Looking at the images produced by the new ‘frontline journalists’ (read: soldiers on the ships), we see how most of the photographs trigger sympathy for the soldiers and pity for the migrants. The images draw us into a community of witnesses. A community in which the spectator is positioned as the possible saviour, while the rescued bodies are the ‘other’. Border control is redefined within a moral imagination that puts emphasis on human vulnerability. The soldiers’ activities are depicted as similar to the recurring type of imagery of aid delivery, with just rescued, grateful migrants receiving food parcels and water. Quite revealingly, women with their tiny, innocent babies are the most commonly represented subjects.
The extent to which the legitimacy of this military-humanitarian operation (which costs €9 million per month) depends on how it is described and explained through media, becomes evident through the analysis of the official video of the operation. As you can see, while in the first part of the video we are invited to witness the dramatic ‘emergency’, feeling the pressure to be concerned or upset in response to the horrifying images; in the second part, the high-adrenaline spectacle pivots on the soldiers challenging the waves to resolve the catastrophe. And, what about the happy ending of the final frame that presents us with an intensely moralistic context that reframes the operation as humanitarian benevolence? Outside of any historical or political framework, of course. The issue of migration flows is here construed as a journey without destination, as a tragic game of fate. As protagonists of a crisis that comes from nowhere, migrants are depicted at the same time as subjects who are forced to put themselves in danger – departing on unsafe boats – and as subjects at risk (of death and trafficking) who need to be saved.
To sum up, speaking the language of combatting human smuggling and potential terrorists, while rescuing lives and protecting migrants’ human rights, Mare Nostrum performs the spectacle of the ‘humanitarian battlefield’. It is one spectacle, but different publics understand it differently. Like the different light refractions of the same kaleidoscope, the national spectacle of surveillance, policing, and border control is also the cosmopolitan spectacle of rescue and salvation. #Mare_Nostrum speaks different languages to different political constituencies: to migrants and citizens, to smugglers and transnational activists, to right-wing government coalition members and NGOs.