugee camp. So, how far is our connection with a story embedded in the photograph?

According to the UN there are an estimated 60 million people fleeing from persecution and poverty. For almost 70 years Magnum Photos has pushed its lenses into different genres of photography; but when they sent Mark Power to Za’atari, 8 miles from the Syrian-Jordanian border, in his mind, his presence was irrelevant.

With only two days to photograph the camp, Power’s images were informative, but he said: “I was utterly frustrated, as a photographer in the camp there was nothing I could do to change this. I felt that what I was doing was a very insignificant response.”

Perhaps the most recent and shocking image was that of Aylan Kurdi – a young Syrian boy – who was pictured face down on a beach near Bodrum after he drowned. The question then becomes whether a person is robbed of his or her dignity. If agency is given as a result of shocking images does that make it any less undignified?

David Kogan, Magnum Photos Executive Director says: “You have to really judge – and I speak as a former editor receiving the stuff as well as someone producing – along the boundaries of power and impact and to an extent objectivity. You have to be incredibly careful about the selection of material.”

When Malaysian airline MH17 was shot down, a Magnum photographer captured the debris and fallen bodies. As graphic as the content was Magnum sent out the images to news organisations; The Guardian consequently wrote a letter attacking photography agencies for crossing the line. However Kogan says the purpose of Magnum is to get material out there that is accurate.

The same sorts of images appear day after day concerning the refugee crisis, but not all of them move us towards action. So is it in fact a case of compassion fatigue?

Sophie Henderson, Director of the Migration Museum Project says: “It’s not so much compassion fatigue – it is about being inured to the repetition of similar images. People are very shocked by one image – there was a government response to it. When people see too much of the same sort of image there’s too much to respond to and they can’t have a new take on it. They need a new stimulus.”


When Amnesty International staged a photograph of people lying in body bags on Brighton beach they were highlighting the number of deaths in the Mediterranean. Steve Symonds, programme director for Refuge Rights at Amnesty International believes images can stir politicians into changing policy decisions, however in a lot of senses politics are failing us with or without these images. A fair but contentious question to ask is: is the problem that these people are from Arab countries?

Symonds says: “It clearly does make a difference. On the whole the people that we see are not white, are not Christian and you can see that reflected oftentimes in the main political debates and in the media. They are not that shy about drawing those distinctions.”

More relevant than our perceived view of the migrant crisis is the essentialness for refugees to tell their own stories through photography. Henderson says: “We cannot presume to tell other people’s stories. It won’t have any integrity otherwise.”

Beyond the bleak headlines and photographs some comforting stories do surface. The Migration Museum Project recently launched Call Me By My Name: Stories From Calais & Beyond. One image of a man, who can be seen contemplating the destruction of his worldly possessions after a fire rages through his camp, is particularly powerful. A stranger proceeds to place a red carpet over the man’s shoulders as he stands in the November cold. The image becomes powerful because of its story and in some senses it’s a blue sky emerging between bands of black clouds. If you are willing to see it that way.


Call Me By My Name: Stories From Calais and Beyond is showing until June 22 at:

Londonewcastle Project Space,

28 Redchurch Street,


E2 7DP



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