The third in the series of Spotlight Seminars hosted by the Media Communication Department of Webster University Geneva on Tuesday, Feb. 6, drew on both theory and practice to explore the challenges surrounding the use of images of people in humanitarian communications. It aimed to help the photographers, journalists and communication professionals present, who faced with the challenge of using images of people sensitively and treating their subjects with dignity, answer the question: shall I post this?
The three speakers each brought a different perspective to this question.
Valérie Gorin, Senior Lecturer and researcher at CERAH and the University of Lausanne, guided the audience through the evolution of the role played by photographs in “bridging distant suffering.” An increasing awareness of the visual politics of representation has lead humanitarian organizations to move away from the commodification of suffering and ‘poverty porn.’ These organizations have developed ethical codes of conduct and are increasingly engaging the communities being represented, whilst being mindful and respectful of the emotional and empathic response of those viewing the images.
This response, however, is unpredictable. Francesco Arese Visconti, Head of Media Communications Department at Webster University Geneva, highlighted the ambiguities inherent in the images themselves and the potential for them to be misinterpreted by their viewer; this interpretation may be radically different to the photographer’s intention. He considered how each of the key aspects of a portrait — from the facial expression used to the landscape — shapes the viewer’s response.
These ambiguities also have implications for the politics of representation, especially where sensitive issues, such as the representation of migrants, are concerned. Communication professionals who select and curate portraits for humanitarian purposes should, therefore, carefully consider the dialogue they are creating with their audience through these visual messages and that the viewer’s response may not always be in line with their intention.
Kathryn Cook, Head of Photography at the ICRC, stressed the positive potential for community engagement and authentic and empathic storytelling that has come with the rise of new forms of media. Internet connectivity and social media have brought with them increased interactivity. The ICRC have harnessed this potential to support their mission of providing humanitarian aid to the victims of conflict and violence.
The ICRC use these media to diversify the sources of the photographs they use and to give a voice to those working for the Red Cross Red Crescent movement in the field, as well as to the affected communities themselves. In 2016, for instance, they gave 26 youngsters in Prison Waterfront, Nigeria, cameras to allow them to document their daily lives; this collaboration gave the young people involved a voice and provided viewers insight into the reality of daily life with little access to basic human necessities.
These optimistic accounts are hopeful that, used with care, new technologies enable more collaborative, empathic and dignified humanitarian communication.