Roots & routes

The deceptive use of poignant images

This is a famous and often reproduced photograph, used to exemplify the migration experience. Legions of viewers have wanted to project or inscribe their interpretations onto this photograph, with comments like: “Ferocious and affectionate mother”.

Lately it has been used to remind Italians that they too, were once like the poor migrants that are drowning off the coast of Lampedusa. However, when images like this are used as symbols we tend to forget one thing.

These people have names: in 1985 they were identified as Anna Sciacchitano and her children, Paolo, Maria, and Domenico, who migrated to the Usa to join their husband and father Giovanni Gustozzo, in Scanton, Pennsylvania. [Lewis W. Hine Collection, New York Public Library]

Funny that… You can see Anna Sciacchitano’s name fairly clearly on her suitcase. It just goes to show how migration has long been anonymised and essentialised by the cultural elites. Instead of being tagged as a photo of Anna Sciacchitano with her children, it became the ‘symbol’ of Italian migration for the culture mill (and I suggest even for the photographer himself, who despite his best intentions as a social reformer, still fell into this trap. In fact, I wonder if he took this photo with Anna Sciacchitano’s consent).

This is a bit like publishing photos of starving children in Africa to evoke sympathy for charitable purposes (when they are not used to make money for multinationals). We are meant to see anonymous starvation and to sympathise, but I wonder what the impact would be if we knew the names of these children, when and where they were born, what games they liked to play and who their parents, and brothers and sisters were etc. I think only then would the horror – and/or suffering – of the people represented in these photos, becomes more evident and, I suggest, more difficult to deal with.

This reflection brings me to some final considerations, or perhaps, questions: Why must we fill our mind with like figures and images? Are we not simply reproducing and expanding the advertising model to the point of considering it a legitimate representation of reality? Should we not question this entire visual paradigm that seeks to predetermine the connection between image and its content and/or meaning?

I suggest that it is precisely because of the resulting tension between image and content that we have the post-modern phenomenon of ‘culture jamming’ and referential satire (as for example in The Chaser’s skit about children dying of cancer). However, this trend also operates to the detriment of active change (effectively addressing situations such as world hunger), by reducing what passes as ‘information’ to the continual eye glazing flow of passively absorbed imagery.

The medium has truly become the massage.

Photo by Lewis Hine Italian Family Looking for Lost Baggage, Ellis Island, New York, 1905, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Gerardo Papalia
Dr. Gerardo Papalia is a Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne. He has completed degrees in Italy and Australia and has taught in universities in both countries. He is a specialist in the study of the history and culture of the Italian diaspora in Australia which he analyses through post-structuralist theoretical approaches. His publications cover a wide range of disciplines including history, cinematography, religious belief, literature and cultural hybridity.
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