Migrant-Related Selfies and Memes

The phenomenon of refugee selfies coincides with the changing digital ecologies of migration in the 21st Century. Smart phone technology is now essential for survival, providing refugees with the tools to navigate, translate, and communicate. Mobile phones have also become a tool for documentation. As Syrian refugees encounter various political, geographic, and environmental dangers, they use mobile phones to send visual updates to loved ones as well as to celebrate the incremental victories of their journey.[1]

Roopika Risam and Lilie Chouliaraki consider the refugee selfies to be a critical development for the post-colonial, digital archive, providing an entry point and medium for the self-representation of the subaltern.[2] Though Risam acknowledges that selfies are still “forms of representation,” meaning that there are still layers of mediation involved, she suggests that “they are imbued with greater agency in self-representation,” allowing refugees “to document their personal experiences of migration, which are often unseen.”[3] Risam and Chouliaraki create a distinction between refugee selfies—images that the refugees take of themselves—and migrant-related selfies, photographs taken by a third party that capture the refugees in the act of taking selfies.[4] Risam criticizes the migrant-related selfies in news media for committing what Gatatri Spivak terms Vertretung, “stepping in one’s place” under the pretense of representing the subaltern.[5] Migrant-related selfies and the added captions within news media create the impression that they “represent the experience of migrants, but they are depictions that risk depriving them of agency” and risk “constructing the Other simply as an object of knowledge, leaving out the real Others because of the ones who are getting access into public places.”[6]

Migrant-related selfies remediate refugee selfies, demonstrating how susceptible the self-representations of the subaltern are to Western reconfiguration. This is further demonstrated by the remediation of the migrant-related selfies into internet memes, representations of cultural elements that are transmitted through imitation and reproduction.[7] Photo-based internet memes are a unique form of remediation in that they carry an “invitation to further action” and “[give] rise to a participatory environment.”[8] I expand Risam and Chouliaraki’s critiques of the migrant-related selfies by analyzing the processes and responses to the remediation in selfie memes.

In a comparison piece between the photo of Alan Kurdi and a migrant-related selfie, Britain’s Express news tabloid remarked, “Are these happy young men really timid souls fleeing war and persecution? They aren’t quite the heart-rending image of dishevelled, traumatized refugees fleeing the horrors of their war-torn home country one might expect.”[9]  The image in question is that of a group of Syrian men posing with a selfie stick as they celebrate their safe arrival at the Greek island of Lesbos, a stark contrast to the distressing image of Kurdi that left audiences wondering if they could trust the authenticity of the selfie and its implied narrative. The image was turned into a meme and posted on reddit with the added text, “You know you’ve been had when the refugee’s pull out a selfie stick.”[10] While other images of joy, desolation, sadness, and relief in the lives of Syrian refugees have been captured, they have not attained the level of attention, criticism, remediation, or virality as the migrant-related selfies, suggesting that there must be an element that sets the selfies apart as unique and notable.

The skepticism surrounding the migrant-related selfies is an interesting reaction in that it relies on a key false assumption: that the mobile devices present in the photos are luxury items and therefore, out of reach for disenfranchised populations. The most circulated selfie meme, the tweet captioned “Poverty stricken Syrian migrant takes selfie with her $600 smartphone,” communicates a similar sense of disbelief at the technological capacity of Syrian refugees. [11] Critics of the migrant-related selfies emphasize the perceived dichotomy between the desperate, powerless migrant and modern digital technology, usually a possession indicating privilege and wealth. However, this assumption ignores the contemporary reality that mobile technology has become not only a central communication resource for displaced populations like the Syrian refugees, but also a necessary tool for survival in the context of 21st Century diaspora movements. Although there is much evidence demonstrating that Syrian refugees are already well situated within digital, technological networks, the resistance against accepting Syrian refugees as citizens of technological modernity reveals the essentialization of refugee identities. Refugees with smartphones are perceived as more privileged than those without; the tech-savvy refugee is therefore disqualified from humanitarian intervention because “owning a mobile phone…should render one ineligible for help,” separating them from refugee populations more “in need” of aid.[12]

The memes of migrant-related selfies encapsulate resistance against the disruption of Western narratives that portray a binary between the modern West and the premodern East.[13] They also highlight the fragility of humanitarian frameworks that are contingent upon the perceived innocence of the refugee. Miriam Ticktin challenges the idea of innocence by retracing its construction, highlighting its politicization, and explaining its incomplete representation of humanity.[14] In the context of humanitarian aid, she considers how innocence only “works as part of a binary: guilt is its necessary other, and the pendulum can swing quickly between the two.”[15] Because the migrant-related selfies depict the refugees as technologically enabled, they are considered less vulnerable, less innocent, less deserving of the user’s guilt, and therefore, less “qualifi[ed] for humanitarian compassion.”[16]

The communication of these disruptions through the parodic medium of memes, however, shows how overt hypermediacy can draw attention to the falsity of Orientalist and humanitarian binaries within digital narratives.  While the memes were created to convey feelings of incredulity and deception towards seeing refugees with mobile technology, responses towards the memes and their mockery reflected a range of responses, most of which critiqued the assumptions of the meme creators. Textual analysis through Voyant, a web-based program that analyzes textual trends, revealed significant variability in the text used in Twitter and Reddit comments that referred to the memes, suggesting a lack of overarching trends in the responses and commentary. The variability also suggests that responses were largely individualized rather than reuses of the original text of the meme or repetitions of a specific message.

While many of the comments empathized with the skepticism of the original meme text, others responded in criticism and challenged the constructed narrative. Critiques of the memes highlighted how the creators behind the meme were deriving their skepticism from Orientalist assumptions. Some argued that a cell phone would be the most rational survival tool to hold onto in a crisis. Others disputed the notion that a mobile phone was an accurate signifier of wealth in the first place, rejecting the memes’ justifications for doubting the suffering of Syrian refugees.

Examples of Reddit comments in response to the refugee selfies. Click the image above to view the rest of the thread.

Examples of Twitter comments in response to the refugee selfies. Click the image above to view the rest of the thread. 

Hypermediacy in the form of the memes’ satirical captions and textual overlays drew attention to the hierarchies created by Orientalist assumptions. This demonstrates the capacity that hypermediacy has to disrupt Western structures by making its interventions and assumptions more explicit and unsettling. The parodic and subversive nature of internet memes insensitively objectifies the subjects of the original refugee selfies. However, the blatant, self-reflexive hypermediacy of their design combined with their participatory intent creates a rupture in the hyperreality of the digital narrative. Understanding this rupture establishes a starting point for thinking through how reorienting uses of hypermediacy can reverse power dynamics of digital narratives.


[1] Olivier Laurent, “See How Refugees Use Selfies to Document Their Journey,” Time, May 14, 2018, http://time.com/4064988/refugee-crisis-selfies/.

[2] This is in response to Gayatri Spivak’s landmark work, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” which questions the role of Western intellects controlling the knowledge production that claims to represent the experiences of marginalized groups. Roopika Risam, “Now You See Them: Self-Representation and the Refugee Selfie,” Popular Communication 16, no. 1 (January 2, 2018): 58–71, https://doi.org/10.1080/15405702.2017.1413191; Lilie Chouliaraki, “Symbolic Bordering: The Self-Representation of Migrants and Refugees in Digital News,” Popular Communication 15, no. 2 (April 3, 2017): 78–94, https://doi.org/10.1080/15405702.2017.1281415.

[3] Risam, “Now You See Them,” 67,58.

[4] Chouliaraki, “Symbolic Bordering,” 79; Risam, “Now You See Them,” 59.

[5] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 72; Risam, “Now You See Them,” 63.

[6] Risam, “Now You See Them,” 63; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (Psychology Press, 1990), 63.

[7] “Meme, n.,” OED Online (Oxford University Press), accessed March 20, 2019, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/239909.

[8] Limor Shifman, “The Cultural Logic of Photo-Based Meme Genres,” Journal of Visual Culture 13, no. 3 (December 1, 2014): 354–55, https://doi.org/10.1177/1470412914546577.

[9] “Migrant Crisis: Are These Happy Young Men Really Timid Souls Fleeing War and Persecution?,” Express.co.uk, September 10, 2015, https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/603511/Migrant-crisis-refugees-take-selfie-photo-Greek-boat-Lesbos-Syria-war.

[10] StartedGivingBlood, “R/Metacanada – ‘Refugees’ Using Selfie Sticks,” Reddit (blog), accessed March 20, 2019, https://www.reddit.com/r/metacanada/comments/aazn9f/refugees_using_selfie_sticks/.

[11] Bill O’Keefe, “Poverty Stricken Syrian Migrant Takes Selfie with Her $600 Smartphone.,” Tweet, @thatbillokeefe (blog), September 5, 2015, https://twitter.com/thatbillokeefe/status/640216875163631616.

[12] James O’Malley, “Stop Acting Surprised That Refugees Have Smartphones,” The Independent, September 7, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/surprised-that-syrian-refugees-have-smartphones-well-sorry-to-break-this-to-you-but-youre-an-idiot-10489719.html.

[13] While Mahmood Mamdani’s conceptualization of Culture Talk revolved around post-9/11 Islamophobia, the theory also applies to the Western framing of Syrian refugees. Mamdani defines Culture Talk as the process of assuming “that every culture has a tangible essence that defines it, and then explain[ing] politics as a consequence of that essence.” He then explains how Culture Talk creates narratives that frame non-Western nations as not only “premodern,” but also “resistant to” or “incapable of modernity.” “Culture Talk: Or, How Not to Talk About Islam and Politics,” in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (Harmony, 2005), 17–19.

[14] Miriam Ticktin, “A World without Innocence,” American Ethnologist 44, no. 4 (2017): 577–90, https://doi.org/10.1111/amet.12558.

[15] Miriam Ticktin, “Thinking Beyond Humanitarian Borders,” Social Research: An International Quarterly 83, no. 2 (October 4, 2016): 259.

[16] Ticktin, 257.