Civil Society

A Genealogy of Humanitarian Visual Culture: Yemeni Bodies in Pain, and Digital Humanitarianism

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

The coffins were laid down, opened, arranged in a line on the icy earth. The crowd made room for the press respectfully. It knew that without the journalists and photographers the massacre would be erased and the dead would truly die. So the bodies were offered to them, in hope and anger. A banquet of death. Mourning relatives who had backed away were asked to return into frame. Their sorrow was to be “archived.” In the years to come, when the war became a way of life, there would be books and films and photo exhibitions curated around the theme of Kashmir’s grief and loss.[1]

Though an excerpt from a novel, this scene from Kashmir by Arundhati Roy is not very far from reality, a scene of what I see as the ‘live streaming of pain’ that is captured through the limitations, hence the selectiveness, of the camera. After all, still and motion images are subject to the constraints of the camera, which is technically incapable of capturing everything. Instead, the lens is extended or reduced  to delineate a frame that serves the purpose of the image.[2] In Yemen, there was a time when journalists’ cameras framed the bodies of the living and the dead to showcase a particular form of pain similar to that in the excerpt above. Before 2015, images from previous wars or state repression of peaceful protests often focused on streaming grief and loss in relation to the accompanying rage. However, in the past six years, the imagery of pain in Yemen has become predominantly a subject of humanitarian visual culture. With the social media turn and the race for viral content, these images have become a visual genre of their own. More importantly, humanitarian visuality today constitutes a category of humanitarian action that visual studies scholars refer to as ‘digital humanitarianism’. This piece will trace the genealogy and politics of graphic war imagery in photojournalism and digital humanitarianism in the past three decades.

Artwork by Waleed al-Ward

Tele-visual wars

In 1985, Queen, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Madonna and many other world renowned musicians took to the stage of London’s Wembley Stadium in the Live Aid Concert, one of the biggest concerts in the 20th century. The benefit concert that lasted for 16 hours, featuring 75 performances, was launched to collect donations for victims of the Ethiopian famine. Live Aid was an iconic humanitarian fundraising event not only because it made a total of US$127 million in donations but also because more than 170,000 people physically attended, and an estimated one billion others watched the performances on television via satellite live streaming in 110 countries. During commercial breaks, the latest consummerst goods were glamorously advertised on color televisions. With carefully scripted audio-visual and written texts, commercials dictated the importance of owning the latest Chevrolet Camaro. They told the viewers at home that their lives would be incomplete without Nike and Adidas sneakers. The commercials insisted that if they ever felt thirsty, they would never be cured without White Mountain coolers. In between the sneakers and the wine/juice cocktail commercials, the glamor disappeared and lights of color televisions were dimmed, as if the camera lens was dipped in mud prior to capturing footage of starving Ethiopians. Accompanying the images of protruding bones that were about to escape the dehydrated flesh, there was a soundtrack. It was a song repeating that Ethiopians had no hope except for the viewers’ donations and to prove that, the screen would light again to add glamour to the smiling Ethiopians as they received international aid.[3]

The 1990s and early 2000s were the years of the Gulf War 1990-1991, the Yugoslav Wars 1991-2001, the Rwandan War 1990-1994, the US invasion of first Afghanistan in 2001 and then Iraq in 2003, which coincided with the Darfur war in South Sudan in 2003. These were the years that marked what visual culture theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff calls “tele-visual wars”.[4] At the time, televised visual streaming of suffering became a professional industry that peaked with the golden era of satellite media, before the social media turn in the mid-2000s. Professional and amateur photojournalists were in high demand as television and print media aimed to produce visuals, often graphic, that could act as evidence for news credibility.

Backed by enormous political, financial, technical and academic support, Western media crowned itself emperor of international media. And with this, Western news, especially war news, had the assets to impose its hegemonic power. In the Western media narrative, war was consistently portrayed as a ‘third world’ pathology. Concurrently, in media and certain academic fields, war in the West was considered an issue of the past that ceased to exist with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. One popular example of this discourse was a statement by the prominent conservative American academic and journalist George Will, who described the 1990s as a “holiday from history”. This discourse ignored the Irish anti-colonial resistance, the overwhelming homicide and incarceration of black, Hispanic and indigenous communities in North America, the rise of neo-Nazi violent movements in Europe, the anti-globalization and anti-capitalist mass protests as well as the fact that millions of people lost their jobs and social welfare health services after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Most of the time, none of this made it to mainstream international news segments. At the same time, there was considerable coverage of the former Yugoslav wars as well as what became known as the “Post-Soviet Wars” that broke out in North and South Caucasus all the way to parts of Eastern Europe. Mainstream academic and media commentators often saw these wars as “predictable” events, for in the Western imagination, the farther a country is, despite its continental European location, from Western Europe and North America, the less “European” it becomes. As a result, wars that took place in Eastern Europe or the Balkans, for instance, were portrayed as a problem of the East, a problem that belongs to the pathologies of the third world.

Even when events of violence in Western Europe or North America were broadcast, the bodies in pain in the West were almost never a subject of graphic imagery. In the semiotics of tele-visual wars of the 1990s, however, third world bodies in pain had a radically different representation.

International mainstream media constructed two paradigms for ‘third world’ war visual subjects. First, there is the armed man who is inherently violent and incapable of producing just democratic systems, while the second is the helpless victim who is positioned within a priori treatment of the ‘third world’ as a “primordial geography of war”. Consequently, the passive victims are ahistorical subjects with no past, present or future realities other than that of war. The overall result was a visual binary of a colonial metropole on a “holiday from history” in contrast with the underdeveloped “uncivilized” periphery.[5]

Artwork by Waleed al-Ward

The social media turn and the birth of digital humanitarianism

Inheriting the legacy of televisual wars, a new form of visual streaming of pain was created with the social media turn. Here, I would like specifically to focus on the birth of digital humanitarianism that flourished in the second decade of the 21st century. I do not want to get into the heated debate on whether social media has entirely replaced television and print media, for this is not our topic here. What is indisputable is that social media has become a substantial source for the dissemination of most forms of knowledge, which has led television to adapt most of their broadcasts into shareable social media content. It is important to note that up until the social media turn, humanitarian campaigns never enjoyed the momentum war journalism reached. However, the birth of digital humanitarianism changed this equation. Especially after 2011, humanitarian visual culture rapidly obtained considerable monopoly over the economy of war imagery. Relying heavily on visuals, digital humanitarianism attracted large numbers of professionals who left war photojournalism for humanitarian photography and filmmaking jobs that offered them generous financial and outreach benefits as well as the opportunity to show and share compassion.[6]

Since 2011, the influx of the dead, the starved and the displaced in Syria as well as the drowning and stranded refugees in the Mediterranean route to Europe has visually occupied the news with a focus on the humanitarian situation. This focus synchronized with humanitarian digital campaigns requesting donations. After the escalation of the war in 2015, Yemen followed on a much larger scale, which might be a precedent of its kind in digital humanitarian visual culture. Images of protruding bones hiding behind the dehydrated flesh of Yemenis went to a whole other level. In the past six years, Yemen has gradually become known for nothing but being the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world”. Appearing as frequently as advertisements of commercial products, images of Yemeni bodies in pain are streamed every day in the form of prepaid ads that are linked to every social media platform. In recent years, more and more viewers around the world have come to lose interest in the history or present of this country beyond the exposed ribs, limbs and the remnants  of basic infrastructure.

Artwork by Waleed al-Ward

Yemeni bodies in digital humanitarianism

Many photographers and videographers as well as targeted audiences and humanitarian practitioners may perceive digital humanitarianism as an action to improve inhumane conditions. However, a thorough critical analysis of the plethora of suffering of Yemeni bodies in humanitarian visuals demonstrates a profound dehumanization on three main levels. First, on many occasions, photographed and filmed aid recipients are not asked for consent beforehand. At the same time, one cannot deny that many aid organizations have gone a long way in developing ethical practices for humanitarian visual production. At the top of ethical requirements is obtaining written or verbal ‘informed consent’ from the subjects of humanitarian photography and videography. I argue that in contexts like Yemen, informed consent can be an oxymoron. People who have dramatically lost their livelihoods and have been violently uprooted from their homes, communities and support systems are extremely vulnerable and precarious. Their diminishing and dire realities do not provide proper conditions for meaningful consent. And people fear that if they refrain from giving consent, they may lose the minimal rations of aid they receive, which barely keep them alive and sheltered. In other words, in order for consent to be meaningful, saying no should be affordable. We cannot of course ignore the agency of aid recipients who willingly appear before the camera. What we need to be aware of here is that when humanitarian photographers and filmmakers turn a blind eye to the power dynamics and hierarchical relationship between them and the subjects of their visual production, consent is in fact franchised. Even worse, ‘informed consent’ can potentially become a sheer bureaucratic procedure to avoid legal precautions.[7]

Second, the fact that vulnerability needs evidence in the form of exhibited bodies in pain is dehumanizing despite any noble purpose. We are looking at bodies reduced to serve as statistical evidence with no account for dignity or socio-political subjectivities.[8] As pointed out earlier, the Western body in pain does not need graphic visuals as evidence. A public briefing or a statement is usually sufficient and answers to the ethics of dignifying victims. ‘Third world’ bodies, however, are in need of an accumulation of evidence of pain, even if the process robs them of the meaningful existence that humanitarianism claims to strive for.[9]

The third level of dehumanization should be read in light of the neoliberal economy of international organizations that are historically present as actors in free market politics.[10] Perhaps the essence of humanitarianism is to compassionately alleviate pain. Yet, with the professionalization of compassion, pain becomes capital. Like any other form of free market competition, every humanitarian organization is compelled to accumulate enough pain capital  in order to win the bid over other organizations. Compassionate values in this case become an instrument rather than the means, and in this social media era, visual portrayal of suffering stands as a qualification for competitors. Images of suffering bodies, as a result, become a commodity advertised to qualify for donations. On social media, the quality of consumerist products are showcased to motivate viewers to click on the ‘buy’ option. In digital humanitarianism, suffering bodies are showcased to prove themselves worthy of aid, as political scientist Heather L. Johnson puts it, “click to donate”.[11] The analogy of ‘click to buy’ and ‘click to donate’ reaches a further dehumanizing level with the reception of visuals. Consumerist products can be ignored by social media users, when repeatedly advertised. Graphic images of suffering bodies can provoke and startle viewers when seen the first few times. With time and with the overabundance of such visuals that appear around the clock on every social media platform, the eye becomes acquainted with images that do not strike anymore.  In the end, whether it is a starved body or an outdated cell phone on sale, fingers scroll down looking for new content.

In 1967, way before satellite and social media, philosopher and filmmaker Guy Debord predicted that advanced capitalism will produce societies of spectacles. He vividly described where we have arrived at today:

THE IMAGES detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudo-world that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world evolves into a world of autonomised images where even the deceivers are deceived.[12]

Digital humanitarianism, especially at times of prolonged wars, evidently has the power to become a dominant source of knowledge. This power obscures other accounts that do not have the financial or political assets to disseminate alternative narratives.[13] The brief genealogy of humanitarian visual culture that I have provided in this article aims to disrupt what has been normalized, and unpack violence that does not necessarily take the form of gunfire. In fact, images can be as violent as gunfire when they fail to acknowledge the limitations of the frame and the aggressive politics of framing. The alternative to this visual violence would be a reflexive dialogue between the camera and the eye behind the lens. This is needed to capture images where compassion is only allowed with the permission of the subject before the camera and in light of their agency and historical dissent.

[1] Roy, Arundhati. 2017. “The Untimely Death of Miss Jebeen the First.” In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, 309-396. (London: Hamish Hamilton)

[2] Trinh, T. Minh-Ha. 1992. When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics. (London: Routledge)

[3] Smith, Matt, and Helen Yanacopulos. 2004. ‘The Public Faces of Development: an Introduction’. Journal of International Development 16, No. 5: 657–64.

[4] Mirzoeff, Nicholas. 2002. An Introduction to Visual Culture. (London: Routledge)

[5] Ali, James, and Vultee. 2013. ‘Strike a Pose: Comparing Associated Press and UNICEF Visual Representations of the Children of Darfur’. African Conflict and Peacebuilding Review 3, No. 1:1.; Keen, Suzanne. 2011. ‘Fast Tracks to Narrative Empathy: Anthropomorphism and Dehumanization in Graphic Narratives’. SubStance 40, No. 1 (January): 135–55.; Manzo, Kate. 2008. ‘Imaging Humanitarianism: NGO Identity and the Iconography of Childhood’. Antipode 40, No. 4: 632–57.

[6] Zucconi, Francesco. 2018. ‘On the Limits of the Virtual Humanitarian Experience’. In Displacing Caravaggio: Art, Media, and Humanitarian Visual Culture, 149–75. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

[7] Hoefinger, Heidi. 2016. ‘Neoliberal Sexual Humanitarianism and Story-Telling: The Case of Somaly Mam’. Anti-Trafficking Review, No. 7.

[8] Bleiker, Roland, David Campbell, Emma Hutchison, and Xzarina Nicholson. 2013. ‘The Visual Dehumanisation of Refugees’. Australian Journal of Political Science 48, No. 4: 398–416.;

 Mortensen, Mette, and Hans-Jörg Trenz. 2016. ‘Media Morality and Visual Icons in the Age of Social Media: Alan Kurdi and the Emergence of an Impromptu Public of Moral Spectatorship’. Javnost – The Public 23, No. 4: 343–62.

[9] Fassin, Didier. 2012. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. Translated by Rachel Gomme. (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press).

[10] Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. ‘Imperial Democracies, Militarised Zones, Feminist Engagements’. Economic and Political Weekly, 46, No. 13 (n.d.): 76–84. Accessed 2011; Sharma, Garima, and Pratima Bansal. 2017. ‘Partners for Good: How Business and NGOs Engage the Commercial–Social Paradox’. Organization Studies 38, No. 3-4 (February): 341–64.

[11] Johnson, Heather L. 2011. ‘Click to Donate: Visual Images, Constructing Victims and Imagining the Female Refugee’. Third World Quarterly 32, No. 6: 1015–37.

[12] Debord, Guy. 2016. Society of the Spectacle. (Detroit, MI: Black & Red)

[13] Burns, Ryan. 2014. ‘Moments of Closure in the Knowledge Politics of Digital Humanitarianism’. Geoforum 53: 51–62.

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Nawara Hanina

ِAn academic who enjoys the messy dialogue between theory, oral history and archives. She also likes to listen to classic rock and pretend to play imaginary solos on imaginary electric guitars.

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