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Research on photographs of Muslim women in the ANP image bank exposes stereotyping
According to the ANP image bank, the Dutch Muslim woman is veiled, passive, works as a cashier, and is mainly found on the street, at the market or shopping. Or rather that is the image that arises from the photographs that are labelled with the search term ‘Muslima’. The photographs paint a very one-sided picture, and the descriptions and search terms linked to the photographs contain keywords that often do not correspond with the content of the photographs. This contributes to the stereotyping and stigmatisation of Muslim women. Photographers are using these search terms for commercial reasons, to increase the findability of their photographs in the image database. These are the findings of research done by photographer Cigdem Yuksel and researcher Ewoud Butter.
Why this research?
Research from the past three decades into the portrayal of Muslims in the media shows that the portrayal of Muslim women, especially when they are veiled, is often particularly stereotyping. This is not without consequence. As research by Meld Islamofobie (Abaaziz, 2016) shows, primarily (veiled) Muslim women fall victim to discrimination and Islamophobia.
The portrayal of Muslim women in the media is not only determined by the chosen keywords, but by the photographs that are used as well. Photographer Cigdem Yuksel: “ At the start of my career I discovered that, as photographer, I hold power. The power to paint people I photograph in a certain light. Year after year I see that the image of the silent, poorly Dutch speaking, veiled migrant woman is a recurring cliché in the media.”
Image databases play an important role in this dynamic. Print media (newspapers and magazines) and digital media (including websites of newspapers and magazines) often use photographs from image databases to illustrate their news articles, stories, and reports. It is remarkable that the composition of photographs in these image databases has not been analysed before. The ANP has the largest image database in the Netherlands, which is used by almost all Dutch media outlets. Photographers from all over the country upload images to the ANP image database on a daily basis.
This research was done to gain insight into the type of images of Muslim women that have been (and still are) supplied to Dutch media outlets for the past decades.
In their exploratory research, Cigdem Yuksel and Ewoud Butter analysed photographs that appeared as search results in the ANP image bank after using the search term ‘Muslima’. A total of 4.482 photographs were analysed, spread over three periods (1995-2000, 2005-2010, 2015-2020), in order to examine the most common images. Yuksel and Butter also examined the descriptions and search terms added by the photographers to find out which keywords dominate. Lastly, seven photographers were interviewed to gain insight into the way they work and to explain how certain images and descriptions come into existence.
The analysis of the photographs shows that they paint a very one-sided picture of Muslim women. This one-sidedness is comprised of several aspects:
- In almost all photographs of Muslim women, the women are either veiled or wearing a niqab. Muslim women without a veil are rarely portrayed.
- Another point is that Muslim women are almost always photographed outside the home and in a passive state (walking, standing, listening, sitting). They are hardly ever portrayed as citizens actively contributing to society (i.e. as employee, manager, or volunteer), nor in their own social environment, for example a mother helping her child with homework or parents hugging their newborn baby at the hospital. Muslim women that are photographed at work are strikingly often employed as cashiers.
- The keywords that are often used to describe the photos and the linked tags do not correspond with the actual content of the photo, but refer to political and social debates (assimilation, integration, immigrant) or political frames (Islamisation) that are typically causing Muslim women to be portrayed as ‘the Other’.
The research is concluded by several recommendations formulated by the researchers, a focus group, and the interviewed photographers. The ANP should draw up and enforce clear guidelines. The photographs in the image database have to become more diverse, and the influx of new photographs, descriptions and search terms have to be reviewed. Finally, it is important to raise awareness among both photographers and editors about the influence they have on media portrayal, and to increase their knowledge of diversity among Muslim women. Following workshops on recognising stereotypes is essential and will provide tools for prevention. These recommendations will ensure a better representation of reality.