19 Feb Episode 09 – Representation and Repair
Aaron Shapiro: Welcome to Media at Risk, a podcast from the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. In today’s episode, Annenberg alum Nour Halabi speaks with two scholars whose work touches on different aspects of the ethics of representation and care. You’ll hear first from Lilie Chouliaraki about her work on the photographic practices of migrants and journalists; second, from Minelle Mahtani, who theorizes the academic and journalistic interview as a site where power relations are subtly reproduced. Hope you enjoy.
Nour Halabi: Hello, and welcome to Media at Risk. I’m Nour Halabi, assistant professor of Media and Communication at Leeds University. On this episode we’ll be hearing from two scholars: Lilie Chouliaraki, professor and chair in media and communications at the London School of Economics and Minelle Mahtani, Associate Professor in the Department of Gender, Race and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia. They’ll be speaking about the ethics of representation in journalistic practice.
First, we’ll hear from Lilie, who has devoted her career to studying the ethical challenges of mediated suffering from Somalia to New York. To start of us, I’ll begin by asking her about her forthcoming project on European coverage on the refugee crisis and particularly about her attention to refugee selfies as an overlooked and under theorized image within this discourse.
I’ll start us off with a very pertinent problem, I think, for journalists and academics alike, which is the invisibility of the refugee sometimes from some of the discourses. A lot of the conversations we have, both in immigration research and in journalism focuses on the crisis and neglects the stories of the refugees themselves. How do you think selfies add into that conversation a presence or demand a presence of the refugee?
Lilie Chouliaraki: To begin with, I completely agree with the point about invisibility of refugees and migrants. This is something that has been established a long time ago in relevant literature. Regarding the most recent crisis of 2015, I would say research that other scholars did, as well as our own research at the London School of Economics in the Department of Media Communication has established exactly that fact. It has established it across platforms and across modes of communication. We’re talking about invisibility, both in terms of narratives, news narratives and refugee and migrant stories, but we’re also talking about images and what these images say about the predicament of those people.
Even when we’re not talking about invisibility as such, the lack of imagery or the lack of stories, we are talking about a very restrictive repertoire of positions and refugees and migrants are given. We usually see them as either victims or as a threat to us. Now, when it comes to selfies, basically we’re looking at a subsection of that broader repertoire of resources that we have to talk about them and to visualize them.
The question for us arose because selfies are an important part of the contemporary visual economy. Even though we do see selfies everywhere today on social media platforms, often we see them also in mainstream media, on television, online, et cetera. Refugee selfies and migrant selfies as such, have not been part of that broader space of visibility.
The question I ask was, why is it in particular that we never see the face of migrant or a refugee at the moment that they are actually taking it? Why is it that their face is just not part of what we’re used to seeing about them? Why do we see them as groups anonymous, massified usually from a distance? Why do we have certain patterns of representation, which never includes the face? The face as they have photographed it, as they have in a way decided to put it up front in digital platforms. That was the starting point of that piece of work.
So, the research tried to do two things. On the one hand, ask the question of what kinds of faces of refugees do we see. In so doing, it led to the search for the different styles of representation in our media. Indeed, there are some selfie-related pictures of refugees that we can see. None of those, however, show the face of the refugee as it is taken by them and as a singular representation of themselves. There are always either with other people or represented by others as refugees; or what we see is long shots of groups of refugees taking selfies.
Nour Halabi: How does the selfie raise ethical concerns for journalists in the way that the other issues that you look at in your own research?
Lilie Chouliaraki: That takes us into the second thing that I was about to say that project on refugee selfies actually does, which is not only look and typologize the representational styles of the refugee face; but also, look at the selfie itself as a genre of representation and ask the question: What is it specifically about the selfie that makes it almost a forbidden genre when it comes to using it in order to represent those particular groups of people, migrants and refugees?
I think there is work to be done there in relation to how we theorize the selfie as a mode of representation, but as a social statement, what does it say; also, as a technology of power. These are the kind of concerns that I would like to bring into current theorizations of journalism, journalistic narrative, humanitarian communication. I think there is a very fertile ground there for starting thinking about the selfie beyond the dominant paradigms that we have been thinking about it so far.
Nour Halabi: I wanted to push you on the statement you made that selfies are part of our contemporary visual economy, because that brings out the economics of all of this as well. What role did you see the commercial models of news organizations playing into these dynamics?
Lilie Chouliaraki: Well, I think that the trend that I mentioned earlier, that basically Western news operate on a particular understanding of how refugees and migrants should be reported on. That is something that we need to repeat and that is something that we need to keep at the front of our critical research on crisis journalism and the journalism of migration. Because for different reasons that have to do with pragmatic and economic, but also cultural reasons, journalism tends to draw upon given routinely used stereotypes of who these people are and how they can be narrated in our news. As I said, that repertoire is very restricted.
One of the questions we should be asking in terms of representation is, are there other ways in which refugees and migrants can be narrated? Which are those other ways? What needs to change in journalistic practice, in order for those new narratives and those imaginations of the condition of the refugee and the migrant to come forth?
Nour Halabi: I’m thinking a very difficult normative standpoint as well to think that journalism has some moral responsibility in the cases of covering situations like these. Does part of your interest in looking at selfies, or rather, coverage of refugees in general in the media stem from this notion that journalism media occupy moral position?
Lilie Chouliaraki: I think once we start thinking about migration and the coverage of migration and the practice of receiving migrants in the context of Western countries, we are entering a minefield; because the whole field of representation and practice of reception is full of tensions. One tension has to do with journalism, and it is the tension between, on the one hand, commercialization, national interest as well; on the other hand, being good to others. A vision that journalism is there for the good and that these people are suffering and therefore we need to somehow provide the resources to our audiences to deal with that suffering in a culturally acceptable way.
How that tension between, on the one hand fearing and wanting to exclude, and on the other hand pitying and wanting to care is being resolved, is one of those tensions on the journalistic front. But there is another one, which I think is equally significant if not more significant, which is the tension within European or U.S. government structures. How do you govern the border? What do you do with migration? There I think, you have a similar tension. Contemporary management of the border always takes place within regimes of humanitarian security.
The border is a very torn place because on the one hand you have the military managing numbers, including and excluding, putting into camps, sending people back. On the other hand you’ve got this other huge group of people, NGOs and in the case of the Greek border in particular, volunteers, solidarity groups and activists who are there to care. The messages that come from the border, but also from the whole institutional setup of governing migration, is one of contradiction and tension again.
I think, that is, if you like the condition of possibility for narrating and dealing with migration; is precisely that, fundamental tension and how we deal with that. I think, how we criticize, it and how we can move beyond it, is a very crucial question today. What happens to those that you feel pity for that you feel you have a humanitarian responsibility for when these people actually live faraway location, where they find themselves suffering and come and knock on our doors.
Nour Halabi: Our conversation with Minelle shifts from paradigms of the image and the circulation in the news, to norms of the interview as a journalistic practice. It complements Lilie’s challenges to dominant forms of visual representation, with another challenge to the interview as a tool for knowledge formation in both academia and journalism. Take a lesson and consider how Minelle is actively engaging with the ethical pitfalls of thinking about risk as a concept, and how her project, Risk Relation, Revolution, Repair tends to these questions. In particular, how does her problementization of the interview format present a critical post-colonial indigenous re imagination of the interview media coverage?
Minelle Mahtani: Nour, salaam, it’s so nice to see you. Thanks for making time for me today.
Nour Halabi: Thank you.
Minelle Mahtani: I deliberately start with “salaam” in order to situate us and think about the place that we’re in and how it is that we communicate across different languages today. Anyway, nice to see you. I’m so happy that you’ve asked me about media and risk, because it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot and looking forward to speaking on this topic of Risk, Relation, Revolution and Repair today; because, I think what comes with risk is thinking about all the challenges and difficulties a lot of us have in the academy. Not just within media circles but also in the academy as well. That’s part of what I’ve been trying to work through in this talk; thinking about what constitutes taking risks in critical media studies, because these risks come with dangers. Part of what I want to talk about is how we navigate some of those treacherous toxic spaces in critical media studies.
I do so by talking through the potential theoretical possibilities of silences and what silences mean. What happens when we are silenced, what happens when we don’t feel like we have a place for potential critical resistance? Part of what I’m trying to do is think about this idea of situated solidarities in critical media studies. What might that look like? What might that look like if we actually took into consideration post-human understandings of our relationship in land; to think about love, land and labor in particular and develop a practice of love in critical media studies. That’s risky. With that comes a lot of vulnerability, but it also comes with a potential for tenderness. I’m really interested in the idea of tenderness and what that can look like.
Nour Halabi: I wanted to ask you about how you strive in your own research to address media risk versus your experience branching into broadcast journalism. How does that differ? How do you navigate the role of the academic versus the role of the talk show host?
Minelle Mahtani: Let’s start with risk and how we think about media risk. I think, part of what I’ve been pondering these days is, the epistemic violence that comes with thinking about risk and how might we more ontologically understand the concept of risk. The question to ask is risky to whom and why? Not always the same decisions that you or I would make might be seen as risky, but for other people it’s normative, it’s a different process.
Segueing into your second thoughtful question, this idea of thinking about risk is something that I’m thinking about with my show, which is about the themes of risk relation, revolution and repair. I’ve been interviewing people like Mohamed Fahmy. His life has been in danger. To have him in my studio and talk about what that risk meant, taking that risk and coming to that space of safety, whatever safety might look like for him, is something that I’m really interest in.
It makes me think about relations of care, and the kind of space of care that I can create for somebody like Mohamed Fahmy who had undergone so much PTSD and trauma and struggle. He’s sitting across from me, and what is my responsibility to create a nested space for him. What would that look like? That’s where I think my responsibility now when I think about media and risk, is thinking about that duty to repair.
I think we all have a duty to repair, but that means thinking about the violence of our epistemic histories, what that might look like and taking that seriously and creating a different space between me and the person sitting across from me who I might be interviewing at that moment. I might be willing to share those stories. That’s why today in my talk, I want to talk about this idea of the coloniality of the interview and how might we challenge the cages, the constraints, that prison that we force an individual into every day through the interview process.
The thing that I’ve been thinking about recently is how I’ve been trained as an interviewer, and how I’ve been trained by somebody who’s been called “the interview whisperer.” He told me the winning question you can always ask that will always lead to a better interview is this one question: What do you mean by that? For years I thought that was the most brilliant question, what do you mean by that?
But now that I’m influenced by post-structuralist thought, influenced by black geographies in particular, I’ve come to see just how empty that question is because the coloniality of that question boxes people in. I am demanding, asking you to change the way that you respond to that question so that it fits the way I want to hear an answer. And it’s such an extractive question.
Coloniality is all about extraction, and the burden of proof is put on the person with whom I’m peppering with questions. How do we begin to think about the coloniality of the interview? That’s the risk that I am taking in terms of entering into this new space, thinking about the grammar of othering and how might we develop a different language for nesting and for relationality of care.
Nour Halabi: Another thing I find very interesting in your work is this constant care towards not just looking at representation in the media but the way the representation is done; the intensity, the tenor of different representations of different groups. Some of what you’re saying is this idea of when someone comes up in the media, their right to not appear, their right to invisibility, their right choose to divulge certain items. Oftentimes, for example, in certain attacks there is this immediate response of bringing up certain communities and asking them to respond, to give an opinion, to speak to what they think.
Speak to us a little bit about how you reconcile, we need to have diversity in the media, we need to speak about these communities, but at the same time we need to reconcile their wants and needs to be respected, invisible at times; or to respect that sacredness of their own spaces, their own struggle over the mosque or the synagogue or these spaces that are their own.
Minelle Mahtani: I’ve been reading Christina Sharpe’s book In the Wake. It’s such a beautiful exploration of what black life could be if we were to challenge the colonial underpinnings of understanding black life and black geographies. She tells a personal story about the death of her sister. At one point she says, “I want to speak about the death of my nephew, but that is not my story to tell.”
I’ve been thinking about this, this idea of story and how story has been reclaimed in a very colonial context. Everybody has a story now; stories are ubiquitous. It’s so important to give everybody space to tell their stories. That’s why we have a zillion podcasts. But what does it mean when people think about claiming their story? To want end? Just because you have a story doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to lead to distributive justice in some way.
I’ve been really perturbed by this idea. Because I come from a planning background, I’ve seen how stories get used to think about the potential of community planning and development. Because people’s stories are what’s heard to develop in urban planning and other issues as well. How do we think about how those stories are exploited, used and told in very particular ways and who gets to tell those stories and who has the tools to tell those stories?
It’s hard for me not to think about Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Because this idea of story, that fact that it’s been reclaimed to colonial ends, when in fact, indigenous people, native people have been using stories for years and years in very particular ways, paying very specific attention to law, land and labor, thinking about the specificity of the land. These stories are uneven, they can happen anywhere; they’re not rooted. What happened to that story? There’s a violence of abstraction that happens there. For me, that really concerns me.
Part of what I’ve been working through with that, is thinking about the fact that I’ve been told that I should be thrilled, I have my own radio show, I get the chance to tell story. I have a chance to amplify the stories of the disenfranchised. As a mixed-race person, what a space of glory for me. I should be happy. But for me, the bigger question is, mixed-race visibility is not mixed-race power. Just because I have a place to amplify my voice doesn’t necessarily mean that social justice is being achieved in some way. In fact, what we’re seeing because the neo-liberal turn is that there’s so many people of color who are given a space for a voice, doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a voice for the voiceless. There’s just this deliberately unheard remain. That’s part of what I’ve been struggling with given that I do have a platform, but a platform for whom and to what end?
One of the thing I’ve been struggling with is thinking about the process through which I create journalistic representations of anti-colonialism. What does that look like? Because these are all the buzz words that are thrown around so carelessly. To really ground them in a materiality, what does that look like? I’ll give you one example just as, an interest to something that I’ve been struggling with. This thing called National Indigenous Day in Canada.
I knew, for that I day, I wanted to do full set of programming around the themes of what it meant to be indigenous. My producer and I had many conversations and she said, “Okay, I want to do it for the past, present and future. We’re going to talk about the past, what it was like for indigenous people in Canada in the past. Then we’re going to move to the present and talk about what it’s like for them now, and then we’re going to talk about innovation in indigeneity, how it is that different indigenous groups are thinking about innovation into the future.”
I said, “You can’t talk about temporality in that way from an indigenous storytelling context. I refuse to use that scaffolding for my program.” It was a really difficult conversation, because of course, in her mind’s eye, this seemed like such an appropriate way to think about spatiality through the temporal lens. I didn’t win that fight because didn’t allow the grammars of othering were so strong, that it was difficult for me to unravel that moment. But these are the struggles and the conversations that we need to have. If I’m committed to an ethics of care and a duty to repair as I try to do … I don’t want to say I get it right because I don’t. But if I’m committed to that process, those are the projects I have to fight for.
Nour Halabi: I had one more interest in how you ran your show that speaks to some of these issues that you talk about with media risk. Oftentimes, in the American context there is very strong emphasis on freedom of speech. When you speak about your show in interviews, you say it is unapologetically anti-racist. How is it that you reconcile being unapologetically anti-racist with encouraging freedom of speech and encouraging, what we call difficult conversations oftentimes?
Minelle Mahtani: I think again, it’s about that burden of proof that’s put on systemically disadvantaged people again; this idea that we constantly have to feel like we have to prove ourselves into existing. The people that were never meant to survive, as Audre Lorde says. I feel like it’s claiming a space by saying it’s not just anti-racist but unapologetically, I have no reason to apologize for creating a space that’s anti-racist. In fact, that’s part of the duty to repair that I’m so committed to.
Just taking it back to that idea of risk for a minute, which I think is important given the context of your series. It’s about recognizing the fact that even though I will always defend the freedom to speak, it’s when that speech hurts people so flagrantly, that I have responsibility. I’ll end this talk today … I talk about the fact that we had to get security detail for me a couple months ago after we had a former white supremacist come on the show. He was aggressive to the point where we were very scared about what might happen.
Now, I can say now in a different time and a different place that I don’t feel that same fear, but at the time it was very terrifying to be with somebody in an intimate studio space to have conversations with someone who, where I felt scared. You know I’ve talked about that fear of being scared, not being able to cross the border. Every time I still cross the American border I’m still scared, because I know my name is on a list and I know what that might mean for me and my family.
I’m still trying to recognize that, to think about how sometimes when we think about my silence when it comes to these things, that the silence is a tool of resistance. It isn’t always a form of subordination; it is also a tool of resistance, and how might I rethink the form of silence too.
Nour Halabi: This has been Media at Risk. Thank you for tuning in.
Aaron Shapiro: Thanks for listening. Today’s episode was produced by Nour Halabi and edited by me, Aaron Shapiro. We’d like to thank Emily Plowman, Waldo Aguirre, and of course, Lilie and Minelle. Barbie Zelizer directs the center for Media at Risk. For more information, check out www.ASCmediarisk.org.
“All the Right Things” by Son Lux (intro)
“Never Undo” by Morcheeba
“Two Thousand and Seventeen” by Fourtet
“Rode Null” by Hauschka
“Kadourimdou” by Pierre Bensusan
“Postcard Home” by Tommy Guerrero
“Two Fish and an Elephant” by Khruangbin (outtro)
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Nour Halabi is an Assistant Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds. She holds a PhD in Communication from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and a Masters in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics. Prior to joining Leeds, Halabi was a senior resident fellow at the Center for Media, Religion and Culture at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on social movements, migration and immigration policy and the political economy of communication. It has been published in Space & Culture, The International Journal of Communication and Arab Media & Society. Her most recent project, based on her dissertation, examines the concept of hospitality as an ethical framework with which to examine media coverage and policy responses to forced migration in the United States.
Lilie Chouliaraki is Professor of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her main research interest lies in the histories and challenges of mediated suffering. Her work has focused on three domains in which the human body-in-need appears as a problem of communication: disaster news, humanitarian campaigns & celebrity advocacy, war & conflict reporting. Relevant publications include Discourse in Late Modernity (1999), The Spectatorship of Suffering (2006), The Soft Power of War (ed., 2008) and The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism (2013) as well as sixty articles in peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes. Her work has been published in French, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Danish, Greek, and (currently) in Chinese. She is the recipient of three international awards for her publications, more recently the Outstanding Book of the Year award of the International Communication Association (ICA 2015, for The Ironic Spectator).
Minelle Mahtani is an Associate Professor in the Department of Gender, Race and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia. She is former President of the Association of Canadian Studies and the winner of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee award. She is a former national television news journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and a former associate producer with “Canada: A People’s History.” She is the author of “Mixed Race Amnesia: Resisting the Romanticization of Multiraciality” (UBC Press) and one of the editors of the book, “Global Mixed Race” (NYU Press). Currently, she hosts a daily radio programme, “Sense of Place” at Roundhouse Radio.
Photo courtesy of Bassam Khabieh: “Refugee girl in internally displaced camp in eastern Ghouta, February 9, 2017.”
This episode was produced by Nour Halabi and edited by Aaron Shapiro.