Ai Weiwei & the aestheticization of refugees

Despina Biri
When I was a philosophy student, we often examined the ethical thought experiment of the drowning child, in all its variations. Devised by utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, the main claim is that “if you can save a life without sacrificing anything of moral significance, you ought to do so”. The implications of applying this principle are far reaching. What if the child is far away from you? What if there are many children, and you have no way of assessing which one is in most urgent need? The list of questions goes on. Singer’s argument is not without problems, but the parallel between the thought experiment and what is happening now in Europe is an obvious one to draw.

Clearly, the very image of drowning children is now a daily occurrence in Europe. How are we to respond? How are we responding, in the here and now? The answers we give to these questions have implications that are both practical as well as ethical.

An important dimension of the answer, or attempted answer, we are collectively giving to the increased refugee arrivals into Europe at this point in time is, curiously, related to the aesthetic, not directly the ethical, aspect. What do photography, performance and visual art have to say about the way we see refugees?
A recently created photograph depicting Chinese artist Ai Weiwei posing as Aylan Kürdi, is interesting in this respect. The reason for this is that, in attempting to “raise awareness about the plight of refugees”, Weiwei ends up aestheticizing. That is, he uses what has now become a symbol of refugee deaths in the Mediterranean in a way that, somehow, brings to mind a fashion shoot (try googling “refugee fashion”). In posing as Aylan, Weiwei strips the original image of its visual impact, rendering it instead a mere substitute of a representation (that is, of another substitute). A cultural signifier, which has come to symbolize all refugees coming into Europe in 2015 and beyond, but which cannot possibly serve as anything but an approximation of the reality (that is, death by drowning). The original image is thereby stripped of its connotations, signifying the result of unspeakable violence, instead becoming just another way to visually represent “what it is to be a refugee”. The reason why it does not quite achieve its purpose is simple; reactions to the original image were a mixture of shock and grief, to the point where, as we have previously argued of powerlessness, similar to the reactions to a natural disaster.

To clarify: A relevant distinction to draw from here would be between the image of Weiwei (and similar depictions or representations of the life of refugees), and the corpus of work by Michael Haneke. Close examination of Haneke’s work reveals a preoccupation, fixation even, with how violence is depicted (or not depicted), and used as a plot device in cinema. In numerous interviews, Haneke has argued that, often, not showing acts of violence has a greater impact upon the viewer than actually showing them in all of their minuscule gory detail. The moral reason for this aesthetic choice is uncomplicated: we must not become accustomed to witnessing acts of violence, or their results, stripped of context and without room to reflect upon the choices we must now face in response to this violence. Yet Weiwei’s photograph does just that: it uses the pose as a device for ostensibly raising awareness, but in doing so, it normalizes what is the result of war and the struggle of millions to escape it.
However, there is still something which we do not see: how people came to be refugees. We seldom see the bombings, the terror campaigns, the troops deployed to fight Daesh. In this sense, what Weiwei is doing is sensationalize the product of that violence. However, violence and its result are not easy to distinguish between in the context of flight from war. Firstly because, it could be argued, the very event of flight can be considered violence in itself, and secondly because, especially with the ever hardening stance of the EU against refugees, fleeing from violence in the Middle East, Africa or the subcontinent  is met with another type of violence on European soil, of which drowning is only the most obvious form.

To be sure, Weiwei is not the only culprit here; the photograph of dead Aylan was already one of the most viewed images in 2015, well before Weiwei posed as him. This in itself reveals much about the way we collectively react to what I, for what it’s worth, refuse to call a crisis – that is, the arrival of war stricken people in Europe. The photograph of dead Aylan is, furthermore, the modern equivalent of starving children in Somalia in the 80s; those images, like the photo of Aylan now, are used and shared in an attempt to mobilize and raise awareness but, through overuse, the audience becomes desensitized. “Feed the World” is just another Christmas chorus; Aylan, the only name that survives among hundreds of thousands.

Going back to philosophy, Singer argues that, were we able to save the drowning child by, for example, sending $700 to her country, instead of buying the latest iPhone, then we ought to do so. Certainly, the volunteer experience on the Greek islands shows that many people would very much agree with Singer. However, at the same time, we run the risk of, inadvertently or not, aestheticizing; thinking we can save the drowning children by taking photographs of them, or of ourselves as them, using the latest $700 iPhone.

Despina Biri is a researcher and writer on health care issues.  She blogs at  and
  • Published in CULTURE

Life in Lesbos: the feet of the refugees' children are rotting

Lliana Bird

"There are thousands of children here and their feet are literally rotting, they can't keep dry, they have high fevers and they're standing in the pouring rain for days on end. You have one month guys, and then all these people will be dead".

Those were the final words of Dr Linda on the phone, a doctor that our volunteer organisations (Help Refugees and CalAid) had asked to fly out to Lesbos in response to an emergency cry for help from an overwhelmed volunteer on the ground.

The weight of those words and the responsibility that comes with them felt crippling. But why are we, a film maker, a radio presenter, and a music assistant being tasked with this responsibility? Shouldn't, as we had presumed, the large charities and governments be taking the charge of care for the precious lives arriving on Europe shores?

Another call came in - this time from volunteers in Serbia - the refugees are burning plastic bags to keep warm, they have nothing else, they are freezing to death, and the fumes from the bags are slowly poisoning them, please send help.

Then another - this time from volunteers on Lesbos trying to find out how to order body bags en masse... will they have to resort this? Time will tell, but certainly people there have already started to die.

We wished we could pick up the phone and call someone... who? A charity? An emergency team? The government? The army? How could we sit by and watch whilst these people die, and the handfuls of volunteers struggle and suffer too. But who is there to call? The charities are acting slowly, they have protocols to follow, political considerations, red tape, hierarchy and procedures. Our government's policy is not to help in Europe, and only to send aid to places like Syria, Lebanon in Jordan. So... it's left to everyday people, untrained, unprepared, and overwhelmed, to deal with this crisis.

Everyday people like us... a small group of friends who nine weeks ago decided to raise a little bit of cash, get a car load of goods and drive it to Calais. We'd heard from friends who'd been there some of the terrible stories of war and persecution, we knew that numbers were growing, that more children were coming everyday, and that conditions were dire. Our plan was to do our bit, pat ourselves on the back, and then go back to our lives feeling that we'd done something good for our fellow mankind.

Here we are, nine weeks later, registered as a small charity (Help Refugees), more deeply involved than ever in this refugee crisis, and with no signs of returning any time soon.

The reason is simple, because trust me, none of us set out to do this (our group are a bunch of TV producers, music managers, radio broadcasters and documentary film makers)... but we couldn't walk away, because in so many instances there simply aren't enough people helping. We expected to meet the large charities in huge numbers on the ground taking charge of things, or for government presence to be strong, or for the UN to be there in force. It's just not happening. So our team, and ordinary volunteers like us, have been forced to step in. Unconstrained by red tape, political considerations and bureaucracy and the slow decision making processes of large corporations, we can act fast. And we have had to. So far our teams have visited and delivered aid and other assistance to Kos, Lesbos, Calais, Serbia, Greece, Macedonia. But it isn't even close to enough. We are just a few, we are untrained, and whilst there are handfuls of incredible volunteers and small groups doing what they can (and struggling and becoming traumatised in the process), people (children, women and men) are literally dying.

We can't ignore their cries for help. The volunteer I mentioned earlier in Lesbos called Merel Greaves, (now ill herself with a high fever) shared some incredibly disturbing reports on the situation in Moria (a refugee camp in Lesbos), with thousands arriving every day, and very little visible support or help from large charities or governments.

"The situation in Moria is utterly catastrophic. We need organisations to come. There is just a handful of us volunteers in Moria, there are no organisations except for a once a day food distribution which is nowhere near enough. I've had people holding half dead babies up to me the whole day and we have nowhere to send them. All the NGOs are inside and doctors only rarely come out. Tomorrow will be a disaster, there are no dry clothes for anyone, no shelter, there are children sleeping in bin bags, no food, no blankets, no diapers for babies. No access to drinking water for the people at the back of the line, people will sleep in the wet and cold tonight in the open air, half the people will wake up sick, some will die, I'm sure of it. We urgently need medics on the ground, some sort of sheltering and dry clothes. Please please please help. We are just a few volunteers by ourselves without resources but people are looking at us to help and we can do nothing... we are a handful of volunteers who do not even belong to an organisation with no resources to give the thousands of ill and dying and drenched people waiting out there. The rain has not stopped, it has been relentless and never ending, draining every single and last person to the bone. There are no shelters for people to hide, there is not enough food for everybody: No water. No clean clothes for the babies. No doctors. The rain, the rain.

We, the volunteers in Moria, are completely desperate. I am completely desperate. The situation is inhuman, it is not possible that this is happening to people in Europe. Yet it is happening, my god it's happening and people are dying out there, people are collapsing in my arms and dozens of babies will die of hypothermia over the next few days.

Staff from UNHCR come to ask us for help (I've only ever seen two staff on the ground from UNHCR - those two are amazing and do what they can as individuals) but where the hell is the money? They ask us to help them clean the trash of a few shelters down the road... we went in by the gate but we get side tracked, sucked in by the horrors around and the people asking for help... For hours we plead with police to let through sick babies, the passed out woman, the leg injuries. Sometimes they let us go in, sometimes not. So many people want my help... a girl no older than eight falls on her knees in front of me and folds her hands together and in hysterics says 'please help, please help'. A passed out woman in dragged in, babies drenched in their blankets. These are the scenes I can see before my eyes like a horror film I can't switch off.

Every single person is drenched to the bone, all their clothes, their shoes stuck in the knee-high river of mud. Inside the gates we help the families who are about to register, every single person is shivering and pretty much every single person is in need of medical attention. The woman from UNHCR grabs me, 'they are about to open the gates for the next group' I take one look at the gate and see the squashed people pushed up against it, sounds of crying and screaming: I know already exactly what will happen when we open the gate. The riot police remove the bolts and open it. Hordes of people run in, we make gestures to walk slowly but it's no use, she pulls me aside to step away from the crowd. But what unfolds in the next few seconds we knew already: people are getting trampled on, piled on top of each other when they all try to push in. She grabs my arm, 'we have to pull out the babies!', we run in and with all my might I tug at the people stuck at the bottom, it's no use, I see a child and pull her arms. Then, a strange smell and a quick sensation: teargas. It burns my eyes, my throat, my face, people scream and run away from the gas. I have to let go of the child and run also, it is unbearable. We run behind the bus, a little boy with a red coat is waiting for me. 'Sister!' He shouts, he takes my hand and we run together, away from the gas. We stop, i bend over and spit. A little girl comes over to me and cries, I pick her up and we sit on a roll of fencing wire in the corner. Her family gathers around us, I hug the girl tight, stroke her face and all together we weep for the deep misery that is so unnecessary. After 15 minutes I know I have to go back in to help. I leave them behind.

For the rest of the night we try to dress the drenched babies that are coming in with the clothes from the van. I've never seen such feet and hands, completely white and shrivelled up. Again nothing fits and there are no jackets or shoes. But we try our best. I've come to realise you cannot do anything but make the situation for one individual a little better for a very short period. God knows what more they'll have to endure. I feel such anger also, how out of control is the situation when you have volunteers who have no experience or training working with the UNHCR to try and fight the shitstorm?"

Merel is angry, she is also very sick herself now, but she can't walk away. How can we? How can anyone of us sit by and allow all this to happen? On European shores? To human beings escaping war? No matter what your political views, no matter the eventual fate of these people, surely our duty now is to keep them alive? To use the huge resources and experience we have here in Europe to care for these people, these children. Volunteers like Merel can't do this alone, it needs much larger presence from the huge, experienced organisations. It needs immediate government action. Lesbos is just one of so many examples, and the longer we leave things the worse things will be.

Lliana Bird is a London born broadcaster who's worked across a variety radio and TV. A former Sky News contributor, she can currently be heard on Xfm Weekends 4-7pm. She also creates a weekly podcast 'Geek Chic's Weird Science' discussing the week's strangest and quirkiest science news.

First published in English on "The Huffigton Post", 26.10.2015 


A Good Samaritan in Greece

William Spindler

The Guardian Angel of refugees lives no more...

Father Efstratios Dimou – “Papa Stratis”, a Good Samaritan of our time,  the founder of NGO Agkalia in the Greek island of Lesbos, who had helped thousands of refugees and migrants since 2007, lives  no more. We re-published (from an articel by William Spindler abourt the great work done by Agkalia and Papa Stratis.

Father Efstratios Dimou – “Papa Stratis” to all and sundry –  sits in the front yard of his house, surrounded by flowers in earthenware pots, a small apricot tree and his big bear-like dog, Siba. Overhead on the Greek island of Lesvos, swallows fly in and out of a nest on the wall.

He wears a dark blue cassock, a pony tail and leather sandals which complement his big grey-blue mischievous eyes and long bushy grey beard. He suffers from a chronic respiratory condition and has to be permanently connected by a tube to a tank that supplies oxygen directly to his lungs. This does not stop him from smoking the occasional cigarette.

Papa Stratis, along with other local volunteers in the village of Kalloni, has been helping refugees since 2007 through the NGO ‘Agkalia‘. In all these years he reckons that he has helped some ten thousand people, including a few locals fallen on hard times. But never before has he seen so many refugees looking for help.

“Every day between one and two hundred people come to Kalloni,” the 57-year old Orthodox priest says. “The local people tell them to come to us for help. We give them food, water, milk for the babies, shoes, clothes. They can stay here too: we have blankets, mattresses on the floor.”

Chased by the war in Syria and by conflict and persecution in other places, more than 26,000 refugees have arrived in Lesvos since January. They cross the short stretch of water that separates the island from Turkey in rubber dinghies and wooden boats. Many of them land on the remote northern coast and walk for up to 15 hours to Papa Stratis’ temporary shelter in Kalloni.

“I have seen small children with blisters on their feet and pregnant women holding their bellies and crying in pain,” he says sadly. “These people are not migrants, they do not choose to come here. They are children of war, fleeing bullets. They are life-seekers, they search for life, hope and the chance to live another day.”

With local authorities overwhelmed by the 64,000 refugee arrivals to Greece since the beginning of the year, local activists like Papa Stratis and the network of volunteers “Village All Together”, are often taking on the sole responsibility of caring for the refugees on the Greek islands.

“We have no external funding,” he explains with a smile. “We depend completely on the generosity of the local people.”

His battered wine-red Citroën Xantia – he calls it “Tarzan” for its ability to scramble onto the island’s most inaccessible corners – is always packed with food, water and spare clothes.

“One day we found a baby asleep in his mother’s arms at the beach. We wanted to give him milk but didn’t have a bottle and he couldn’t drink from a glass. It was in the middle of the night, so we woke up all the pharmacies in town until we found a bottle,” Papa Stratis chuckles cheekily.

Hard-hit by a pervasive debt crisis and circumscribed by economics, politics and geography, small communities in the Greek islands are having to deal with the fallout of conflicts far away of which they know and understand little. Many islanders are wary of the destitute refugees who arrive in their midst. Others worry about the impact their presence will have on tourism. But many, like Papa Stratis, are rolling up their sleeves and stepping forward to help.
William Spindler was born  in Guatemala and now is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He worked as a journalist in London and in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, before joining UNHCR in Mozambique. He has since worked amid humanitarian emergencies in Rwanda, Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Colombia and Mali, as well as in Paris and Geneva. He has a PhD in art history and theory and has published articles on cultural, political and humanitarian issues in “The Financial Times”, “The Spectator”, “Le Monde diplomatique”, “Libération” and “Cambio 16”.

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