Guest post by Saara Pellander and Noora Kotilainen.  Saara is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki, where she defended her doctoral thesis (passed with distinction) on the regulation of family migration to Finland in 2016. She is currently employed as a researcher in the Academy of Finland financed research consortium GLASE (Multilayered borders of global security), examining migrants’ everyday experiences of security and bordering. Noora works as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Helsinki and is employed in the Academy of Finland Project “Multilayered Borders of Global Security” GLASE. She defended her doctoral thesis “Visual Theaters of Suffering: Constituting the Western Spectator in the Age of Humanitarian World Politics”, at the University of Helsinki 2016. The thesis deals with the history, alterations and recent utilization of visual representations of suffering, conflict and war within the frame of humanitarian sentiments, international politics, humanitarianism and human rights. This is the fifth instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on ‘The Memory Politics of Migration at Borderscapes, organised by Karina Horsti.

Media coverage of the ‘refugee crisis’ is inundated with images of refugees trying to reach Europe. Along with imagery commonly associated with refugeeness—miserable crowds of migrants, overcrowded boats, reception centers, swarming border crossings and haunting images of humane suffering and despair, heart wrenching images of drowned children—a particular visual image, that of the smartphone-using (male) refugee stood out.

Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/REX

Obtaining and using a smartphone was widely used to place the subjects’ refugee status under doubt, as unsuitable for a ‘real’, genuine asylum seeker, entitled and worthy of refuge. For example, a nationalist populist Finnish Member of the European Parliament, Jussi Halla-aho, called the cellphone-using asylum seekers ‘IPhone men’, to signal the bogus nature of their plight.

But why did the images of the ‘iphone men’ cause such a spectacle? How do memory politics and public memories of the way refugees should look, behave and be represented, connect to discourses and images of the smartphone using refugee?

Memory politics and images of refugees

Liisa Malkki argues that the post war era has been one in which ideas about refugees—how to deal with them, what problems they create and what they look like— have been intensively manufactured. One of the key vehicles through which the figure of the refugee has been constructed is through media images. There is a culturally and historically formed visual— and often highly stereotypical—sense of how the refugee appears, or ought to look like.

Visual representations of refugeeness have for decades been rigid, and for the large part have focused on the humanitarian victim. The prevalent visual mode for representing refugeeness—and arguably still one of the most culturally familiar for many—is the image of ragged people, culturally different, barefoot, in crowds and making their way across a foreign landscape. Scholars argue that speechlessness, corporal suffering and physically detectable wounds are signs of the exemplary victim in the case of refugees. Typically, the plight of displaced people needing help is conveyed through visible signs of ‘real violence’, and dirtiness. Women and children typically feature in political debates, exemplifying the notion of ‘deserving’ asylum seekers.

As Terence Wright observes, depicting displaced people aestheticises refugeeness in a visual style that stems from Christian iconography. Such images often center on the figures of the holy and include the suffering feminine ‘timeless Madonna’ and the innocent child. Such popular representational practices, as Susan Sontag discusses, have a tendency to represent the suffering of others in spectacular ways and create a greater cultural distance between the objects in need of help and spectators. Thus, the way displaced persons appear in images create a distance between the spectator and the displaced people in temporal and geographical terms, but also present them as backward in material and developmental terms.

The ‘iPhone men’ disrupting the visual memory code

The smartphone-using able bodied, active man, dressed in up-to-date Western style clothing, is, in many respects in stark opposition to the historical framing of refugees. It disrupts the ability to clearly differentiate ‘us’ from ‘them’. As Liisa Malkki notes, once the visual features that are associated with ‘real’ refugeeness fade in the eyes of the public as well as the perception of the authorities, so too do the number of people regarded as refugees.

But refugeeness has altered— and so have images of refugees. The ones fleeing war and persecution today and heading towards the ‘West’ are not necessarily the most physically weakened. Nor are they necessarily illiterate masses, as the usual style of visual representation often presents them to be. As Wright notes, heterogeneity among refugees is vast: some are extremely poor, illiterate and ragged, whereas some own their own communication networks. 

The global boundaries of sameness and otherness

Whereas differences in appearance negatively affect the desire to offer help, seeming similarities seem to stimulate our reaction to the plight of others. In fact, the closer the ones in need of help are to ‘us’ temporally, geography, culturally, politically and appearance vise, the more benevolent we tend to be towards them. But in the case of the smartphone using asylum seekers the visual ‘Nearest is the dearest’-pattern seems to be converted.

Photo: REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis

It is remarkable how smartphones, identifiable technological gadgets, representing sameness between refugees and citizens, have created antithetical feelings. Images of the asylum seekers operating their smartphones disturb the historically normalised representation of refugees. In xenophobic and anti-immigration discourses, refugees are either too different or too similar. When they are too different, they are not worthy of compassion, if they are too similar, then they are not in need of help. In current hostile contexts, it becomes ever more challenging to present refugees as legitimate subjects. Yet, this is how refugees should and could be portrayed: as humans who, just like the European spectators, have universal human rights.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Pellander, S. and Kotilainen, N. (2017) (Not) Looking Like a Refugee: Visual Memories of Refugeeness and the Figure of ‘The iPhone Man’. Available at: (Accessed [date])