On October 18th, Dr. Müzzeyen Pandır hosted a MIREKOÇ seminar on her project entitled “Constructing the Image of Syrian Asylum Seekers in News Photographs”. This project is one part of a forthcoming study by TUBITAK on representations of Syrian asylum seekers in the Turkish press. Dr. Pandır’s focus was on the visual aspect of these representations.

The goal of this study was to identify the meanings and discourses that are attached to Syrian asylum seekers, and what identities were constructed through these meanings. It also aims to discuss the implications of these identities for Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Dr. Pandır emphasizes the fact that being an asylum seeker is a recently constructed identity for the people in question. Since a large part of this identity is constructed through media representations, it is important to understand exactly how asylum seekers are portrayed.


A Comprehensive Archive

The study covers the years 2011-2015 and analyzes 2,172 images (mainly photograph) and 2321 news clippings taken from the top five newspapers at the time (Hürriyet, Posta, Sabah, Zaman, and Sözcü).  The news texts were analyzed using corpus and critical discourse analyses, and photographs were analyzed using a semiotical research method. The photographs were then organized into five major categories: suffering, threat, exclusion, ordinary people, and other.

Suffering was the most prevalent theme, comprising 70% of the images studied.  The majority of photos in this category were taken at a distant camera angle. This establishes a distance between the viewer and the asylum seeker, emphasizing the difference in their social condition. Common sub-themes were poverty, displacement, need, and victimhood. Images in the suffering category can actually be perceived as being positive, as they trigger in the viewer a sense of responsibility that provides a justification for humanitarian intervention.

Images portraying Syrian refugees as a threat made up 10% of the total, while those portraying exclusion made up 4%.These negative representations were most often found in Sözcü. The threat was most often expressed in two ways: immigrants causing disorder within the city, or trying to illegally cross the border. Those that represented exclusion portrayed refugees as redundant, undeserving, or disregarded. They emphasized the visibility of asylum seekers as being the main problem or tried to portray aid expenses as unjustified.

Syrian Identity in Turkey

The aforementioned categories are not only common in images, but also in most of the literature surrounding refugees. As such, it is these themes that form society’s stereotypical representation of an asylum seeker. However, 6% of the images portrayed Syrians as ordinary people, without reducing their identity to that of a victim or threat. In these images, one cannot tell if the person being portrayed is an asylum seeker without context. Ultimately, it is images of this that are the most desirable, as they present the asylum seeker as a normal person, with the agency and a desire to live their own life.

Unfortunately, images of Syrians as educated or professionals living in good conditions are not visible in most papers, because they do not fit the stereotype of what an asylum seeker should look like. Dr. Pandır concluded the seminar by repeating Roland Barthe’s statement that, “The photograph looks like anything other than the person it represents.” Due to the prevalence of victimizing or threatening images of asylum seekers in the media, we see only a stereotypical construct, rather than the real Syrians behind it.