Visual representations can contribute to shaping how the general public perceives and engages with issues of forced migration. In 2015, thousands of Rohingya became stranded in the Bay of Bengal when smugglers abandoned them on unseaworthy boats and regional governments refused their disembarkation. Their ordeal made headlines across the globe and photographs documenting the crisis were widely disseminated. This paper applies visual-social semiotics to four of these photographs from an Agence France-Presse public exhibition. Our analysis suggests that the features in the photographs transcend the conventional “threat versus victim” dualism that typically characterizes such representations, to capture both the suffering and agency of the people at the centre of the crisis. This occurs in two ways: first, the Rohingya are depicted as proactive and enacting agency, and not just as powerless people in need of rescue. Second, the juxtaposition of mundane aspects with more dramatic frames offers a tangible pathway for viewers to connect with the circumstances of the people depicted. These visual representations were effective in triggering international concern and policy responses in 2015. However, such photographs’ longer-term potential for shifting public perceptions of displacement and forced migration—and by extension, effective policy measures—remains largely indeterminate.


Visual Analysis, Photography, Rohingya, Forced Migration, Visual-Social Semiotics

Author Bio(s)

Jenny Yeung is from the combined Social Research and Policy and Law program at UNSW Australia. She is a 2016 Australian Government New Colombo plan scholar, and completed her internship at the International Organisation for Migration, Asia-Pacific Headquarters in Bangkok. Correspondence regarding this article can be addressed directly to: jenny.ywy@gmail.com.

Caroline Lenette is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at UNSW Australia. Her research focuses on refugee and asylum seeker mental health and wellbeing, and arts-based research in health. Caroline has a passion for visual ethnography, particularly how arts-based research can contribute to positive health and wellbeing outcomes. Correspondence regarding this article can also be addressed directly to: c.lenette@unsw.edu.au.


Sincere thanks to AFP for their permission to use these photographs in this publication.

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