At the end of 2013 almost 60 million people were displaced due to conflict, the highest ever-recorded number by the UN refugee agency. Half of this number were children. Think about that figure for a moment; 60 million. That’s 60 million individuals, 60 million faces with 60 million stories. In the shadow of such epic misery it is hard to feel anything but despair. And indeed it’s hard to find photographs of these faces that show anything other than utter destitution.
Not so in Bill Knight’s recent collection “The Refugee’s Gift”, commissioned by the Refugee Council. He is a man who knows that a face speaks louder than any statistic. His exhibition, currently on display at the Lodge does something quite remarkable. It shows the success of refugees, it shows them smiling. We are used to seeing the plight of the refugee in pitiful and pathetic images. Usually of crowds and huddled masses, not individual faces and certainly not radiant ones. Knight’s exhibition certainly did not belittle the undoubted severity of the current refugee crisis, but it managed to give the sitters their dignity and that is something we don’t grant to most. He was commissioned by the Refugee Council to document the faces of refugees to Britain and highlight the contribution they make to our society and with a subject pool spanning every conceivable profession it was not hard to see how. A welcome change from the shifty and untrustworthy foreigners lurking in the pages of the Daily Mail hell-bent on destroying “British Values”, whatever these nebulous entities may be. One of these, the Refugee Council and myself would argue, is the long tradition of offering asylum. But what of the faces themselves?
As a species we are intuitively drawn to faces, psychological studies have shown that as little as nine minutes after birth infants demonstrate a preference for looking at moving schematic face-like patterns rather than scrambled ones that contain elements of faces but that are configured as non-face like (Goren et al, 1975). A finding replicated in babies at both 12 hours and 5 days old (Maurer & Young, 1983). A face has profound effects on our pro-social behaviour too, a finding that hasn’t gone unnoticed by charity marketing execs. Show us a statistic and we are unmoved but show us an individual and put a face to that individual then we are moved. I call upon psychology once again to back me up here. People show greater willingness to help identified victims compared to non-identified ones, and the availability of individually identifying information, such as a picture of a face, increases this effect. The identifiable victim is significantly more likely to elicit greater donations than the non-identified individual. Moreover we express greater distress when the victim is single and identifiable, through their face for example (Kogut & Ritov, 2005). But what was so unique about Knight’s work was that these were not photographs of victims. They were anything but. They were successful lawyers, scientists, doctors, public figures and at the other end of the social scale they were people finding their way in a new society but very much characterised by hope and a resilience which beamed from their faces.
Knight came to give a talk at the Lodge, and took us on a fascinating journey of the stories behind the photographs. At the end one audience member asked him “Do you think you would do another exhibition showing refugees looking sad, showing their “negative face”?” one audience member asked. The answer to that was given by Fortunate Frizell a few minutes later, herself a refugee from Zimbabwe and featured with her brother in the collection, “why should he?” she responded “you just have to open a newspaper to see that”.
Goren, C.C., Sarty, M., & Wu, P.Y. (1975) Visual following and pattern discrimination of face-like stimuli by newborn infants. Pediatrics, 56,4, 544-9.
Greenwald AG, McGhee DE, and Schwartz JLK. (1998) Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The implicit association test. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 74, 1464–1480.
Kogut, T. & Ritov, I. (2005) The ‘‘Identified Victim’’ Effect: An Identified Group, or Just a Single Individual? Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 18,157–167
Maurer, D., & Young, R. (1983). Newborns’ following of natural and distorted arrangements of facial features. Infant Behavior and Development,6, 127-131.