Look responsibly: avoid voyeurism and sentimentality

'Look out for clichés in war images'

7 September 2015

The electrifying effect of the photo of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi illustrates the enormous impact that images can have in geopolitical conflicts. However effective they are, the use of such images and how they are viewed requires critical reflection, argues Marta Zarzycka. Zarzycka, assistant professor of media and culture at Utrecht University, carried out the first systematic research into images of women and children in the conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, supported by a Veni grant from NWO.

Until recently, British tabloids wrote about refugees using terms usually associated with natural disasters or wars: they were a 'tsunami' or an 'invasion'. Following the photo of the lifeless Aylan Kurdi that caught the world in its grip, however, the rhetoric has changed. The Sun has now started an appeal, encouraging its 'caring readers' to give generously for children like Aylan, who 'have become trapped in the migrant crisis'. Cultural scientist Marta Zarzycka explains this phenomenon succintly: 'Thousands of refugees are a threat, a single refugee is a drama'. While she finds this change of heart amongst the tabloid press hypocritical, she points out that it not only demonstrates the volatile nature of public opinion in the Western world, but also the enormous power of photos.

As 'the Afghan girl', the 13-year-old Sharbat Gula stood a nameless and silent symbol in 1985 for the misery of people facing the violence of war. (Magnum/Hollandse Hoogte)As 'the Afghan girl', the 13-year-old Sharbat Gula stood a nameless and silent symbol in 1985 for the misery of people facing the violence of war. (Magnum/Hollandse Hoogte)

The face of a conflict

In the reporting on forced migration, children embody vulnerability, dependency and innocence, says Zarzycka. Since the start of the refugee crisis, we have seen hungry babies on the back of exhausted parents, toddlers in the dry desert, barely able to walk, children in a refugee camp holding out their hands begging for food, crying in panic on a wreck of a boat, and finally the small body of drowned child washed up on a beach. Just like Phan Ti Kim Phuc in Vietnam and Sharbat Gula in Afghanistan, Aylan Kurdi has become 'the face' of the geopolitical conflict, the tug on the heartstrings that has turned our collective attitude around.

However positive the outcome of this emotional pull might be, Zarzycka thinks we ought to be aware of the clichéd reality that all too easily arises if iconic images are allowed to lead their own lives. A clichéd reality that only emphasises and increases the distance between us, observers in the safe and prosperous West, and them, drifting and helpless beings from 'over there'.

The photo of the nine-year-old Vietnamese girl Phan Ti Kim Phuc from 1972, burnt by napalm, hastened the end of the American involvement in Vietnam. (Hollandse Hoogte)The photo of the nine-year-old Vietnamese girl Phan Ti Kim Phuc from 1972, burnt by napalm, hastened the end of the American involvement in Vietnam. (Hollandse Hoogte)

Stereotypical roles

Zarzycka's research explores and analyses the ways in which humanitarian organisations use images of children to tempt donors. Their campaigns often generate a false impression, namely that a unique personal relationship will arise between the generous giver and the helpless poor child, usually a girl, as a sort of reward. Unlike Western youth, this child may not have access to food, healthcare and education, but the generous do-gooder from the industrialised world is there to 'save' it.

Zarzycka found a similar rhetoric in successful press photography, however honourable the photographer's intention to report on a conflict in a gripping and aesthetically striking manner. Children are always innocent and in need of help, while women are cast in equally stereotypical roles: the grieving mother or beloved, the victim, the maiden rescued by a man. Non-Westerners in general are mostly portrayed as silent, passive, often nameless and invariably lacking their own voice or opinion: rarely are they portrayed as assertive people undertaking action.

Look critically

Our subconscious preference for these clichéd images may be as old as photography itself, but in recent years the form in which these images reach us has changed considerably. War photography is no longer the preserve of professional press photographers and the traditional media, explains Zarzycka. Photos that make an impression – such as that of Aylan – not only spread like wildfire but are appropriated by social media users to express their own feelings. Twitter, for example, abounds with illustrations of Aylan: Aylan lying on the beach as a sand sculpture, Aylan as an angel with wings, Aylan caught in hands from which the blood drips or Aylan safely tucked up in a cot, a mobile dangling above his head. Zarzycka finds this collective appropriation of the image 'Disquieting'. 'Because,' she says, 'Aylan is not from us all.'

In a follow-up study, Zarzycka wants to describe the processes and implications of the cross-platform transfer of images such as that of Aylan: from newspaper to Twitter to museum or perhaps even a banner in a protest march. 'Due to this rapid dissemination, the question about how we deal ethically with images of refugees is relevant for a growing number of producers and users. How can these inspire social responsibility instead of voyeurism and unproductive sentimentality?' Looking critically at images and being aware of our tendency to createa clichéd, role-affirming view of reality through them is part of this ethical dilemma, according to the researcher. Her continued research will provide more insight into how we use images to dilute the complex nature of reality, seamlessly incorporating these simplistic explanations into our worldview.

More information

In 2016 Routledge will publish Zarzycka's book based on her Veni research: Gendered Tropes in War Photography: Mothers, Mourners, Soldiers.

Source: NWO