This paper investigates a particular iconic figure that has recently appeared quite predominantly in the public sphere – especially in connection with the European refugee crisis (2015–2019): migrant children staged as kinds of “mirror-image” of the spectators. These images, which aesthetically often appear in form of “increased close-ups”, have filled newspapers and internet platforms particularly in the months of 2015 during which high numbers of people arrived in the European Union, especially in Germany and Austria, from across the Mediterranean Sea or through south-east Europe. The goal of this paper is to discuss the ambivalent dynamics such images are setting in motion in a contemporary public sphere marked by “civil citizenship” and “negative politicisation” (Rosanvallon). A close reading of these photographs of the “migrant child” show that these images are less about those represented than about those who are meant to look at them. They represent immigrants as our “alter superego” (Suárez-Orozco) and allow us to open our imagination towards a more or less optimistic forward-looking attitude and possible “young” and “new” lives. In a second step, photographs and protest collages accompanying this iconic topos as counter-images are analysed. It is shown that images of the migrant child as a mirror of the self usually appear in public together with other ones that turn present anxieties into projections and divisive imagery: the migrant is then portrayed as a creature living on the borders of humanity.
In the synopsis the migrant is discussed as a contemporary “everybody”, i.e. a mediating figure through which contemporary agenda-setting entities compete for the attention of “all of us”. In particular the emotional mediating role such images play in the contemporary post-national public sphere is investigated. The focus here is on the “ambivalence of imagination”, i.e. the paper discusses the ways in which these figures stir desire and enthusiastic adoptions, allowing people to build temporarily affective cross-border communities and solidarity, by at the same time becoming catalysts of resentment, hate and violence too. Picture practices, imagination and the passions they are associated with thus appear as causes of social disharmony, besides constituting a sense of belonging. Furthermore, it is pointed out that politics as a struggle for people’s imagination takes not just place between human beings but within them – which makes figures such as the “migrant child” particularly effective in stirring and circulating public feelings. Methods of political iconography, discourse theory, visual culture studies and political theory are combined in order to analyse this interplay and the ambivalences of images, imagination, practices and emotions.