The photo above was published by Le Matin (LM) on 18 July 2009. It accompanied a follow-up story about the person pictured in it, a sans-papier who had been hurt by a car in an accident and afterwards was threatened with expulsion by the immigration authorities (see the picture in the context of the story here).
At the iconic level, the photo is rather laconic: a middle-aged woman dressed in a red nightdress sits in bed showing a plastered leg and holding a Teddy bear. Another Teddy bear and some pillows complete the scene. The woman looks at the camera. The wall behind her does not have any decoration.
The viewer does not have to wonder much about what the picture signifies. A reproduction of LM’s front page of the previous day — whose headline reads “To deport her? A scandal!” — appears prominently in the upper right-hand area of the image, next to a yellow-on-black caption that reads “Double victim”. The headline of the story reads “We are with her”. The extended sub-headline names her as Mirta Palma and links her situation to a request for a “humanitarian [residence] permit” and a “solidarity” movement. More importantly, it defines the person as “the hurt [woman] of Bel-Air [the venue of the accident]” instead of, for instance, by her status as a foreigner — i.e. illegal immigrant — or her country of origin.
The signified of the photo is two-fold: the victimization of a sans-papier and the LM’s reaction against it. The victimization is signified mainly through the subject prominently displaying her plastered leg. Additionally, two complementary signifying operations are at work. The subject’s vulnerability is accentuated by exhibiting her in nightdress. And the subject is infantilized via the association with the Teddy bears . The newspaper’s reaction is signified by the self-referential insertion of the previous day’s front page denouncing the scandal of the threatened expulsion. The prominent white-on-yellow logo of the newspaper functions as a signature to the story headline : it is Le Matin itself that is “with her”.
Taking this signified as a signifier of a second order, we can explore the myth level of the image, which we suggest is also two-fold. On the one hand, it is the affirmation of the Swiss humanitarian tradition. Both the fact that the newspaper campaigns against the “scandalous” expulsion and the institution of the “humanitarian [residence] permit” — which is the subject of a didactic sidebar — prove that tradition to be alive and well.
On the other hand, Mirta Palma signifies the myth of the “good foreigner” in its sans-papier incarnation . Certainly not an asylum seeker, as the sidebar makes clear, the “good foreigner” is harmless and child-like. It accepts with gratitude its precarious condition of undeclared worker with neither social insurances nor any rights . Its being a “victim” does not refer to these circumstances.
- If the subject were substituted with a young girl the picture would work as well.
- In fact a quote of one of the story’s sources.
- Curiously, 6,000 Ecuadorian sans-papiers in just one canton do not seem to be a ‘problem’ for LM.
- The humanitarian permit is not a right. The story explains that getting it is “difficult” as the authorities are “very severe” and apply “very restrictive policies”.
Back to photos.