A Danish photographer captures heartbreaking social division in a single frame

Image: Courtesy of Olaffur Gestsson/Scanpix
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Distrust of Muslims has become a toxic refrain in the West, characteristic of Donald Trump’s successful campaign for the US presidency and of far-right political groups across Europe. One poignant photo by a young Danish photographer captures just how isolating that can feel.

At a public meeting in March about proposals to create a refugee center in Kalundborg, Denmark (about 70 miles west of Copenhagen), photographer Olafur Gestsson observed rows of residents voicing their opinions. Some came to support the refugee center, while others came to share concerns about letting refugees, many escaping civil war in Syria, into their town.

“Personally, I felt the atmosphere was very hostile,” Gestsson said though email. “More and more people stood up and spoke—or even yelled—about their children’s security and the fear of violence and rape.”

“As I was struggling to picture this, I suddenly saw this woman standing next to the audience benches.”

The woman was wearing a hijab, and although Gestsson was unable to get her name, the sight of her standing at the edge of the bleachers perfectly illustrated the “in-group” vs. “out-group” mentality that characterized the discussion. The photograph was eventually given an award of excellence in the “General News” category this month in the international College Photographer of the Year competition.

“She might as well be Danish, and some of the people on the left might be in favor of the asylum center. But I think the symbolism is striking. For me, this sad image symbolizes Denmark today,” says Gestsson, a student at the Danish School of Journalism. ”Growing racism, xenophobia, exclusion and fear. Walls are being built where we should be tearing them down”

Anti-refugee sentiment is growing in Denmark, which absorbed more than 30,000 asylum-seekers in the past two years. That’s less than in Germany and Sweden, but significant in a country of only 5 million. The right-wing Danish People’s Party has been making gains in parliament.