The Humanitarian Visual Landscape of 2015

by Sonya de Laat

Miserable images of the ravages of Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa (thankfully, on a downward trajectory by that point) were at the forefront of the humanitarian visual landscape of 2015. These pictures were swiftly overtaken in the spring (and for the bulk of the year) with heart wrenching images of the perilous journeys taken by (im)migrants en route to Europe. The vast majority of these images are undoubtedly shocking. Photographs such as Samuel Aranda’s picture for the New York Times of a four-year-old girl lying on the urine soaked floor of a Sierra Leone health facility, and Nilufer Demir’s photograph of the tiny, lifeless body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach in Bodrum, Turkey and countless others contributed to the ongoing debates about the ethics of showing pain and suffering. Such debates are longstanding, reaching back to the early days of the medium, and have focused on: what is acceptable to display under what circumstances or in what forms or forums; when is the circulation or display exploitation, appropriation or commodification; at what point does the representation of suffering render the phenomenon a spectacle?

An additional longstanding debate centers on whether showing images such as these in large volumes or repeatedly results in what has come to be referred to as compassion fatigue: the slow erosion of care, compassion or sympathy for others. This is a term that is recognized and accepted in the medical fields as “the cost of caring” (, but is challenged and debated in media scholarship. In the medical field it has been associated with an inability to “refuel or regenerate” or a “profound shift in world view” after prolonged exposure to working with people who have suffered a trauma (Ibid.). In media scholarship the characterization shifts from a draining of empathy to a complete negation of it, a void. Susan Moeller’s text of the same name has been most instrumental in understanding compassion fatigue to be about audiences’ numbness and boredom resulting from the repetition and overwhelming volume of atrocity photographs. According to Moeller, media professionals claim that the apparent increase in sensationalist news reporting is justified to in order to rouse audiences, who paradoxically are less engaged because nothing is shocking anymore. Hers has certainly not been a lone voice. Susan Sontag (1977) vilified such images, insisting that audiences become complacent and inured to representations of suffering, and thus the need for an economy of such pictures. By the end of her life, Sontag (2003) considerably softened her tone. Though she remained skeptical of the circulation of miserable photographs, she did recognize there could be value in them. Moeller’s version of compassion fatigue has also since been challenged. For instance, some suggest what appears to be tuning-out is less a sign of complacency and more a sign of being overwhelmed with affect (Campbell 2012). The apparent numbness might actually be a symptom or result of feeling too much without attaining sufficient reconciliation or—to use the healthcare language—regeneration. Looking back in history, the debate about so-called compassion fatigue actually predates the medium of photography. The longstanding nature of the debate however does support basic reception theories about polysemy; some viewers may tune out in the face of such pictures while others may be moved into action. This is in keeping with widely accepted theories on the vicissitudes of audience reception: the affects of representations are never universally experienced.

The sheer fact that images intentionally meant to shock continue to be produced and circulated suggests that such pictures do in fact have an affective force. But it is a complex array rather than one fixed emotion, and there is no definitive progression of responses related to exposure. That atrocity photographs generate a range of emotions has also led to debate about whether these images generate the ‘right’ affective responses: pity, compassion, sympathy, curiosity, solidarity, revulsion, or even titillation (Boltanski 1999, Chouliaraki 2013, Halttunen 1994). Indeed, what constitutes ‘right’ responses, and on what bases? Furthermore, how do circumstances dictate these decisions?

Culture and media theorists have vilified shock photographs as being too visceral, too direct, leaving no room for viewers to engage, or to reflect (Barthes 2012 [1957]), making simple responses such as financial donations appear as the only way to ease their consciences (Berger 2013). Scholars and critics within the humanitarian system, one that has been said to have greatly contributed to a spectacle of suffering, have accused agencies of codifying and appropriating the pain of others for commercial and humanitarian currency (Lissner 1981; Kleinman and Kleinman 1996). Humanitarians and their organizations have since created scores of codes of conduct and guidelines (e.g., IFCR, Dochas, Save the Children, Oxfam). Laudable though they may be, they are not consistently applied or universally adhered to, not even by those involved in their early creation and championing (e.g., “Unwelcome Return…”; Rusty Radiator). While there is value in further exploring the rhetoric around avoiding certain imagery versus the apparently hypocritical reality, I would like to offer an alternative way to thinking about the issue of shocking humanitarian photographs.

Turning attention away from photographic content or form, consider the medium of photography, the technology itself, as essentially and inherently shocking. The shock of this medium comes from it being fundamentally a temporal one: Photography is at its essence a play with time. This temporality has long been recognized; it has been and remains a central feature in several social theories of photography (Azoulay 2012; Benjamin 2008 [1931]; Berger 2013 [1968]). Take, for example, the case of a family snapshot where there is a direct connection to the people or events within them. The photograph in this instance is but a point—a quote—in a well-known narrative, or at least one in which the viewer is intimately connected. As for a picture encountered in a newspaper, a magazine, or online, in which the viewer has no direct ‘familial’ tie, the photographs become moments wrenched from the socio-political continuums from which they emerged; they become abstract. Compound this with nearly a century of now conventionalized commercial use of photography, pictures readily become icons, symbols and metaphors. This is a fact that has been naturalized and routinized out of everyday encounters with photography. Thus a photograph of a child shifts from being a personal portrait to a symbol of famine, or a metaphor for the dependency of an entire continent on Western/European aid.

The shock of photography’s temporality is even more paradoxical. Photographs apparently connect people when instead they create a bond based on hierarchy and difference (Twomey 2012; Dogra 2014). Humanitarian photographs (and other images of suffering & atrocity) often try to humanize suffering by focusing on an individual. Photography may be great at collapsing distance, making viewers feel as though they are witnesses (or bystanders), but a break in the familial connection opens the possibility for other connections—however spurious—to take its place. In making the mass of suffering more personal, to ‘bring a human face to suffering’, viewers readily formulate a causal connection between themselves and the suffering victims regardless of geographic distance, or distance in time. This causal connection is a definite boon to aid organizations since viewers—all being possible donors—might be more likely to do what they feel they ought to do as good, caring people: donate financially (there was a time that volunteering or ‘joining’ was a dominant option, but today financial contributions are almost exclusively sought and provided). The causal connection is accentuated in appeals that claim that ‘your’ contribution and ‘only you’ can make a difference, because making a difference is in ‘your’ hands.

The temporal break contributes to an obscuring of the causes of suffering, that in the case of so-called humanitarian crises are more genealogical than generally perceived. This does not mean that causes are not offered, but they tend to be truncated in their geopolitical and historic reach. They are attributed to local corruption or infighting, and may be ancient in origin, but never implicate legacies or ongoing impacts of western imperialism. The shock of the temporality of photography is that such images do not arouse in people indignation at the causes of the suffering, or more importantly, the limited political options available to them to directly impact suffering that their society has contributed to or been implicated in (Berger 2013). The shock is that we have lost the ability to know the socio-political, the cultural and the historical ties that bind; at the same time a link is created (and now conventionalized) that makes distant viewers bond with distant sufferers through a long-ago manufactured and continuously perpetuated hierarchical social order with suffering others and Western heros.

Aranda’s photograph of the young Ebola patient never became more than that of a nameless symbol of the ‘other’ to be feared and a metaphor of Africa’s perpetual infantilizing dependence on Western aid (Burman 1994; Campbell 2012). For Canadians, Alan Kurdi’s photograph pierced the illusory and abstracting affect of the medium’s temporal play by connecting the picture to its wider narrative: ties to a Canadian family. Along with this came a glimmer of a broadened Canadian consciousness, itself a nation of immigrants. The photograph ceased to be a tragic icon of the largest human migration since WWII to being an image with a history, a social and a political life. This ability of a photograph to connect to broader groups of people, to wider issues, is possible with any photograph. In this case, however, it took the family connection for that break with the illusory continuum to occur. It is not the first time such pictures have circulated in the media or through social networks, and certainly not the last. The photography’s disruptive reach also had its limits: the focus remained this migration being the result of a 5-year long war rather than the culmination of a much longer history that includes, Western imperialism, cold war geopolitics and more recent Euro-American influences. The invisible shock of misery photographs is that the historical, social and political connections that are severed in this act of repetition never become part of the public conversation.

Sonya de Laat, is a PhD candidate in the Media Studies program in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario (Western U), in London, ON, Canada. She is also the Research Coordinator for the Humanitarian Health Ethics (hhe) research group at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON, Canada.  Her education is partly funded by the Ontario Graduate Scholarship. Her contributions to the hhe are made possible through funding from CIHR. Contact her: or

Photo credit: Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive from Turkey to Skala Sykamias, Lesbos island, Greece. Spanish volunteers (life rescue team – with yellow-red clothes) from “Proactiva open arms” help the refugees.

Works cited:

Azoulay, A. (2012). Civil imagination: a political ontology of photography. London: Verso.

Barthes, R. (2013). Mythologies: The Complete Edition. Hill and Wang.

Benjamin, W. (2008). The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Berger, J. (2013). Understanding a Photograph. Aperture.

Boltanski, L. (1999). Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics. Cambridge University Press.

Burman, E. (1994). Innocents abroad: Western fantasies of childhood and the iconography of emergencies. Disasters, 18(3), 238–253. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7717.1994.tb00310.x

Campbell, D. (2012). The iconography of famine. In G. Batchen, M. Gidley, N. Miller, & J. Prosser (Eds.), Picturing atrocity: reading photographs in crisis (pp. 79–91). London: Reaktion Books.

Chouliaraki, L. (2013). The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism. Polity.

Dogra, N. (2014). Representations of Global Poverty: Aid, Development and International NGOs. New York: I.B.Tauris.

Edwards, S. 14 October 2014. “From Miasma to Ebola: The History of Racist Moral Panic Over Disease.” Jezebel.

Halttunen, K. (1995). Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture. American Historical Review., 100(2).

Twomey, C. (2012). Severed Hands: Authenticating Atrocity in the Congo, 1904-13. In G. Batchen, M. Gidley, N. K. Miller, & J. Prosser (Eds.), Picturing atrocity: Photographs in crisis (pp. 39–50). London: Reaktion Books.

Kleinman, A., & Kleinman, J. (1996). The appeal of experience. The dismay of images:  cultural appropriations of suffering in our times . Daedalus, 125(1), 1–23.

Lissner, J. (1981). Merchants of misery. New Internationalist, 1–11.

Moeller, S. 1999. Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death. Routledge.

Rossington, B. 4 September 2015. “Photographer who took picture of drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi says she had to ‘make this tragedy heard’”.  Mirror.

Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. Picador.

Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador.

1 comment

  1. How do I respond to photography depicting horrors? Initially, I’m disgusted and experience the depression that stems from helplessness, but that changes. I emerge with my compassion intact and my point of view changed. Although these photographs are neither pleasant nor entertaining, they are important.

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