I would never have predicted that sharing my grandmother’s name would be such a traumatic event – an event that would fundamentally shape my relationship with my name and the names of my loved ones. It was summer and, although I cannot remember many details, I do remember that it was a very hot day and there were no children in the square where we used to play because our parents did not allow us to go out until later, after sunset. Since I had no one to play with, I ended up in the company of two elderly women who lived next to our house. One of them asked me what my grandmother’s name was, and I told her ‘Tana’. Then she said to the other woman: η Τάνα η πουτάνα (I Tana I poutana), which means ‘Tana, the whore’ – and makes a rhyme in the Greek language. They both laughed heartily. I don’t think they bothered to look at my face when they were laughing or afterwards, and I couldn’t see my face either, but if they had turned to look at me, they might have seen the pain they caused. Unable to stand up for my grandmother or myself, I left. On the way home I decided I would never tell anyone her name again and from that moment on I always said that my grandmother’s name was Tatiana.
This is not an isolated incident that happened only to me. When Albanians arrived in Greece, in the early 90’s, after the fall of communism, the first thing the Greeks asked us to do, was to change our names. When they asked my father his name and he said ‘Zija’ his employer told him: ‘It is too difficult for us to pronounce. We have in our team a Giorgos, a Dimitris, a Panagiotis, but we don’t have a Thanasis. Well from now on we will call you Thanasis.’
Some of us, however, were not directly asked to change our names, but instead we voluntarily adopted Greek-Orthodox names to give ourselves a better chance to be accepted in the communities in which we sought refuge. By erasing a degree of our Albanianness, it seemed, we could become more respected humans.
This practice of reduction has got me thinking about the relationship between hospitality and the name of the stranger on the shores of the host. For Jacques Derrida, not asking foreigners to identify themselves on their arrival, is the absolute form of hospitality. Absolute hospitality is conceived as limitless, unconditional, without rules and regulations. The host cedes her place to the other by refusing the impulse to know and record the foreign name. But Derrida’s conception of hospitality – one which is offered without asking the other to tell you their name – would make sense if our responsibility to receive others would be exhausted in the initial reception. The form of hospitality he suggests also implies that the stranger is a passer-by someone who is here to stay for a short time. Not knowing and not caring to know the name of the other is in fact closer to Immanuel Kant’s highly restricted concept of hospitality: the stranger has ‘the right to visit,’ and the right not to be harmed… but nothing more. The demand for hospitality in our time, and perhaps for all times, however, is a demand for an extended hospitality, for the guest wants and needs to stay. The strangers at our doors are not here for a visit but wish – as a matter of life and death — to be part of the communities from which they seek succor, welcome. For this reason, not to ask the other’s name, and not to introduce ourselves restricts the opportunity for any form of relationship to take place. Does rendering the approaching stranger nameless continue an act of violence? Does it condone violence? As Adriana Cavarero asserts, the question of personal identity is the ‘who are you?’, and the only way to answer it properly is by telling one’s story. If she is right, it means that we cannot tell our stories, without also telling our names.
The reader must wonder about my insistence on learning names, the names of others. I cannot not think of the images of the arrival of people from Middle East and Africa in the media without also thinking that even the iconic photographs from their arrival do not provide us with the name of the people portrayed in them. The refugee, it seems, needs no name. Why? And to what effect? One day I encountered a photograph of a young girl at the Ukrainian border, fleeing her country with her mother, and I suggest that this photograph absolutely displaces common ways of documentary practices and how they portray people who are experiencing a misfortune.
Her name is Valeriia. Valeriia is a five-year-old girl captured by the Ukrainian photographer, Artem Iurchenko. Iurchenko sent Valeriia’s photograph to the French artist JR, who printed the image and made a forty-five-meter-long image. He took the image to the city of Lviv, the second largest city of Ukraine. More than a hundred people from the city turned up to help lift the trap and a drone was used to take a photograph of the artwork on 14 March 2022. Time magazine used the image, which was taken in front of the National Opera of Lviv, as its cover a week later.
We cannot dismiss the profound difference of Valeriia’s photograph with the photographs of Middle Eastern and African populations. Most photographs of the latter depict them as fundamentally vulnerable and wretched bodies. Mark Sealy has rightly pointed out that the field of representation has always shown the black body as profoundly debased. Most of photographs do not capture individuals but we usually seem them en masse – and most of times in or out of boats. Valeriia on the other hand is the focal point of the photograph. Our gaze is directed to her bright face and smile and our focus into her face blurs everything else in the photograph. The red line, which is framing the photograph, reinforces her central role in the image.
The second thing we notice is the title ‘The Resilience of Ukraine’. Precisely because the background is not something we can easily identify; we begin to pay attention to other elements in the image. As we look further down, we notice that this is not an actual photograph of the girl we are seeing, but a work of art that people are holding up. The last element we notice is the building in front of which they are gathered. In front of the building, we see the flag of Ukraine and three more posters also in the yellow and blue colors of the flag. All these visual elements are carefully considered to construct a victorious narrative about Ukraine which invites the viewer to relate to the struggle of the country and its people.
As I mentioned earlier, the profound difference between this image with other images of people who are categorized as ‘refugees’ is that while the first ones are usually seen as desperate and proper victims, here Valeriia despite also being in a vulnerable situation, is seen playful and happy, indicating a hopeful outcome for her and her country. Claire Colebrook powerfully writes ‘who “we” are is given through the capacity of movement from one volatile space to another, always with a sense of those others who have inhabited these brief moving spaces with the loss and fragility which has -for Anthropos- always been imagined as accidental rather than constitutive’. Similarly, Valeriia’s misfortune is seen as temporary, accidental and something which she will overcome, while the misfortune of others -and the common ways of representing them, as always vulnerable and desperate – if not as a threat – makes that misfortune part of who they are. Valeriia’s happy face helps us see her in her full humanity – and I would insist that this is not an idle claim – if we take into consideration that we almost never see such images when photographs depict Middle Eastern populations. Moreover, the choice of the word resilience in combination with the people holding up the trap, also constructs a narrative that suggests Ukraine will be saved by Ukrainians themselves.
The choice of the word ‘resilience’ is not innocent. Resilience as a concept constructs an active and responsible self or citizen; at the same time, however, it also emphasises self-organisation and responsibility, which also shifts the focus from the state protecting its citizens to the citizens themselves. In the case of Valeriia’s photograph, the narrative invites us to identify with the Ukrainians and their resistance to the Russian invasion, but at the same time it promotes the idea that this war is ultimately their war. It is Ukraine’s war, and although we feel their pain, our responsibility, the responsibility of the Western spectator, is limited and conditional. In a similar vein, when Jean-Claude Junker visited Athens in 2013, he addressed the Greek people and said: ‘All these years I have felt your pain. I know very well how much many Greeks have suffered. But I also know well the resilience of the Greek people in the face of adversity.’ This promotion of resilience suggests that people in Ukraine, or in Greece during their own crisis, must take responsibility for their own lives and not depend too much on others.
The limited support is also implicitly communicated by other elements in the photograph. Valeriia is held up by her fellow citizens fighting for the future of the country, and we cannot think of a more appropriate symbol of any future than children themselves. Despite the financial and military support given to Ukraine by Western countries, this support is erased in the narrative constructed by the photograph. This is a significant element because in photographs from arrivals of refugees we see people we need to help, but the aid being given to Ukraine is not made visible, as we solely focus on the hope and the strength of its people. This erasure also contributes to inviting the viewer to relate with Valeriia and all the Ukrainians she represents. Ukrainians despite receiving support from Western countries are not visualized as victims we need to save, contrary to Middle Eastern people who are almost always seen as burden European countries need to take.
We should also remember that images circulate in specific contexts. Valeriia’s photograph was published a month after Russia’s invasion in Ukraine on 22 March 2022. This is the most vivid moment of a revival of an East-West bloc dichotomy that seemed to have almost collapsed after the fall of communism. Andriy Sadovy, the mayor of the city, says that ‘Kyiv is the heart of Ukraine, but Lviv is the soul.’ In Lviv the population strongly identifies with Ukraine and predominantly speaks Ukrainian. It is a city with a strong national identity; therefore, the choice to take the image in the city of Lviv further contributes to a discourse of national survival.
Moreover, the fact that the photograph itself is taken in front of the National Opera and not in any other official building or a square suggest that it is not only the territory of Ukraine that is under attack, but also its entire culture. On another reading, the photograph can also suggest that the nation and the culture of Ukraine will survive the war against them. It is important to remember that this is a culture that, at this particular moment in history, identifies or seeks to identify itself with Western countries. Therefore, all these subtle and implicit visual elements invite the viewer to see Valeriia and her fellow citizens as part of a Western civilization that needs to be preserved. Valeriia and her fellow Ukrainians are not merely others we must accept as ‘refugees’ they are already part of a Western imagination which constructs who belongs and who does not belong. As Susan Buck-Morss puts it: ‘To define the enemy is, simultaneously, to define the collective and indeed defining the enemy is the act that brings the collective into being.’ Precisely because the Western spectator sees Russia as the enemy since the end of World War II, the identification of spectators with Ukraine and Ukrainians was not a difficult task.
I did not have to look for Valeriia’s name. It was given to me by the cover of the magazine. The subtitle accompanying the photograph informs us that she is Valeriia, and she is five years old. One day it occurred to me that I always introduce her by her name while at the same there are these massive numbers of photographs from the arrival of Middle Eastern populations– photographs I study, photographs I encountered unexpectedly; they are the photographs of people whose name I do not know. Jacques Rancière suggests that if we are insensitive to the horrors experienced by others, it is not because of the amount of images of others we see in our screens, but because we see nameless others in our screens. Valeriia’s name is not the only element which invites us to identify with her and see her in her individuality; it is also a constitutive element. I would suggest that we cannot imagine a possibility of receiving and welcoming others without asking them to tell us their names. The task is to start unlearning the categories which give others a proper name such as ‘refugees’, ‘migrants’, ‘stateless’, and instead to start learning how to properly pronounce their own names.
(-Liza, you are the only one of the Albanians who live in our village, who has not changed her name.
-Yes, because this is my name.)
About the Author
My name is Linda Xheza and I focus on photographs, ethical responsibility, and violence. I am currently writing my Ph.D. thesis at the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis.
Buck-Morss, Susan. Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002.
Cavarero, Adriana. Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood. London: Verso, 2010.
Colebrook, Claire. ‘’Anthropocene Objects: The Lifeboat, What is a boat?’’ Theory & Event 26, no.1 (2023): 79-98. doi:10.1353/tae.2023.0004.
Derrida, Jacques, and Anne Dufourmantelle. Of Hospitality. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso, 2011.
Sealy, Mark. Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2019.