The picture of the little girl and the big ship
When the website was designed, I was looking for a picture capable of expressing the idea what the diasporic family is all about in a single frame. I had two images in mind: one that signified transnational mobility and the rupture of family ties, the other that signified being settled and together again. A scene from Couscous (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2007), showing a family sitting round a table eating this quintessentially North African meal, seemed to encapsulate the second idea.
But then I found the still on the banner of this website, taken from Yamina Benguigui’s Immigrant Memories (1997).
It has a very powerful emotional resonance for me. It captures how families are torn apart in the process of transnational migration. Looking at this picture I imagine that the little girl has just said goodbye to her father or even to both her parents, who are leaving Algeria on the big ship that will take them to France. I imagine that tears are streaming down the little girl’s face, as she is left behind, not knowing when her parents will be able to come and collect her so that she can live together with them.
Not only the fact that I cannot see the little girl’s face allows me to construct an entire narrative around this image. The fact that it depicts a child is important, too. It explains the strong emotional appeal of this image. Considering the preponderance of children in Holocaust narratives, Marianne Hirsch (1999) notes that images of children lend themselves to universalization: ‘the figure of the “child” is an adult construction, the site of adult fantasy, fear, and desire…Our culture has a great deal invested in the children’s innocence and vulnerability… Less individualized, less marked by the particularities of identity, moreover, children invite multiple projections and identifications. Their photographic images elicit an affiliative and identificatory as well as a protective spectatorial look marked by these investments’.
The little girl with her hair and yellow dress moving in the sea breeze is recognisably ‘other’ in terms of her ethnicity. Her hair is dark and frizzy, her skin a tone darker than that of a sun-tanned white child. And yet, to return to Hirsch’s observations, ‘the appetite for alterity’ is displaced by ‘an urge toward identity’, inviting a ‘universal identification with the image of the vulnerable child’.
Edited on 15 Feb 2011 around 10am