Telling Migrant Stories: Let us begin with the things not seen

Alice Driver has been covering migration in Latin America since 2017 — here she reveals the blind spots in current reporting on the topic, and why a more thoughtful approach matters. 

By: /
December 5, 2018
A migrant, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, throws her baby in the air as they rest in a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, on November 28, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Stoic, she sits quietly as the doctor injects a needle into her upper arm. She will walk and hitchhike thousands of kilometres alone, and she has heard, as women who migrate do, the stories. In preparation for the expectation that she will be raped, she gets a Depo-Provera injection. Or she goes to the pharmacy to buy birth control pills for the first time. Or she gets an intrauterine device. Maybe she is a teenager, and she borrows money from her mother to do this.

I am imagining these scenes based on interviews I have conducted with migrant women across Latin America, but I haven’t seen them captured by photographers. Migration is a tired, worn subject, one that is often covered by editors, reporters and photographers in ways that reinforce myths and stereotypes. This reporting informs policy, which is why we as journalists need to re-examine the point of telling the same old story about gangs and cartel violence. We need to learn how to listen to migrants, to walk with them, to break bread with them, and to follow their stories over time.

Let us begin with the things not seen. I have been working on a long-term project on migration in Central America since 2017, and in October 2018 I spent a week travelling with the migrant caravan that has received so much attention from US President Donald Trump. Of the reporters and photographers travelling with the caravan at any given time I was there, a majority were men. This is true in almost any reporting situation a journalist like myself encounters, and it is even worse for women photographers internationally who make up about 15 percent of photographers at major media outlets. How migrants are represented, as we know, is intimately tied up in who has the power to represent them, which is why increasing diversity in journalism is so important. Here is what men have historically reported on and photographed about migrants: gruesome physical violence carried out by gangs and cartels. That is the work that is respected and wins awards, and if you are a woman who wants respect, you too will report on those issues. But the moments, days and years that precede violence — those are the stories that we need to understand migration.

Veronica Gabriela Cardénas, a Mexican-American photographer based in McAllen, Texas, who covers migration, says that she has seen journalists, who often don’t speak Spanish and aren’t from the region, pressure migrants to produce certain scenes or say certain things, as if they were actors in a play.

One example that comes to mind from my experience with the migrant caravan is the number of journalists who requested that members of the LGBTQI community put on makeup so that they could photograph the process. There is a difference between documenting reality and having migrants act out your stereotypical ideas about what they should be doing.

“I think that as visual journalists, we should keep in mind that migrants or asylum seekers are more than that journey,” Cárdenas noted. She also mentioned the importance of reporters and editors respecting the wishes of migrants, who often don’t want to be named in stories for fear of persecution or who don’t want to appear on camera. Another crucial issue is the language that reporters use to describe migrants. “Sadly, I’ve also seen captions where asylum seekers are referred to as ‘illegal immigrants.’ I hope that I won’t see that next year,” Cárdenas said.

Often, stereotypes are driven by reporting that lacks historical context. Although the migrant caravan that has now arrived in Tijuana was bigger than migrant caravans in previous years, it is not an anomaly, nor do all the migrants have the goal of reaching the US. Central American migrants are often fleeing structural political violence caused by US policies and US drug consumption, and yet these stories frequently get lost in the daily news cycle. Many migrants request asylum in Mexico and others hope to reach Canada, which they see as a country that treats migrants more humanely than the US.

Ronald Venegas, 43, from Olanchito, Honduras, who had travelled with the caravan from his hometown to Tijuana with his son, worried that the rhetoric of the US president had influenced how people viewed migrants: “I wish people in the US knew that the truth is that all the people here need so much from countries like Canada and the US because we are too poor. We are all hard-working.” Migrants are diverse, and the stories that we tell about them should represent that diversity, not fit a single story.

"We don’t need to portray more human misery — what really matters is showing the causes of migration while respecting the privacy and humanity of those we are photographing."

There is a vein of pornomisery that runs through reporting on migrants — a focus on poverty and human suffering that tells an incomplete story about migration. Mexican photographer Jacky Muniello, who also covered the migrant caravan, noted, “We don’t need to portray more human misery — what really matters is showing the causes of migration while respecting the privacy and humanity of those we are photographing.”

The way in which migrants are portrayed by the media is likely influenced by the fact that large media outlets often send war journalists and photographers to the border. While there are areas of the border that experience high levels of violence, the nuances of the migration situation often get lost when it is portrayed as a war zone. When interviewing migrants, there is the obvious story, for example, of a tattooed M-13 gang member and of the violence he has perpetrated and suffered. But then, if you dig deeper, and you ask him about his tattoos, you might find that the tiny baby’s foot on the right side of his chest is his son’s. These intimate details also tell a story, one that is more human, because a migrant is more than the sum of violence endured.

Photographer Griselda San Martin, who has covered migration in Tijuana, noted recurring stereotypes about the border that include “anywhere south of the border [being] described and depicted as dark, dirty, dangerous and uninviting, or as a place where the government is absent and the streets are controlled by the cartels.” Like Cárdenas, she points to language used by journalists that harms more than it helps: “When immigrants are dehumanized and portrayed as a faceless ‘other’ with no identity, agency or personality, or when they are called aliens, illegals, criminals, rapists, kidnappers, freeloaders. When we hear words such as invasion, national security threat, anchor babies, floods.” When journalists don’t spend significant time with migrants, haven’t done any research about the socio-cultural context or report from afar, the result is often a story that dehumanizes migrants. “Our goal is to create new narratives, to tell the stories of individuals and portray them not as objects but as subjects, with dignity and respect,” said San Martin.

Unfortunately, the president of the United States, from the time he launched his presidential campaign to present, has employed racist and derogatory language to describe migrants. He has used his office to promote conspiracy theories about the migrant caravan being funded by outside sources. This has influenced the language used by the media and forced outlets to dedicate resources to investigating conspiracy theories. When the president claimed that “unknown Middle Easterners” were travelling with the migrant caravan, many journalists on the ground were quick to point out that that was untrue. However, beyond the fact that it was untrue, we have to challenge the racist assumptions underlying his statement. Whether a migrant is Middle Eastern or Latin American, they have the right to request asylum in the US: fleeing extreme violence and poverty is not a crime.

As I have lived, travelled and broken bread with migrants over the past few years, they have opened their lives to me. A 16-year-old girl travels from Honduras alone, hoping to be reunited with her mother in the US. An eight-year-old cries, sad that she is missing school while living at a migrant shelter. A man, who doesn’t want me to use his name, wears his daughter’s baby shoe on a necklace: he had to leave her behind in Honduras but misses her. A pregnant woman tells me the name she has picked out for her son and that she dreams of him being able to get the education she never had. These dreams, of finding safety and opportunity and helping our families, are common dreams that unite us all.

Migration is a historical constant, and the truth is that any one of us, in the age of climate change and other crises, could become one. As journalists, we owe it to our readers to represent migrants in their full humanity — in moments intimate, touching and mundane. Not only because that is how migrants’ lives are, but because one day we may find we are migrants too, and we will want to be treated with dignity.