Susan Sontag wrote that “the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—as an anthology of images.”
Over the last few years, photographs of the refugee crisis have formed their own kind of visual anthology, one that recalls what Sontag described in On Photography, her collection of essays on the nature of images and the consequences of looking at them. The ways these images have been presented is indeed “grandiose” at times: “These Are the Most Powerful Photographs of the Syrian Refugee Crisis in 2015.” “These Photos Will Change How the World Feels About the Syrian Refugee Crisis.” “21 Photos That Capture the Heartbreak of the Syrian Refugee Crisis.” “Devastating Photos of the Refugee Crisis.” “Look At These Photos Before You Say We Can’t Take In Syrian Refugees.”
And the photos have an earned potency: As my colleague Uri Friedman wrote in September, “the scale and scope of the suffering in Syria is precisely why singular stories or images, particularly those that move people to identify with a crisis that is otherwise remote, can be so potent.” But it is also true that, as Sontag wrote, “photographs fiddle with the scale of the world,” and that photographers, no matter their skill, often remain outside of the situations they depict. The current movement of refugees is one of an enormous scale not seen since World War II, but it is also a crisis of individuals and families, traveling from places with which they have an intimate history, and these stories can get lost in a movement of so many people. As a result, the photographic anthology of the refugee crisis is numerically vast at the same time it is visually limited: repetitively depicted by dinghies on Grecian shores; neon-orange life jackets and blinding space blankets; razor-wire barriers and fences rising in front of a mass of people; the confinement of a train, a camp, a tent; a crowd crossing a field on foot. Are these motifs the whole world of a refugee?