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Allgemein Germany

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

The Insufficient Visual Representation of Deportation in German Media

Alan Kurdi, rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea, the burning Moria camp: These images have violently penetrated our memory, and not by chance. The omnipresent media images have become immaterial mental images1 due to their iconic nature. They are supposed to create awareness of the humanitarian crisis that has been going on for years as a result of the EU’s failed migration policy, whilst also influencing political discourse. However, when thinking about deportations, no such iconic media image exists. Deportations are just as present in the topic of migration as flight itself, so why do they experience so little representation in the German media landscape? And to what extent is this asymmetry also reflected in specific image motifs and aesthetics?

Using a current media image, Hannah Schönwald and Jenna Seedorf make use of the iconological context analysis to illuminate the media political aspects of reporting, and thus analyse the representation of deportation.

In 2019, 22,097 people were deported from Germany. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis significantly fewer deportations have been carried out, however, the number of people who had to leave the country within one year increased, from just under 246,000 to almost 267,0002 until the end of May 2020, showing that the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the situation for those seeking protection. The picture shown above was the header of the Tagesschau article No compromise between the interior ministers – Syria deportation stop expires on 21.12.20203. Shot in black and white, it shows a passenger plane during take-off, flying into a thick, grey cloud cover. At the moment the photo was taken, the aircraft is at the zenith above the viewer’s point of view between two strands of seemingly barbed wire that cut the picture across the two diagonally opposite corners (top right and bottom left). The photo has a high contrast, so that shading can hardly be seen, which makes it possible to perceive the barbed wire in particular as a black surface with hard edges. In the context of the article, the photo depicts a deportation flight on which Syrian people are to be returned to their country of origin. At the conference of federal and state interior ministers this month the ban on deportations to the civil war country Syria, which had been in place since 2012, was lifted. After disagreements between social democratic SPD and conservative CDU/CSU, it will theoretically be possible from 2021 onwards to once again deport Syrian citizens to their country of origin. According to the Tagesschau article, this is supposed to only apply to serious criminals and dangerous persons who the authorities believe could carry out terrorist attacks.4

Out of Sight, Out of Mind - Insufficient Visual Representation of Deportation in German Media - Covid-19 - Othering - Refugees & Migration - Germany 2020 - Politics of Images - Blog for Visuals in Politics - Student Project Humboldt University Berlin
@Tagesschau, December 21, 2020 / Screenshot via https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/innenpolitik/syrien-abschiebestopp-105.html; Photo (Detail): Julian Stratenschulte/dpa

As far as the production context is concerned, the black-and-white photograph comes from dpa, the largest German news agency, whose job it is to supply all media with editorial offers. Presumably a photographer was commissioned by dpa to take this picture in order to visualise the subject of deportation. Since it is not a singular political event, but rather a continuous series of events, it could also be assumed that this is a proxy image which compresses many similar events into one image. The formal and aesthetic composition of the image as a conscious photographic decision suggests a professional photographer. However, the actual charging of the image with meaning took place in the media context: The Tagesschau was provided with the image material by dpa and used it as a header image for its online article.

The representation of migration always becomes problematic when a certain image is further consolidated, and thus legitimises political action. Returning to the symbol of the lifted deportation ban, the photograph not only appears threatening by enclosing the hard-edged barbed wire, but the grey clouds also work to let the plane dissolve in uncertainty.

Undoubtedly, an Other is created here (see Said’s Orientalism theory, in which he transparently describes Europe’s construction of the Orient as the Other)5.

Regarding this photograph that Other seems to be dangerous. In contrast, the so-called western world must be righteous and legitimate. The aeroplane takes on another symbolic function in the picture – on the one hand, it represents the determined character of deportation, and on the other hand, it also functions as a representation of the state of transit in which refugees find themselves. Through the demarcation of the barbed wire, a dividing line is drawn between these two groupings and can be seen as the border of fortress Europe used as protection against the alleged danger. The reduction of complexity, which does not do justice to this issue, does not dissolve the mental image created by headlines, but rather reinforces it. This reinforcement of the image is likewise achieved through depersonalisation, which prevents empathy from arising: How can identification take place if the people affected by deportation do not gain visibility? Deportation is, at least in Germany, rather a taboo subject, which is probably due to the fact that it represents a problem which, due to its determined character, is no longer considered to be solvable by European countries. Therefore, it does not seem necessary for German politicians and media to give the subject further representation, which seems like a transfiguration of reality in view of the immense numbers of deported people. The lack of representation shows Germany’s ignorance about the humanitarian crisis and the individual fates of people who have been robbed of everything by this crisis. Especially against the background of German history, this ignorance seems bitter and incomprehensible.

It is to be noted that every image as such is polyvalent – it is charged with different layers of meanings that are influenced by the experiences and attitudes of the recipients. It functions as a blank space, a proxy, an emotionalisation, but also an objectification. Nevertheless, it may be desirable that in the future the objectified representation of deportations experiences a re-humanisation in German media coverage.


Written by Hannah Schönwald and Jenna Seedorf

1. Bock, Annekatrin; Isermann, Holger; Knieper, Thomas, “Ikonologische Kontextanalyse.” in Die Entschlüsselung der Bilder : Methoden zur Erforschung visueller Kommunikation. Ein Handbuch, ed. Petersen, Thomas ; Schwender, Clemens. Köln: Herbert von Halem Verlag, 2018. see 62.

2. DW: “Coronavirus bremst Abschiebungen aus”, accessed 22.12.2020,   https://www.dw.com/de/coronavirus-bremst-abschiebungen-aus/a-54166261.

3. Tagesschau: “Syrien-Abschiebestopp läuft aus”, accessed 21.12.2020, https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/innenpolitik/syrien-abschiebestopp-105.html.

4. Tagesschau: “Syrien-Abschiebestopp läuft aus”, accessed 21.12.2020, https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/innenpolitik/syrien-abschiebestopp-105.html.

5. Said, Edward W., Orientalismus, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag GmbH, 2017, see 62; 84-85.


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  1. In all fairness and admitting that all above is correct, still AKK was the main person since she was inaugurated…

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