by ALEXANDRA BULAT | University of Cambridge, MPhil ’16, Sociology
‘Social change is replaced by a change in images.’
– Susan Sontag[i]
Migration literature underlined how Eastern Europeans, because of being ‘culturally proximate’ and ‘white’, have been better received in the British society, compared to their non-EU counterparts. Unless they start speaking in English with an unfamiliar accent, it has been usually assumed those migrants will ‘pass’ as white native citizens. ‘Being European’ is often considered an advantage, for example in getting employment and attracting less discriminatory attitudes and practices in everyday life.
Throughout my four years living in the UK so far, many showed surprise when I disclosed my nationality. ‘You don’t look Romanian!’ some told me. ‘I never met a Romanian student, there are mostly construction workers and beggars out there’, another commented. A few have asked me if I am a ‘Roma gypsy’ because they thought nearly everyone coming from Romania shares that ethnicity. I then organised some focus groups with British people who raised the issue of Romanians being stereotyped, particularly by the media, as overwhelmingly poor, criminals, and overall ‘undesirable’ migrants. I became an avid reader of British newspapers and watched various TV programmes, and I was not surprised when I saw the same stereotypes circulating over and over again.
In a longer essay submitted for my MPhil in Sociology at Cambridge this year, I tried to answer the following question: how are Romanian migrants visually represented in the UK media? This is relevant when thinking about other questions such as: How do the British recognise who are the Romanians in their communities? Do they find out by talking to them, do they identify the language being spoken, or do they assume this based on their appearance? Are they able to ‘identify a Romanian’ by their looks? If so, do they identify all Romanians they see around or just the stereotypes presented in the media? For example, if the media were to show mostly images of homeless Romanian Roma, hypothetically the average reader could see a couple of homeless people next to London Bridge and subsequently think, those look like the ones in the paper, so they must be Romanians. It would be more challenging to identify the Romanian doctors, teachers, engineers, or other professionals travelling at rush hour on the Northern line or enjoying a drink in a London pub.
Let’s see some visual examples. Take a moment and imagine Matt, a British worker, who voted in the EU referendum. Matt did not meet a Romanian before. He wanted to see who those Romanian migrants are because he heard so much being said about them in the UK. One of the first things many of us would do is go straight to Google and type in words such as ‘Romanian migrants UK’. When I wrote this essay in February 2016, Google Images returned the following result:
I checked it again in August 2016 and the images are almost identically ordered. It is consistent on different browsers and search engines and across various devices even when using different spelling.
So what does Matt understand from all this? All apart one image in the top searches represent two stereotypes: first, the beggar, and second, the so-called ‘invader’, i.e. groups of Romanians at the UK Border with luggage or using public transportation. This search reflects the most viewed depictions of Romanians—and it becomes one’s first impression of Romanians in the UK.
The situation is different when checking for Western European migrants. The search engines mostly generate images related to the ‘refugee crisis’ or terror attacks on Western European victims or show quantitative data. We do not know, based on those images, what French migrants in the UK might look like, as shown in the following example:
Let’s now assume that Matt wanted to see other visual examples of Romanians in the UK: He would most likely read some newspapers. My analysis revealed that images similar to those part of the above Google Image search are circulated in the most popular newspapers, such as the Daily Mail and The Sun. In fact, those are some of the exact pictures found in the top Google results. This is not unusual, of course, considering there are more Mail readers than people accessing The Guardian’s website. Regarding newspaper broadsheets, my visual analysis suggested that they usually depict so-called ‘neutral’ images, such as random pictures taken at the UK border.
Images complement textually constructed stereotypes of Romanians, which have been discussed in migration studies (for example, see Light and Young, 2009[ii]). Photographs create a powerful, visible, longer lasting ‘way of seeing’ Romanian migrants in the UK.[iii] Through images, these migrants are given a ‘real’ presence in the British discourse, becoming identifiable in society. They are ‘different’ from Westerners mainly because of their perceived poverty. The media prefer to depict Romanians as beggars, criminals, and benefit recipients ‘invading’ Britain. Tabloids seem to select those pictures where the ‘Romanian migrant’ presents identifiable elements, such as specific clothing (headscarves, long skirts, Romanian Roma traditional dress, ‘chav’ appearance with tracksuits and other sportswear etc.). For instance, take into consideration the following images from the Mail Online:
Nevertheless, it would be unfair to avoid mentioning that I found positive representations as well, usually in broadsheets such as The Guardian, for example, of NHS Romanian doctors. I also observed very few of those images in tabloids, where they were usually much smaller, positioned close to the end of the article, and preceded by other images of poorer, homeless, or criminal ‘Romanian migrants’.
Photographs are inseparable from textual elements such as captions, article narratives, and overall discourses on migration, which prescribe specific ways of interpreting the visual. For example, Mail Online informed our referendum voter Matt that the Romanian woman pictured below looks ‘annoyed’:
Her facial expression could have been interpreted in a variety of ways: upset, thoughtful, concerned, and so on. However, the caption prompts readers to understand the image in a specific way: the ‘annoyance’ of the woman connotes violence, which further suggests criminal behaviour.
There are both positive and negative forms of picturing migrants. However, there is disproportionate negative coverage in the case of Romanians. Stereotypes of beggars and benefit recipients overtake images of Romanian professionals in both visibility and connotative power, especially if considering the tabloid press, which reaches more readers than broadsheets. Visual elements range from clothing, the type of shot, and other people (police) and objects (e.g. piles of luggage) part of the photograph. Although decreasing in frequency due to focused attention on other migration topics such as the refugee crisis, these images inform the ways in which knowledge about Romanian people is produced initially, as illustrated through the Google Image search examples. Nevertheless, the potential for alternative ways of portraying Romanians in contributing to a more balanced debate on migration should not be underestimated. Without contextualisation and critical reflection, the stereotypical ‘top searches’ images risk being taken for granted and supporting discriminatory attitudes in the British society. They often prevent readers from building fairer images of migration, having an ‘informed gaze’ about the Romanians coming to the UK, and becoming aware of the positives of this phenomenon as well.
When I completed this analysis initially seven months ago, then Prime Minister David Cameron was still negotiating a deal with the EU. I had concluded my argument with this paragraph:
Media images are not mere demonstrative examples of ‘this is a Romanian migrant’. Photographs become messages,[iv] supporting preferred ideologies of dealing with perceived problems created by migration. Many strategically selected pictures of Romanian nationals connote poverty, criminality and related issues, contributing to the legitimation of recently approved proposals of limiting EU migrants’ access to welfare. A change in the dominant approach to migration would probably result into a re-construction of the image of the Romanian migrant.
Perhaps now I could add that the overwhelming negative depictions of Romanians, and Eastern European migrants more generally, impacted and bled into the EU referendum debates. Voters who saw these images on Google and in the newspapers perhaps believed that Brexit is the only solution to stopping the ‘undesirable migrants’, such as Romanian beggars, criminals, and benefit recipients from coming to the UK.
[i] Sontag, S., 1977. ‘The Image World’. In J. Evans and S. Hall, 2007 (eds.) Visual culture: a reader. London: Sage, p. 93.
[ii] Light, D. and Young, C., 2009. European Union enlargement, post-accession migration and imaginative geographies of the ‘New Europe’: media discourses in Romania and the United Kingdom. Journal of Cultural Geography, 26(3), pp. 281-303.
[iii] Berger, J., 1972. Ways of seeing. London: Penguin Books.
[iv] Barthes, R., 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press.
Cover image courtesy of Adam Tas.