Immigration Photography in Italy

Andrea Pogliano

For my recent research on the connections between photography, journalism and immigration in Italy, I have relied on sociological data accumulated over the years. [1] I analyse photojournalistic representations of immigration, which tend to be divided between those which are anonymous, or de-humanising, and those that fight for the affirmation of the people portrayed.

I look at the reception of news photographs according to new data gathered from experimental research that I am conducting at the moment. My analysis sheds light on the strong connection between the vision of immigration photography and political discourses regarding the immigration phenomenon. A specific frame prevails that brings together a humanitarian discourse and one based on the idea of safety. The frame relies on photographs seen out of context and characterised by an aesthetic that reproduces an 'everyday' distant gaze on migrants, one that is both urban and disaffected. The most characteristic images, or those that elaborate a personification of the subject, are less likely to provoke a politicised gaze or undermine the dominant master frame. In light of these results, one wonders whether it might not be best to leave the 'immigration' context in order for photography to recover its political power.

1. Photographic Aesthetics and Political Context

Immigration in Italy has been for years - until the recent pause of the 'technical government' led by Mario Monti - a central theme for political communication, especially amongst the centre-right parties. Photography has also been used in electoral campaigns. The case of the posters of the Lega Nord, the main anti-immigration party which has had an important governmental role in the last years, is an exemplary attempt to try to account for the 'invasion syndrome'. [2] This has been strongly conditioned by the use of images of mass landings in the media and politics, in order to firstly promise a zero tolerance policy and secondly gather the political fruits of these politics of rejection 

The great mass seen 'at a distance' is the most emblematic example of anonymity of the people portrayed, allowing for the most extreme form of generalisation. This formula implies the lack of a distinction between migrants and asylum-seekers and eliminates the differences between legal and illegal migrants. The image of the mass landings of immigrants without faces, names, nationalities and precise stories, supports an equivalence between immigration, clandestinity and criminality, reinforced by right-wing oriented weeklies and political leaders. For instance, in 2010, Letizia Moratti, then Mayor of Milan, caused an uproar at a public meeting when she proposed in no uncertain terms and without citing any statistics, the equivalence between illegal immigrants and criminality. This, however, was an episode among many during these years in which the right-wing was in government and imposed similar equivalences in different forms and on a number of public occasions.

On the left, political communication about this seems shy at a national level and more committed on a local level. This tends to happen in collaboration with NGOs, where the militant use of images of 'miserable migrants' or 'successful migrants' is quite common in local campaigns and consciously brings the total (visual and verbal) or partial (only visual) personification to the heart of the matter. Unlike the above-mentioned Lega Nord posters, the attempt to generalise through photographs in local campaigns does not try to rehabilitate all migrants. Instead, it identifies specific categories: second generation people are used for 'positive images' or foreigners are shown under humanitarian protection in images that appeal to a sense of indignation, as shown in the work of Boltanski on the 'politics of pity' and subsequently used by Chouliaraki in his analysis of NGO humanitarian campaigns for funding. [3] It is useful to consider in this respect that Campbell uses the concept of individual aggregate proposed by Hariman and Lucaites in the following way:

[T]he humanist tradition of documentary photography and photojournalism is itself somatic; that is, it has historically relied on images of the individual (their body and face) in order to signify social issues. (…) [T]hese somatic images embody a specific way of being human (…). [T]he individual aggregate, although appearing in a photograph of a singular person or persons, depicts collective experience metonymically by reducing a general construct to a specific embodiment” [4].

This significance in photography becomes increasingly clear when analysing how images of migrants are displayed in the news and begs the question: how are these visual stereotypes constructed and how vast is the level of generalisation they reach?

2. Conspiring, humanising, celebrating: three frames of representation

Photographs of immigration published over a thirty year period in the mainstream Italian press fit into three frames:

The conspiratorial frame: the subject is shown in his or her daily life visibly over-exposed in public spaces, such as streets, parks and squares. The insistence on certain subjects produces a limited series and is always reiterated by migrant icons that are more easily recognised as 'other'. Street-vendors, beggars or migrants being controlled by law enforcement agencies, are distinguished by two main signs: the colour of their skin and their condition of poverty. 

These icons are consistently proposed in order to support a discourse on safety. The viewer is required to look at these elusive bodies according to consistent  'ethical-religious' generalisations, such as 'the Albanians', 'the Rumanians,' etc., or of a juridical nature, such as 'illegal immigrants'. Generalisations abound: the image of a 'desperate' individual or of a 'wretched' group of people give an expression to immigration. The gaze is that of the distracted driver moving through urban spaces. This frame is prevalent, although not exclusively, in right-wing newspapers. It produces an obvious de-humanisation of the subjects. [5] In the text, the individual tends to be represented as a victim in a quasi ontological sense. At the same time, they are also an accomplice in a criminal economy, a misfit, or even a deviant 

The captions become redundant because the visual stereotype has by now reached such a high level of obviousness within the discourse on safety that it avoids the migrants' issues, focusing solely on the problem that Italians face of a ubiquitous, pervasive and constantly growing presence. Captions, when used, do not refer to the image, instead fulfilling the function of this generalisation and producing a slippage from icon to discourse on safety, often using controversial statistical data as evidence.

The humanitarian frame: photography humanises its subjects, their (suffering) expressions are visible, but the accompanying text (and the captions) draw out concepts that describe and denounce an exploitative system in which legislative ambiguity goes well beyond the represented subjects, who remain anonymous. This is only an apparent personification, which brings us back to the idea of individual aggregate. This is a model mostly found in Catholic and left-wing newspapers. Prostitutes, black seasonal labourers and refugees tend to be the most prevalent, if not the only, subjects of these representations. These photographs and the accompanying texts aim to awaken a system of "guilt, shame or indignation", focusing on the "naked life" of the subjects portrayed in contrast to the healthy bodies of the "rich West"

The celebratory frame: the total personification, both visual and verbal, is practised through nearly always smiling portraits and the proposal of personal stories of selected migrants. This representation is exclusive to daily supplements and does not feature in news weeklies. It is especially frequent in women's magazines.

It only looks at certain types of migrants: second generation young entrepreneurs, journalists and well-off artists, who tend to be women. The political objective is to isolate certain migrants who have not been compromised by the above-described models and to remove their bodies from victimhood, making them into agents of their own destiny 

I propose the following hypothesis: because immigration is a strong theme of political communication, its representation is a strongly polarised media system influenced by a logic of campaigning. All three frames are aestheticisations for a cause which are developed first by the photographers themselves and later in newsrooms, through the selection and composition of the news pages, within a regime of reflexivity.

Choices made in the newsroom of one frame over another act as political judgements on the immigration phenomenon, reflecting its management on a national level. Judgements, which determine the selection of the photograph and therefore the frame, which in turn makes the policy public, imply a biased critique. This critique is either left-wing, contesting overly-severe legislative interventions that work against the needs of certain migrants or it has a right-wing bias set against excessively tolerant politics. This contrast includes frames that many newspapers share with particular political leanings. The conspiratorial and the humanitarian models largely share a miserabilist representation and an insistance on key words such as 'hopeless'. Even though their denunciation implies they are anti-thetical, the migration frame as (the effect or the cause of) individual and collective desperation is part of a common frame.

The way in which viewers read images is conditioned by the constant need to take sides on the immigration phenomenon. However, not all images typical of the three frames trigger a process of generalisation and political judgement.


3. Photojournalists and Photographic Strategies

Nearly all photographers, with regard to the theme of 'immigration' speak of their work in political terms. For our research in 'Facce da straniero' ('Foreign Faces'), we interviewed around 50 photojournalists from major Italian cities that have produced significant shoots regarding immigrated people in the last 20 years.

The photojournalists point out that immigration photography today is made in a context strongly contaminated by a right-wing safety-driven discourse, which is largely supported by the media. Many photographers, however, also feel that the humanitarian model is dated and incapable of offering a vision of the migrant as an agent rather than a passive victim whom others must save or redeem. Freelance photographers working on immigration who want to produce a visual alternative that can overcome the two dominant frames of representation of immigration (humanitarian or security-driven) lament the lack of potential publication spaces. Only women's magazines appear to offer room for photographic shoots that do not play by old rules. However, there is little room even in women's magazines such as D, la Repubblica delle Donne and Io Donna which only occasionally publish articles about migrant subjects. This market context brings photographers to consider journalistic space as only a marginal opportunity in which to gain visibility. Their main ambition becomes to produce shoots and seek visibility in other circuits such as exhibitions, prizes and photobooks. In this way, they are increasingly exploiting the logistical and economic support of NGOs or, on a smaller scale, of local authorities. This is a reaction that produces a clear separation between products that can be considered adaptable to journalistic requirements and products that are not. In a number of cases, the photographers work on an event or a story consciously using two different photographic styles, thinking both of journalism and of images destined to an authorial promotion that exists beyond journalistic circles. [6]

4. The Reception of Migrant Photography

An experimental research that I am conducting to test the effects of visual framing demonstrates the way in which photographs that portray immigrated subjects are viewed. [7] At least 80 people were interviewed for the research (40 young academics and 40 adults between 50 and 60 years old). The research was undertaken by people writing inTurin,MilanandAlessandria. The interviewees were given 8 photographs of immigrated people in a casual sequence, belonging to the three models described (3 of the conspiratorial model, 3 of the humanitarian model and 2 of the celebratory model). The interviewees were asked to describe the images and comment on them freely. The research was not presented to them as research on the relative opinions on the migratory phenomenon, but on the way they perceived the images.

Although connections exist between the comments released and certain socio-demographic characteristics of the interviewees, I highlight aspects that they share.

a)      The images typical of theconspiratorial frameprovoke in the majority of the interviewees the need to generalise about the immigration phenomenon or about illegal migrants as a group. The neutral request to comment on these photographs is interpreted entirely arbitrarily as a request to express a judgement on immigration. For instance, when asked about a photograph of a Maroccan selling illegally on the streets 'what does this image make you think of?' the replies tend to be expressed in the plural: 'We should stop letting anyone and everyone in, because we do no good to ourselves or to them': 'They ought to be made legal because things can't go on as they are', etc. Although those interviewed sometimes show pity for the photographed subject at first, they later tend to develop a generalised discourse about safety and the control of illegal migratory movements. Even in these cases, the image leads to the immigration phenomenon, at least in terms of its most exposed dimensions in the media (landings and crime). Beyond their differences, the cases share a logic of generalisation and the need to evoke political action in terms of control and regulation.

b)      The typical images of the humanitarian modelproduce a marked 'effect of compassion' that does not bring the interviewees to generalise about all immigrants, but only about a few, according to a logic of distinction. This becomes clear with images of black seasonal labourers. Confronted with these photographs interviewees have two reactions. Firstly they express their indignation for the inhuman exploitation to which those photographed are subjected. Secondly, they introduce arguments that confine the problem to 'seasonal migrants', 'blacks' , 'immigrants employed in agriculture' or more specific cases, which tend to make up the media narratives on TV reports, such as 'Day labourers in Rosarno, Calabria'. Considerable strife occurred in the Calabrian city of Rosarno in January 2010 between a large group of migrants who came from Africa and worked in dramatic sanitary conditions on the black market during the orange gathering season and a group of locals, with a central role in the 'ndrangheta, the local mafia, that controlled the area. There was talk of a 'revolt' and the event was intensely covered by the media. The then Minister of Internal Affairs, Roberto Maroni, from the Lega Nord, framed the event as a problem of excess clandestine immigration, accusing the 'permissive' left-wing politics. The subjects of the typical photographs of the humanitarian model are treated like innocent victims that live in a sort of limbo. This vision brings many of the interviewees to express a feeling of powerlessness regarding their state. Unlike the previous model, only a minority of interviewees express a political solution.

c)     Celebratory imagesare not considered as images that represent immigrants. When they are, the majority of the interviewees propose a logic of distinction, if not exclusion, of the mental category of 'migrants', through adhesion to an 'us': 'she could easily be Italian', 'she could be married to an Italian'. The attention moves to the subject's smile - 'she is happy' - and to status symbols - 'she has a nice house, a beautiful necklace, earrings...'. For many interviewees these signs of wealth are in direct association with the idea of integration into Italian society. The answers are, in this case, always expressed in the singular. No generalisations are suggested and in some cases they are even explicitly spoken about in contrast to 'immigrants' - 'I wouldn't define him an immigrant. That is, you have to distinguish...'.

The politicisation of the migrant theme has developed along two main discourses: miserabilism and control. The conjunction of these two has produced the master frame of immigration in the media, which has fed on sufficiently well-known images - seen and seen again in the streets like in the media. [8] These are sufficiently a-specific (not local), to become elementary illustrations of a lengthy and highly complex social phenomenon. When commenting on these images, the majority of interviewees avoid the question of the migrants' subjectivity and reproduce a general discourse on immigration that is founded on the distinction between those who have rights to stay and those who do not. The other images do not seem to have the same political force, because they are interpreted by those who look at and comment on them as though dually linked to a specific, local and social context. The research data shows that the interviewees recognise the level of contextualisation to which immigrants tend to be subject in the media, which they then reproduce when commenting on the images. They reproduce it by advancing certain arguments that go from generalising about immigration as a whole, to an extreme personalisation, by using certain circumscribed cases. The images, in this last case, produce memories of specific stories heard about in the media and seem to inhibit the elaboration of a general political judgement on the phenomenon.

(In)conclusive Reflections

Small local exhibitions organised by local authorities or NGOs now bring into town squares and homes through calendars, books or catalogues, an image that 'celebrates' migrants as 'integrated and happy'. Journalism, on the other hand, with rare exceptions, is divided between de-humanising images of a conspiratorial type and images that denounce the de-humanisation to which certain migrants are subjected. Politically engaged photographers propose to contribute to change the vision (and with it, the opinions), but the data on its reception show that this desire fragments in contexts that have structured the political and aesthetic discourse on the theme. The political campaigns of certain local administrators now tend to strategically avoid the theme, speaking of social cohesion in neighbourhoods, which speaks to everyone, instead of integration, which specifically focuses on immigration. Placed within a text that not only references migrants, can the images be inserted without forcing an ideological reading of the phenomenon? In Italian dailies migrants cannot see themselves beyond articles that speak of them and the phenomenon of immigration. This is, instead, the case in exhibitions that take place on a local level, but only in rare cases on a hyper-local scale - a street, a block of flats, a neighbourhood. Although immigration photography can be brought into a context that frames it beyond the claustrophobic one to which it is generally relegated, does it not risk as a result being politically inefficient? 


  1. See the books: Gariglio, L., Pogliano, A., Zanini, R. (eds.), Facce da straniero. 30 anni di fotografia e giornalismo sull’immigrazione in Italia, Milano, 2010; Pogliano A., Solaroli M., 'La costruzione visiva dell’immigrazione nella stampa italiana. Fotografie giornalistiche e cornici culturali meta-comunicative', Studi Culturali, 3, 2012. back
  2. Binotto, M., Martino, V. (eds.), Fuori luogo. L’immigrazione e i media italiani, Roma, 2004. back
  3. Boltanski L., La souffrance à distance. Morale humanitaire, médias et politique, Paris, 1993 ; Chouliaraki L., 'Post-humanitarianism : Humanitarian communication beyond a politics of pity', International Journal of Cultural Studies 13: 2, 2010, 107-26. back
  4. Campbell D., The Iconography of Famine, in Batchen G. et al. (eds.), Picturing Atrocity. Photography in Crisis, London, 2012, 79-92 (quote from page 87) ; Hariman R., Lucaites J.L., No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, Chicago, 2007. back
  5. Dal Lago A., Non persone. L’esclusione dei migranti in una società globale, Milano, 1999. back
  6. The concept of photographic style I use here is borrowed from Barbara Rosemblum. See: Rosenblum B., Photographers at Work. A Sociology of Photographic Styles,New York, 1978. back
  7. See Coleman for a review on research about the effects of visual framing: Coleman R., Framing the Pictures in Our Heads. Exploring the Framing and Agenda-Setting Effects of Visual Images, in D’Angelo, Kuypers (eds), Doing News Framing Analysis. Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives,New York, 2010, 233-61 back
  8. To explore the concept of “master frame” see Snow and Benford:Snow D.A., Bendford L.D.,Master frames and cycles of protest, in Morris and Mueller (eds.), Frontiers in Social Movement Theory, New Haven, 1992, 133-55 ; Snow D.A., Bendford L.D., Clarifying the relationship between framing and ideology, in Johnston and Noakes (eds.), Frames of Protest: Social Movements and the Framing Perspective, Lanham, 2005, 205-12. back

Image references

  1. Lega Nord Poster back
  2. Espresso 16 March 2000 back
  3. Epoca 24 February 1993 back
  4. Panorama 13 June 2002 back
  5. Sette 9 July 2009 back
  6. Famiglia Cristiana 8 September 1993 back
  7. Sette 6 December 2007 back
  8. Sette 23 October 2003 back