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Selfies, Imagery & Refugees

Updated: Oct 9, 2019

We spent last weekend in Rome. My wife was there for an academic conference and I went along as her ‘plus one’. But I was also asked if I could use my digital skills help the conference “get a bit more publicity/visibility”. One of the things that universities have to provide nowadays is evidence of impact and a digital footprint is a really good way to do this. So, after gaining permission of all attendees to use any images we took, I took some photos of the people attending, some of the talks, and recorded some short videos (on my phone, in the courtyard) of the keynote speakers and reactions to what they were saying. “Thank you for making our research visible”, was one response. Thank you for making us visible in a world of images. Thank you for making good news on a medium so often filled with conflict.

You can see the pictures over at the Centre for Catholic Studies Twitter stream.

The Conference was all about the life of women serving in religious orders (e.g. ‘sisters’, ‘nuns’) especially in Africa and in the UK. So, the vast majority of people at the meeting were women – I was only one of three men there. I noted how different the conference was in a tweet you can see on the Twitter stream.

As I took photos, listened to the conference, watched people interacting, I couldn’t help but notice how serene and gentle the conferencing was compared to some other academic conferences I’ve attended, which are often male-dominated and quite combative. I felt that more work was done, more listening achieved here among these women – many of whom were passionate about the topic, sometimes furious with the data, often distraught with the problems. But who still managed to confer with a grace which was shocking!

After the Conference, Theresa and I went off sightseeing for a couple of days. We love Rome and saw lots of sights. My favourite will always be the Pantheon – a Roman temple, transformed into a church to the glory of God. The most amazing building in the world.

But close to that was a Virtual Reality experience in Nero’s Domus Transitoria on the Palatine Hill - a breath-taking multimedia experience which reconstructs Nero’s palace of water, gold, marble and precious gems.

We took picture after picture. And, of course, so did everyone else. Images of Roman ruins with people performing to their cameras. And often, as in a recent blog I posted on here, videos were being used to maximize the impact.

At St Peter’s two images stick with me from a rather lacklustre experience.

The first is Michelangelo’s Pietà – a gracefully beautiful statue which exudes emotion. This marble block carved, shaped, coaxed into such beauty by a 24 year old young man. It’s a moving piece and stands apart in a temple devoted to the power of men. And yet it is a dead man’s body draped across his mother’s lap which steals the show. I wondered about our selfies, our imagery, our love of filters and emojis. But here was a simple statue which spoke powerfully.

And in a world of videos, live photos, selfies and slofies…another stature stood waiting outside St Peter’s. Timothy Schmalz’s “Angels Unawares” was blessed last Sunday by Pope Francis (link to BBC report). The statue represents a boatful of refugees from across the years – Syrians fleeing civil war, Jews fleeing the Nazis, people from Ethiopia and Ireland fleeing famine, and a carpenter, his wife and child fleeing from Herod’s cruelty.

The piece is based on Hebs 13:2 (link) – “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Above the boat, two angel wings emerge out of the crowd of refugees. Timothy Schmalz said to the BBC: "Every time you look at it you get that visual message instantly that migration is something that humanity has always had. All cultures, all races, all religions."

It’s the faces and their expressions which stand out – from children, to a family, to the Holy Family

And around the statue people took their selfies, superimposing themselves upon the piece of art, making them the central subject of their own art. Making the refugees passive observers of selfie culture. I was reminded of watching 'The Pianist' over the summer after another conference in Warsaw and feeling haunted by the Jews parading across Warsaw, crowded into the ghetto, bundled into trains heading to Treblinka - fleeing persecution through the supposed obliteration of death.

Schmalz’s previous work, of course is ‘The Homeless Jesus’ – with copies now all over the world. A man wrapped in a blanket, his feet uncovered showing the wounds inflicted on the cross. Here I am in Indianapolis with Jesus. I have to say that this encounter was so real, so powerful, not least as a homeless man died in the park next to the church shortly after.

One thing that happened at the “Angels Unawares” statue stole me away from the grace and beauty of the statue and threw me back into the self-centred futility of selfie-culture. the same kind of nihilism that is part of social media culture, and contemporary attitudes to refugees and 'the others' (not their attitudes but all our attitudes).

At the back of the statue, a small, bald man directed his wife to take a picture of him as he made a ‘loser’ sign in front the statue, in the face of the refugees. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Could that outstretched horizontal thumb and vertical forefinger mean anything else? Such a tragic picture of today's divided world. The man was further annoyed when people noticed what he was doing and stood in between him and the statue, standing in the gap, blocking his attempt to disrespect both the refugees and the angels.

Sometimes selfie culture sucks!


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