An ocean in between the waves

World Press Photo is an independent non-profit organization founded in 1955 that aims “to generate wide public interest in and appreciation for the work of photographers and other visual journalists, as well as to promote the free exchange of information.” It conducts a photo competition that showcases the most powerful works from the previous year. I recently saw their 2015 exhibition at Sydney’s State Library. Unfortunately for you, the exhibition has already ended but you can check out their online archives here (change the year in the address) and here.

Source: Massimo Sestini
Source: Massimo Sestini

“Refugees crowd on board a boat some 25 kilometers from the Libyan coast, prior to being rescued by an Italian naval frigate working as part of Operation Mare Nostrum (OMN). The search-and-rescue operation was put in place by the Italian government, in response to the drowning of hundreds of migrants off the island of Lampedusa at the end of 2013. The numbers of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea rose sharply in 2014, as a result of conflicts or persecution in Syria, the Horn of Africa, and other sub-Saharan countries.

“OMN involved the Italian Red Cross, Save the Children, and other NGOs in an effort not only to rescue lives, but to provide medical help, counseling, and cultural support. Naval officers were also empowered to arrest human traffickers and seize their ships. In its one year of operation, OMN brought 330 smugglers to justice, and saved more than 150,000 people, at least a quarter of which were refugees from Syria. The operation was disbanded in October, and replaced by Triton, an operation conducted by the EU border agency Frontex, focusing more on surveillance than rescue.” (World Press Photo 2015)

In our formative years, we learn facts. We’re oblivious of the biased and cumbersome nature of the system into which we are being socialised. From our point of view, so low to the ground, the world really seems quite static. As we grow up, we gradually learn that the ‘now’ was once preceded by a ‘before’, that One Direction were preceded by the Backstreet Boys, who followed Take That, New Kids On The Block, and The Monkees. We hear stories from our parents who remember life without iPads or even mobile phones, from relatives who survived the World Wars.

Some things, however, are not so commonly re-examined, let alone questioned. The international system of sovereign states is so established, we blindly accept its normality. Every country, we are told, has its own national cuisine, dress and customs. Each looks after its own lot and reserves its sovereign right to use capital punishment on drug smugglers, to rescind the citizenship of those who join ‘death cults’, to “stop the boats”. After all, “Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia”, and if you don’t want to integrate then you can “go back to where your parents came from”!

Massimo Sestini’s photograph uncovers the obvious weakness of the system: its large gaping cracks. The Salvation Army estimates there are 42.5 million people in the world displaced by persecution and conflict (15.2 million refugees, 26.4 million internally displaced persons and 895,000 asylum seekers). Then there are the ‘stateless nations’, such as the Roma in Europe, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Rohingya in Myanmar, and Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. Of course, we don’t have to go that far; our constitution still doesn’t recognise the first inhabitants of our land.

But to be honest, I didn’t respond to Sestini’s photograph because I thought it was remarkable or new. In fact, I thought it was a repeat from my last visit to the exhibition in 2012. What struck me was the fact I almost overlooked it, a reaction I don’t think was uncommon. Sestini’s snap is merely the most recent in a long line of reminders that our state-centric system fails and has always failed sizeable minority populations all over the world, leaving them without political representation, legal acknowledgement or social acceptance.

Indeed, it was against this tyranny of the majority that Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela struggled once upon a time. Looking ahead, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if World Press Photo 2016 showcased a portrait of Walter Scott, the unarmed black man who was shot by police in North Charleston, South Carolina (yes, “unarmed black man who was shot by police” is not granular enough a descriptor) or Sir Ian McKellen as he led New York City’s Gay Pride Parade after the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay-marriage.

While I believe that national identities and sovereign borders are inherently constructed, I admit they don’t look like being re-constructed any time soon. In the meantime, however, I lament the prominence of reductive slogans such as ‘border security’, ‘way of life’ and ‘freedom of speech’ in public discourse about human rights, social justice and citizenship. For as long as self-preservation and fear of change are allowed to dominate, we will remain unable to talk about the human lives we’ve already swept under the rug.

This was a personal reflection on my excursion to the World Press Photo 2015 exhibition written with my IR major hat on. How does it relate to language learning? Well, in a way it speaks to the limitations of stereotyping and might encourage language learners away from reductive cultural tropes… Okay, maybe that’s a stretch. In any case, thank you for reading!

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This post was heavily influenced by the following works and Penny Wong’s recent comments on gay marriage in Australia:

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