Guest post by Thomas Nail. Thomas is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver. He is the author of Returning to Revolution: Deleuze, Guattari and Zapatismo (Edinburgh University Press, 2012), The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford University Press, 2015), Theory of the Border (Oxford University Press, 2016), Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion (Edinburgh University Press, 2018), Being and Motion (Oxford University Press, 2018), Theory of the Image (Oxford University Press, 2019) His publications can be downloaded here. Thomas is on Twitter @xThomas_Nail.

World Press Photo of the Year 2013.26 February 2013, Djibouti City, Djibouti. African migrants on the shore of Djibouti city at night (John Stanmeyer—VII for National Geographic)

More people and more images are in circulation today than ever before in history. The digital image and the centrality of the migrant thus mark a new period in political aesthetics. Since 2014, in particular, people have been sharing millions of digital images of the lives, travels, and deaths of migrants. For example, the image of Alan Kurdi, the dead Syrian three-year old, is now one of the most influential images of all time. An iconic photo of migrants on a beach holding their mobile phones up in the air to try and get a signal to call home won the 2014 World Press Photo Award. We think of image viewing as a passive activity separate from the legal system, but the circulation of migrant images should be taken seriously as a political act with real consequences.    

Anti-immigrant media representations and rhetoric have proliferated—often with the effect of treating migrants as criminals before any crime has been committed.  In particular, the spread of images and rhetoric of the migrant caravan as a military ‘invasion’ of the United states have had disastrous consequences. President Trump called the caravan an ‘invasion’ and ‘an assault on our country’; the Associated Press called it an ‘army of migrants’ and tweeted about ‘a ragtag army of the poor’; and Robert Bowen murdered 11 people in a Synagogue because a Jewish refugee group supported caravan refugees. Trump even told the border patrol to shoot migrants if they throw rocks. This aesthetic criminalization of migrants and the rise of cyber-racism helped mobilize anti-immigrant militia groups and popular support against refugees. Now refugees are being deported from the US and detained in cages in Mexico as if they were criminals. The explicit media framing of migrants as a violent, criminal, military invasion is a an old historical tactic with a huge popular resurgence in the US and Europe.

As these images circulated across twitter so quickly, people formed opinions and judgements before the real details of the caravan were known or could be disseminated by more accurate sources. In this way so much of migration and criminalization politics happens before the confrontation at the border and transversally across borders. Thus, the circulation of media images has its own kind of migration and its own kind of borders that are not necessarily spatially or temporally congruent with the migrant bodies at the border or in detention. There is simply no way to fully understand migration politics and criminalization without understanding migrant images as part of the process—confronting their own barriers and waging their confrontations as they affect everyone.

At the same time, the widespread access to cell phones with digital cameras has also made it possible for migrants themselves to generate more images of their own movement and experience than ever before. The itinerant, grainy, and handheld images of migrants’ cell phone cameras have become their own film genera: the ‘wretched of the screen’. In these images and videos migrants are not silent victims but creators of new aesthetic forms, ‘an imperfect cinema’ as demonstrated in Elke Sasse’s 2016 film #MyEscape.

Cell phones have also become literal lifelines for migrants as they helped them obtain travel information in isolated areas and share videos, sounds and images with friends, family, and authorities. The digital visual and sonic images produced by migrants have become the material basis of the aesthetic threads that hold together numerous communities across borders, not just refugees. Although it is most obvious in the case of refugees, visual and sonic images through cell phones are the aesthetic lifelines that make possible sustained social and informational communities around the world. The migrancy of the digital image is what allows for community in a world of global migration, continuous mobility, and displacement.  In other words, digital images are what allow migrants to stay in touch with one another through phones, computers, and the internet but also what provide a global imaginary of the lives, struggles, and deaths of migrants for the world’s gaze. This is a global political aesthetic project and it matters who gets to speak and share their images. The UN has already recognized the enormous influence of social media on perceptions of migrants but states, individuals, and organizations need to explicitly combat anti-immigrant rhetoric, images, and myths about migrants as well with images that invoke empathy and solidarity.

We should think about borders not just as dividing lines between countries but as cultural and aesthetic structures that also have effects on legal policy, law enforcement, electoral politics, and thus the lives and deaths of migrants. This is why we need to actively refuse the cultural and aesthetic criminalization of migrants and develop a new political aesthetics of the migrant image.   

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Nail, T. (2019) Guilty Before Trial: The Image of the Criminal Migrant. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/04/guilty-trial (Accessed [date])