These Images of an African Migrant Boat Reveal an Unfolding Tragedy

It is impossible to overlook the harrowing image spread across today’s New York Times cover. In the strikingly dismal photograph is a boat filled with migrants hoping to be rescued off the Libyan Coast by the Italian Coast Guard. Most are dead.

These scenes are far from ordinary. Though there’s been a decline in unsafe migration into European countries in the last year, it’s been reported that in this past week alone, over 11,000 migrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nigeria, and Somalia, amongst other countries, embarked on the precarious journey from North Africa to Italy via the Mediterranean Sea—one of the deadliest routes.

What’s most gut-wrenching about the photograph is the glaring image of death captured by the profusion of lifeless bodies shown lying on the floor of the boat. Those who managed to survive the journey were forced to climb over them in an effort to reach one of the rescue vessels that awaited them—leaving behind those who most likely died from asphyxiation caused by overcrowding on the boat.

The full-length article includes a number of images like these taken by French photographer, Aris Messinis, who found the scene to be eerily reminiscent of images depicting Trans-Atlantic slave ships.

Messinis described the scene as something he had never seen before. “The analogy to slave ships that once plied the Atlantic, was exactly right — except that it’s not hundreds of years ago,” he said, “I’ve seen a lot of death, but not this thing. This is shocking and this is what makes you feel you are not living in a civilized world.”

The image captures a tragic truth that should not be ignored. But what are the ethics of using an image that depicts the death of black people in such a blatant manner? While this is a tragedy pure and simple, the images have raised, once again, important questions about the objectification of the black body in the media. What is the intent behind the use of such images? Is it still the belief that such photos will trigger a global call to action or is it about commercializing death? After all, this is hardly the first time that an image showing the suffering of black people is being widely circulated, yet these injustices continue to occur.

Is the repeated media dissemination of suffering, like this one, doing anything in the way of tackling these issues or is is just adding to the already large repository of black poverty porn that exists in mainstream media? We’re not sure.

What we do know is that this is an absolute tragedy that will lead to even more substantial consequences as it progresses. This is clear with or without a photo.

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