Who is foreign correspondence for?

Dear friends,

At a shelter for migrants in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula, right near the border with Guatemala, my conversation with Alejandro, a man from Honduras, is interrupted by Elsa, a fellow national of Alejandro’s.

“Mira” (“Look”), she says, pointing at her phone. We look.

It’s June 26 and the image she’s pointing to had been going around since it was broadcast internationally the day before. I figure you’ve seen it - the photograph of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, aged 25; and Valeria, his 23-month-old daughter. Migrants en route to the United States from El Salvador, they drowned attempting to swim across the Rio Grande, the river that separates Mexico from the US. Ramírez had tucked his tiny daughter into his t-shirt to secure her; still, they both died in the river’s rapids. According to reports, Ramírez’s wife and Valeria’s mother, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, had swum back to the bank of the river. When she turned around she saw the two being swept away.

What happened next - after the photographer snapped the image and it was published - has been the subject of some discussion (i.e. on the pages of internationally-read US media, within US-based and internationally-used social media, and within Spanish-language media and social media which sometimes involves broadcast in US media).

There’s some serious questions about who really took the photo, about the purpose and ethics of publishing such a photo, and about the presumed and actual impact of its broadcast.

“You can see how he protected her,” Ramírez’s mother, Rosa, told the Associated Press, who purchased the photograph from Mexican outlet La Jornada and broadcast it internationally. “They died in each other’s arms.”

Foreign correspondence/deterrence

“It’s so sad, isn’t it?”, I say to Elsa and Alejandro as they’re gazing at the photo on Elsa’s phone.  I’m visiting the shelter for a story for an Australian media outlet on migration at the Mexico/Guatemala border.

The two exchange glances. A few seconds pass.

“You’d have to be crazy to do what he did”, says Alejandro. Elsa just keeps looking at that photo.

Both Alejandro and Elsa are waiting, waiting, waiting in these less-than-basic lodgings in Tapachula. They have asylum claims currently being processed in the Mexican immigration system that have apparently stalled; this system has only become more corrupt and punitive in the last month.

Indeed, immigration policy anywhere in the world is increasingly protagonized by armed soldiers and police, razor-wire fences, torturous imprisonment including separating families and the sexual abuse of children, zealous deportation, and geostrategic efforts to make the path to crossing borders more dangerous. Its purpose is deterrence - applying deliberate cruelty and compelling death by drowning at sea or in rivers, dehydration in the desert, abuse and/or medical neglect in detention and broadcasting it so that people choose not to attempt to migrate to a place that may yet be safer than being hunted and starved at home.

In this, I wonder about how foreign correspondence can function, deliberately or not, as propaganda for foreign policy. If we ‘have to tell people what’s happening here’, are there ways of doing it that produce something other than shock and horror, other than judgement of the victims? That show how ‘what’s happening’ is not just a devastating tragedy, but the consequences of geopolitical choices for which accountability is more than due? Tina Vasquez, writing about the photo for The New York Review of Books, puts it this way: “Unlike those who’ve suggested that no one should dare look away from the image, I’ve never needed convincing that “the other” is human. (See her ‘The image America shouldn’t need’ and ‘Brown bodies, the white gaze, and the Rio Grande’ for more).

Fixing international reporting

Speaking of accountability and geopolitics (hey, this newsletter does what it says on the tin), this recent article by Priyanka Borpujari in Columbia Journalism Review crystallizes an enduring point on this intersection - that of the relationship between ‘foreign correspondents’/’international reporters’ (the ‘international’ journalists whose names appear on missives of foreign correspondence) and ‘fixers’ (the ‘local’ people, usually also journalists, whose labour in arranging interviewees, providing background information, translation and general orientation tends to be marginalised if not totally erased in the production of these stories).

Borpujari makes the question very clear: why not hire local journalists to do international reporting? Why is there a division between ‘reporter’ and ‘fixer’ in the first place? As her article shows, the reason is because the assumptions of foreign (read: Western European/Anglo/English-speaking) outlets regularly amount to the notion that the story is better told by a foreign (read: Western European/Anglo/ English-speaking) reporter.

This well-rehearsed colonial dynamic was also the subject of some very funny and pointed responses to a recent advertisement by the New York Times for a new bureau chief in Nairobi, Kenya - e.g. from Larry Madowo and The LAM Sisterhood. (+ see this Global Voices piece for a discussion of how the NYT got it so very wrong).

Want to getter a better grasp on the trouble of ‘troubled regions’? Check out:

Till next time, allied humans. Ann.

nb. Elsa and Alejandro are pseudonyms.

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Jamie Larson