For their comments and feedback, the author would like to thank Mika Aaltola, Michael Barnett, Raymond Duvall, Tony Nadler, and Saara Särmä.  Earlier iterations of this paper were presented at the Helsinki Seminar on Humanitarianism in December 2007 and at the Luce Foundation funded workshop on Humanitarianism and Religion at the American University in Cairo in June 2008.

Humanitarianism is now big business.  On the television, in the newspaper, in the mail—the public face of the aid industry is never far away.  This is a face which is quite literally a face, that of the hungry child, helpless mother, homeless refugee.  Through these faces, aid agencies sell themselves and their missions; they use marketing techniques honed over the decades by businesses and nonprofits.  When we imagine humanitarianism—indeed, when we think of much of the non-Western world—we imagine it through frames advanced by aid agencies and the mass media.  Though these images have evolved, this article demonstrates that the prevailing functions of humanitarian images remain largely consistent.  Why is this?  How has the humanitarian project, seemingly resting on so little—goodwill towards others—been transformed into a $10 billion a year industry?  What are the ethical implications?
This article investigates this integral relationship between humanitarian relief and imagery, focusing in particular on the ways in which aid agencies produce and disseminate images of human suffering.  The focus is on fundraising images, those that aid agencies consciously employ with the intention of raising money.  The argument is two-fold.  I suggest, first, that humanitarian actors engage imagery as a means of bridging distance.  This argument situates humanitarianism in relation to a wider theoretical literature on proximity and assistance that maintains that people are less likely to respond to aid victims who are far away.  In other words, theory holds that physical distance is inversely related to charitable inclinations.  Humanitarian organizations use imagery to bridge distance, to bring the distant victim to donor publics.  This argument also links the contemporary rise of global humanitarianism closely to the implementation of direct mail and media technologies.  In this sense, humanitarianism’s expansion is strongly correlated with the expanded use of image-based fundraising and consciousness-raising campaigns.  Aid agencies have embraced new technologies of imagery both to fuel operational expansion and to assure themselves of a measure of functional independence.

The second argument is related to the first.  I argue that one of the results of these marketing acts is the veritable commodification of suffering.  Humanitarian fundraising appeals derive emotional force through their reliance on human misery; suffering is, in this sense, one of the principal currency earners for humanitarian organizations.  Agencies use their moral and expert authority to define and sell, through images, the humanitarian project.  This endeavor is not without its ethical perils.  For one, fundraising images evoke and reproduce in unique ways what has been called the “humanitarian narrative”:  helpless victims are confronted by localized problems to which only the aid organization in question can respond.  Images thus reflect both the perceived identity of the victim, and also the heroic and action-oriented self-conceptions of humanitarian organizations.  Moreover, they raise the specter of a fundamental humanitarian dilemma:  if images of suffering are a means towards a principled end—the relief of suffering wherever it is, expressing solidarity with victims, providing human dignity—they are also a powerful tool of social construction.  The victim of these fundraising pleas is, to borrow Agamben’s term, very much the image of “bare life.”  When victims are stripped of context and reduced to the most basic of rights, to pure animal emotions, they become personless—they lose their human dignity.  The reliance on these images thus has contradictory effects.  On one hand, it facilitates principled action and consciousness raising.  On the other, it can discard that which is most human about the victim:  autonomy, dignity, and context.  Victims have needs, not abilities.
This article situates itself within the growing literature on the political economy of relief.  It focuses in particular on ethical dilemmas raised by increased marketization.  The funding environment shapes opportunities for and forms of humanitarian action in various ways.  Because funding is far scarcer than needs, organizations scrounge for scarce resources; different agencies inevitably compete for donor attention and funds. (1)  The competition is not just among agencies; it is also between agencies and a growing array of public and private sector firms targeting both a piece of the pie and some of the moral consideration afforded to humanitarians. (2)
Faced with this competition, humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) seek new ways of generating capital.  Aid organizations’ moral authority, accrued through their reputation for good works and ethical other-centeredness, becomes a market advantage. (3)  In an era of “principled consumerism,” this is what gives aid agencies standing.  Their expertise, acquired through years in the field and specialization in relief and development, provides another source of authority.  Agencies use this moral and expert authority to act as interlocutors for what is happening on the ground.  They engage technologies of imagery to raise awareness of distant events, market the humanitarian project, and, in part, construct the humanitarian imaginary.

I. Imagery and the Distant Other

The humanitarian task is not an easy one.  Aid agencies must convince reluctant donor publics to part with funds to assist distant strangers, otherwise out of sight, out of mind, and unknowable.  In what follows, I review the theoretical and philosophical literature on distance and giving.  Though scholars debate the extent to which distance should matter ethically, there is considerable agreement that distance does, in practice, help determine charitable behavior, such that an individual is more likely to help the “neighbor’s child” than he is to aid the distant stranger.  The reasons for this are multiple, and they all matter for aid agencies.
Imagery complicates this standard proximity claim.  My argument is that technologies, especially of imagery, have enabled large-scale humanitarianism precisely because they challenge the notion of distance.  This is embodied by Thomas Haskell’s concept of a “recipe”:  humanitarian images offer a specific sequence of steps we can take to alter the ordinary course of events.  It is further reflected by the empirical evidence:  the growth of humanitarian organizations in the late 20th century mirrors the rise of new advertising and communication technologies and flows from organizations’ harnessing of these technologies to bridge distances, transporting the distant stranger from the “South” to donor doorsteps.


To get to this point, we must better understand the relationship between proximity and assistance, especially the ways in which distance and sight are intertwined.  People are thought more likely to aid physically “close” victims (4); as far back as Aristotle, distance has been tied to compassion.  For Aristotle, what mattered was proximity, be it geographic, age, character, habits, or familial:  you pity those you know.  Diderot would later speculate that distance in space or time weakened feelings of guilty conscience.  Balzac, following Diderot, proposed an analogy between the geographic distance of France and China and the sensorial deprivation of the blind—distance is equated with a lack of humanity. (5)  Today, Deen Chatterjee writes, the vast majority of non-philosophers believe that ties of community create special duties to aid. (6)  Distance is geographic (those we see), but also social (those we know) and cultural (or ethnic).
Should this be the case?  Perhaps not.  Peter Singer has most famously claimed that there is no moral difference whether the person he helps is the neighbor’s child ten yards away or a nameless Bengali 10,000 miles distant. (7)  In his view, one should give until the marginal value of the next bit would do equal good as famine relief and as an increment to one’s available spending money.  But what people should do is not what they do:  we all draw the line somewhere.  As one scholar puts it, what is morally right is not morally obligatory. (8)  Even Singer freely admits to not doing all that he could; in other words, everyone has their limits.
We must draw the line somewhere, and that means that there is clearly some difference between the neighbor’s child and the distant starving stranger.  This problematic is at the heart of Thomas Haskell’s “case of the starving stranger.”  He explains that, as he writes, he knows that strangers are dying in Phnom Penh.  He knows also that he could buy a plane ticket and save these strangers.  Thus his presence, sitting there, not acting, is a necessary condition for the strangers’ death:  Haskell is causally involved.  So why does he not help?  It is not for lack of ethical maxims.  But, he contends, most people are not hypocrites either.  There are limits of moral responses, and these limits are always drawn somewhere, a somewhere that falls short of much pain and suffering. (9)  Jonathan Benthall calls this a “journalistic calculus.”  Donor publics consider two variables:  first, the number of victims; second, their proximity. (10)
This is a source of difficulty for aid agencies because the humanitarian subject is only rarely the ‘neighbor’s drowning child.’  Rather, the distant humanitarian event exists in a space of sensorial deprivation from the West.  As Benthall puts it, disasters do not exist—save for the victims—unless publicized by the media.  In this sense the media actually constructs disasters. (11)  The distant humanitarian event is thus characterized, Judith Lichtenberg argues, by abstractness and physical distance.  It is abstract because we do not know names, faces, or anything personal.  Indeed, other people’s suffering is always abstract:  it is hard to appreciate the pain of a friend’s backache, let alone the hunger of distant peoples.  Thus, when it is a question of distant strangers, it is simply easier to ignore their suffering.  Unlike the neighbor’s child, we can pretend that the distant stranger is not dying. (12)
The humanitarian challenge, then, involves bridging this distance, making what is, in Lichtenberg’s formulation, absent, present.  One way organizations accomplish this is through the dissemination of images of humanitarian emergencies.  Aid agencies launch media and advertising pleas in which they communicate suffering, in a sense bringing the distant victim to the donor public’s doorsteps.  They also attempt to harness existing media portrayals.  Though this article focuses only on images originating explicitly from aid agencies, these organizations are but one part of a whole disaster industry.

Technology and recipes for intervention

In short, technologies of imagery enable humanitarian organizations to offer a recipe for intervention.  The concept of a “recipe” comes to us via Thomas Haskell.  Haskell explains that our feelings of responsibility for distant others, though not strong enough for most to hop on a plane to save the stranger, are probably stronger today than before the airplane.  What he is suggesting is that technology can change the moral universe in which we live.  By this, he means both technology as high-tech, scientific and mechanical means of fulfilling tasks and also technology in a more basic sense, as arts, skills, and crafts—ways of doing things.  In short, technology is defined as all means of accomplishing our ends.  It supplies us with new ways of acting at a distance and new ways of influencing future events, and therefore new occasions for attributing moral culpability.  Our feelings of moral obligation can stay the same; all that changes is an expansion of the range of opportunities available to us. (13)

Haskell links the rise of humanitarianism to what he calls recipes, defined as specific sequences of steps we can take to alter the ordinary course of events.  He elaborates four preconditions for the emergence of humanitarianism:

First and most obvious, we must adhere to ethical maxims that make helping strangers the right thing to do…  A second precondition, also illustrated in the case of the starving stranger, is that we must perceive ourselves to be causally involved in the evil event.  Once again, being causally involved does not mean that we regard ourselves as “the cause” but only that we recognize our refusal to act as a necessary condition without which the evil event would not occur.  Along with this prerequisite goes the third.  We cannot regard ourselves as causally involved in another’s suffering unless we see a way to stop it.  We must perceive a causal connection…  We must, in short, have a technique, or recipe, for intervening…  The fourth precondition… is this:  The recipes for intervention available to us must be ones of sufficient ordinariness, familiarity, certainty of effect, and ease of operation that our failure to use them would constitute a suspension of routine… (14)

There are three take-away points here.  First and foremost, a recipe implies that we are causally implicated in the event taking place.  Second, a recipe signifies the conditions of the possible:  we must be able to act, and, by acting, we must have a sense that we are acting efficaciously.  Third, a recipe refers also to the precise set of steps, or tactics, that must be taken to intervene successfully.  The recipe appears to function through the experience of moral obligation.  If we feel culpable, that we can make a difference, then we are no longer “off the hook.” (15)  The moral universe is altered.


In the case of humanitarianism, technology, in the form of enhanced means for the rapid dissemination of images,  provides a remedy for minimizing distance.  Largely as a result of successful communication, Benthall explains, humanitarian agencies are able to attract support.  He writes that this communication shrinks the world. (16)   Through the medium of the photograph the viewer is drawn into the position of being witness to these distant events.  In this way, suffering becomes real to those who are elsewhere.  Given that awareness is a factor in giving, technological advances in telecommunications and transport mean the affluent areconscious as never before  of the condition of poor people around the world. (17)  As in Haskell’s “recipe,” people increasingly feel cognizant of and implicated in the plight of the distant other.

This image of “Leila” illustrates the “recipe” in one prominent humanitarian campaign.  First, we, the viewer, are causally implicated by the clear connection made between our action (donating 100F) and Leila’s recovery.  Second, we are confident of our own efficaciousness because we see tangible proof of success.  Finally, we have a precise and “sufficiently ordinary” set of steps to follow:  donate a modest amount of money to Action Contre la Faim (ACF) and empower them to transform Leila in only three months.

Images in humanitarian action

Humanitarian organizations make a conscious effort to engage technologies of imagery to bridge distance and attract support.  Benthall writes that the only way out of the downward spiral of giving towards causes is by finding new ways of using the media to inform the public.  This is why organizations like Oxfam advertise:  to open hearts, open minds, and thus to open checkbooks.  This is also why Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Save the Children, World Vision, and others work in a close relationship with the mass media. (18)  By engaging imagery and employing media techniques, aid agencies shrink the globe.

Imagery is central to humanitarian campaigns, in part because of the power of a well-constructed photo.  Susan Sontag argues that a photograph has a deeper bite than television because it freeze-frames memory—its basic unit is the single image, quick and compact.  Photos, like that of Leila above, are expected to arrest attention, to startle and surprise.  Indeed, the “hunt for more dramatic (as they’re often described) images drives the photographic enterprise, and is part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and a source of value.” (19)  From the earliest cognitive research, marketing studies have established that imageable materials enjoy a memorial advantage.  They may confer reality status and thus lend credibility or urgency to otherwise vague or unbelievable arguments.  They can also draw attention to communication, especially in a competitive informational environment. (20)  The emaciated face of Leila both draws attention—the juxtaposition of images is formidable—and lends urgency:  act now, before it is too late.  As one humanitarian puts it:  “We are gripped to see them [images], one moment, from a magma of emotions that one cannot describe, and we feel immense commiseration for them if the montage is successful.  It is then that the West wants to do something to stop this death…” (21)

This said, images of suffering do not in and of themselves logically compel a response.  People must be taught to act.  Compassion must be translated into action, otherwise it withers. (22)  This is why appeals to donors tug on heartstrings and aim to convince them that they can help make a difference—through the particular aid organization making the sales pitch.  ACF intended its “Leila” campaign to “show that hunger is not a fatality, that an association like Action Contre la Faim has the means to save the life of malnourished people on a shoestring.” (23)  Again, this is a lesson of the “recipe”:  to act, one must be convinced of one’s efficaciousness.  Advertisements empower the aid organization as the legitimate intervener, the one with the recipe.

These findings—the ability of communication technologies to mediate distance, the power of images to mobilize a response—explain in part the tremendous growth of aid agencies in recent decades.  The rise of humanitarianism in this period parallels innovations in the use of direct mail, advertising posters, and television.  NGOs needed funds to fuel mission expansion and to accomplish their ethical mandates.  They turned to professional fundraising through direct mail and other campaigns. (24)

Consider Médecins Sans Frontières:  it was through advertising that they secured operational independence and formed a public image.  In 1976 MSF launched a billboard and poster campaign featuring the photo of a Lebanese child behind the bars of his cradle, as if imprisoned by his own inability to act.  The message:  “MSF—in their waiting room, two billion men.”  The subtext:  MSF has a recipe for stopping suffering, but only if you contribute.  The campaign was unprecedented in France; MSF “biographer” Anne Vallaeys writes that it linked the organization and the image in the minds of the public. (25)  The organization turned next to direct mail; their first mailing was accompanied by a “strong image” of a young Ugandan and story.  By the late 1980s, buoyed by these successes, fundraising had become systematic and large-scale.  The organization had developed thanks to these image-based ad appeals. (26)  MSF was not alone:  Oxfam was also a pioneer in the use of direct mail fundraising. (27)  Today, Oxfam launches high profile national and international campaigns targeting politicians, media, and supporters.  For Oxfam, for MSF, and for others, image-based advertising was a powerful means of bridging distances, informing the public, and ensuring a sufficient funding base.

II. Imagery and the Ethics of Representation

Images are never unproblematic.  Even as they raise awareness and replenish the coffers of aid organizations, they raise acute ethical questions.  The image, like other forms of communication, necessarily excludes actors and truths while also concealing a particular point of view.  The image producers and distributors wield a power of social construction over who or that which is represented, and also how it is represented.  This power to define the “real,” to construct the mental frames through which publics view these distant events, is derived in part from aid agencies’ moral and expert authority (28)—but this power is never total:  images can take on lives of their own after publication.  This can lead to further complications.

My concern in this section is with the darker side of humanitarian imagery.  Pictures of victims sell humanitarianism in ways that are potentially beneficial:  they mediate distance, confront people with uncomfortable facts, and help bankroll intervention.  At the same time, these images have powerful side effects:  they sell suffering in ethically questionable ways, they perpetuate a humanitarian narrative in which Western aid organizations are empowered to act on and for “helpless” Southerners, and they fundamentally challenge basic humanitarian principles of humanity.  The fundraising explosion has been funded on the basis of the suffering of others.  As, one scholar asks, what is there, post-Cold War, besides human misery upon which to base fundraising appeals? (29)  For Costas Douzinas, “undifferentiated pain and suffering has become the universal currency of the South and pity the global response of the North.” (30)

Selling pain and suffering are central to humanitarian fundraising.  This is not straightforward.  Elaine Scarry, notably, has theorized that extreme forms of pain are actually inexpressible.  She explains that if to have pain is to have certainty, to hear about another’s is to experience doubt:  one cannot understand another’s pain as pain, only as description.  The options for expressing pain are thus limited to a range of visual practices that can only ever point to some trace, to some visible cause that might indicate pain in another, such as the emaciation of starvation, torn and bleeding bodies in war, or the contorted face of a prisoner at Abu Graib.  This doubt in the spoken word drives us to visualize correlative expressions of pain (or suffering), rather than pain itself. (31)

The image speaks pain in ways that language, for Scarry, cannot.  Imperfect though it is, it forms our dominant medium of access to the pain of the other.  Images of humanitarian events articulate pain, often shocking or unsettling the viewer.  Sontag explains that in a culture of consumption, “to ask that images be jarring, clamorous, eye-opening seems like elementary realism as well as good business sense…  How else to make a dent when there is incessant exposure to images, and overexposure to a handful of images seen again and again?” (32)  The image of the body in pain animates and makes possible a whole host of political activities; it has long been recognized that vision has the power to motivate and persuade. (33)  Many of these practices, including humanitarianism, rely on the techno-logic of the visual to validate their respective projects.  Humanitarianism appropriates others’ bodies through photography and objectifies them toward the service of particular kinds of policies.  Thus, for Scarry, “Amnesty International’s ability to bring about the cessation of torture depends centrally on its ability to communicate the reality of physical pain to those who are not themselves in pain.” (34)  Analogously, we could say that humanitarianism’s ability to care for distant strangers rests on communicating suffering and want to those who are relatively free from this state.

Beyond communicating pain and want, humanitarian advertisements are also transferring guilt:  the pleading eyes of the hungry child implore us to do our part.  Benthall writes that the early Oxfam advertisements in the 1960s varied between playing on compassion and on guilt.  Appeals to guilt, Benthall writes, quoting one fundraiser, are more effective for recruiting new donors.  This appears to be a common perception:

The account manager [of the United Nations Association in London] was quoted in the press as saying: ‘We have tried to make advertisements far more positive, and to get away from the usual “starving baby” image… But no one dipped their hands into their pockets.  The only thing that does it is guilt:  you have to shock people.’  On similar lines, the chief executive of a major British NGO has been heard in private to comment sardonically, and only half-seriously, that it is mainly a safety-valve for the guilt of the middle classes. (35)

Marketing studies have arrived at similar conclusions, though with the precaution:  guilt may also lead to anger. (36)

Humanitarian images express the painful reality on the ground:  many agencies feel an ethical duty to express what they see, as vividly as they are able. (37)  This reality, however, is necessarily partial and particular:  for each story of acute malnutrition or crisis there is a more day to day reality of development, assistance, struggle, and resistance.  Humanitarian organizations use abject images because they are effective to accomplish specific goals of raising awareness and funds.  In short, suffering sells, and guilt compels.

The humanitarian dilemma

Images of suffering are a means towards a set of humanitarian ends, especially the relief of suffering.  Humanitarians propose to help suffering wherever it is, show solidarity with victims, and provide human dignity, even in crisis situations where dignity seems impossible.  The dilemma is that the means to accomplish these ends—fundraising, especially using images of suffering—have the potential to devalue the whole enterprise.  The risk is that these images discard that which is most human about the victim:  autonomy, dignity, and individual specificity.  When images appropriate suffering, victimhood is abstracted to a level of universal anguishes and pure animal emotions and victims reduced to the most basic of rights.  The victims become personless—without dignity.  They are reduced to bare life.two

The good news is that humanitarians are cognizant of the ambivalent effects of their advertising appeals and reform-minded.  What is permissible today is different than what was standard 25 years ago.  This first phase of objectifying images was brought to a head by advertisements such as Save the Children’s November 1981 poster depicting a helpless child’s black hand clasped by the fat, healthy hand of a white adult.  These advertisements and the resultant self-critique yielded reform.  As the communications officer for a mid-sized American NGO told me, images in the past were probably alarmist.  His organization “want[s] to be sensitive.  We’re not showing suffering for its own sake, or  trying to beat people over the head with it.  But we’re also not shying away from portraying the reality.” (38)  Similarly, a staffer for a British aid agency recounted that his organization has put in place “stringent guidelines” on photography to help local field staff. (39)  In practice, this means that agencies are less likely to use photos that portray suffering in the most explicit ways—though this practice has not totally disappeared.  Children remain as much as ever the face of humanitarianism, though this is increasingly a smiling—or at least healthier—face.  These developments are not entirely unproblematic, as I discuss in later sections, but they do testify to nascent and very real processes of critique and reform.

Along these lines, in September 1991 Save the Children UK published ‘Focus on Images’, which Benthall calls the most thorough set of guidelines for any agency to that date. (40)  Similarly, American organizations like CARE have “Brand Standards” to help coordinate and codify the use of visuals.  More recently, in November 2006 the General Assembly of European NGOs updated their Code of Conduct on Images and Messages.  The revised document admits that the “reality of our world today [is] that many of the images of extreme poverty and humanitarian distress are negative and cannot be ignored;” nonetheless, “images and messages should seek to represent a complete picture of both internal and external assistance and the partnership that often results between local and international NGOs.” (41)  But can images represent a “complete picture,” if even that is possible?
If images are still problematic, it is often not for lack of good intentions.  The proliferation of imaging codes indicates that aid agencies are cognizant of the darker side of imagery.  They all draw a line at some point.  Still, fundamental (and perhaps intractable) problems endure:  images need to be visceral and immediate, lest they lead to blandness.  For Benthall, healthy, happy children reassure, they don’t provoke.  Aid agencies know that images need to challenge and elicit a strong response, otherwise they fail. (42)  Indeed, most of the images I cite appeared after the 1981 publication of the first set of European NGO guidelines, which expounds on themes similar to those in the 2006 document.  I return to this topic in concluding.

Raising funds through atrocity images is a morally hazardous exercise.  In spite of their prudence, NGOs are always torn between the need to raise funds and the desire not to transform their message into a mere commercial slogan.  As Philippe Lévêque of Médecins du Monde (MDM) has explained:  “We do not want to lower ourselves with certain fundraising practices (gadgets, eye-catching posters, humanitarian shows).  But the fact is that they sometimes allow us to touch people who, without that, would not have given.  It is a fragile equilibrium.” (43)

The challenges of imagery

Image-based advertising thus represents a balancing act for aid agencies.  In what follows, I focus on five related challenges that spring directly from this marketing.  To identify these challenges is not to imply that humanitarians are unaware or even malicious in their use of images of suffering.  Rather, it is to identify a set of issues that are endemic to the image.  These consequences may be reduced, but perhaps never fully escaped.

First, marketing images of suffering may contradict humanitarianism’s ethic of humanity by propagating what is often called, following Agamben, “bare life.”  Humanity, in the words of one prominent humanitarian, is that:  “Each person admits that the human being is worthwhile for what he is, but equally for his symbol, as representative of the species itself.”  Humanitarianism, he continues, is a “relationship that links two human creatures.” (44)  This definition contains two elements:  one speaks to the relationship between two individuals, the humanitarian providing dignity to each suffering person; the other element references a universal “humanity” that transcends regional characteristics.
In the field, the individualized ethic of personal relationships may predominate.  The media, however, one humanitarian has noted, shows nothing of human relationships but reflections. (45)  The marketed image sheds much of the specificity of the relationship in favor of the universal.  One observer calls this “anonymous corporeality”:  “Generalities of bodies—dead, wounded, starving, diseased, and homeless—are pressed against the television screen as mass articles.” (46)  Humanitarian images focus on universal symbols—women and children, suffering and destruction—to cut across boundaries of comprehension.  That human beings have ethical obligations to each other as such requires transcending kinship, nationality, and even acquaintance.  But such images deny the very particulars that make people something other than anonymous bodies.  These images do not dehumanize, as such, but humanize in a particular mode:  a mere, bare, naked, or minimal humanity is set up. (47)

This is man, reduced to rights and needs.  He appears without differentiation or distinction, naked and simple.  This is the man of the Rights of Man, “someone without history, desires or needs, an abstraction that has as little humanity as possible, since he has jettisoned all those traits and qualities that build human identity.” (48)  In reducing humanity to the lowest common denominator, images of want and suffering jettison the humanity of relationships, specificities, and experiences.  Universal man is suddenly not man after all.
Second, and related, advertising images subordinate the self to the physical body.  The images tend to portray “bare life,” or bodies, not “qualified life,” or political beings.  The victim of the humanitarian image is powerless, helpless, and innocent, defined not by agency or ability but rather by vulnerability and deficiency.  Children are crying or, as I have discussed, even smiling, but what are they doing?  Surprisingly often, very little—the child of the advertisement is doing nothing except stare at us with pleading eyes.  He or she is filling his role.  Thus, the humanitarian subject is acted on; she cannot herself act or even speak because she is not qualified.  This is illustrated by the MSF tradition:  “Save lives: that is the mission of the global doctor.  He is too busy feeding rice to hungry mouths to listen to what these mouths are saying…  The bodies he cares for are disembodied.” (49)  In this sense and in this case, images may not distort but rather crystallize a specific humanitarian problem.  Barnett and Weiss explain that the danger of a generic focusing on bodies is that history disappears, politics becomes amputated, and the individual withers.  This is particularly injurious to a humanitarianism that claims to desire to restore dignity to individuals, to develop connections that dissolve boundaries, and to deepen cosmopolitanism. (50)  MSF is aware of this critique:  followed to a letter, Brauman writes, the MSF philosophy strips human beings of their specific identity, reducing them to their pain. (51)

This relates to what Scarry and Dauphinée have said about inexpressibility of pain and suffering:  because pain cannot be adequately vocalized, those who wish to express pain must resort to visual portrayals of the “trace.”  This visual expression of pain translates into a politics of representation that both flattens the experience of pain and appropriates it.  Humanitarian images pull from an iconography of universally recognizable symbols that stand in for pain:  images of starvation, broken skin, and the like. (52)  In the image to the left, distended stomachs speak the language of “starvation” and “sickness,” especially through its juxtaposition with “consumption” and “health.”  Smiling faces aside, the image is not pleasant. (53)  Universal markers cannot speak to the interiority or uniqueness of the individual’s experience of suffering.

Third, images can be tyrannical.  This is inscribed in the logic of the photograph.  In Liisa Malkki’s view, images of refugees, such as those propagated by humanitarian organizations, silence and take away the speech of refugees.  There are more established institutional contexts and uses and conventions for pictures of refugees than for their own narrative accounts. (54)

Following Malkki, we can enumerate three “tyrannical” properties of images:  their wordless nature, their partiality, and their function of mediation.  First, images are wordless:  the photo alone speaks and we are left to assume.  We rely on our usual mental frames.  This is the case in the images above:  the minimal text is intended only to enhance the immediacy of the image.  In other cases, narratives might be provided, but as a general rule, lengthy elaboration is best left to other media forms:  photos do not make us understand—they haunt. (55)  Words fade into the background.  Second, images are partial:  to photograph is to frame; to frame is to exclude.  A photo never represents the full reality of a situation because this violates its very logic.  It can show only what is present, and can reveal only what fits, or is staged to fit, in the limited rectangle of the lens.  Moreover, the image is not a transparency:  it is there because someone selected it.  Someone chose to photograph the event; someone chose to publish a particular photo.  Finally, images mediate:  they speak for the victim.  The distant stranger has few means at his disposal for making his story known.  The aid agency intervenes as a privileged mediator; this is a powerful role.  Only the image and the emotional or physical state of the victim have been publicized.  The voice is generally that of the aid agency.

Fourth, images of suffering elicit powerful emotions in the viewer, but these emotions are not always those that are desired.  In short, images may have deleterious, if not pornographic, tendencies.  Sontag cautions that photos can backfire:  viewing the horrors of war will not necessarily make one anti-war.  In fact, these images may actually convince the viewer of the justice of the endeavor, align her with the cruelty of the perpetrator, or blunt her sensibilities.  Morbid images can also allure.  This is an aspect of what has been called the “pornography of pain”:  violence and pleasure can come together in unanticipated ways. (56)  For instance, overtly sexual references, such as “indecent” nudity, rape, and coercion, often elicit excitement.  The intention is to rouse passion and anger through images and direct it towards the eradication of particular behaviors and the alleviation of tragedies, but this can go wrong.  In short, “images and tales of suffering have great voyeuristic and pornographic potential.” (57)

Finally, humanitarian advertising images reinforce what has been called the “humanitarian narrative.”  Bodily pain and suffering are shepherded into specific narratives that justify humanitarian ends.  Images tell a story of suffering bodies and an aid organization with the means to intervene.  David Chandler calls the humanitarian narrative a moral ‘fairy story.’  There are three components: first, the hapless victim in distress, portrayed through film of the worst cases in the worst areas; second, the villain—the non-Western government or authority, causing famine, poverty, or violence through its corruption or incompetence—; and third, the savior, the aid agency or institution, an external agency whose interests are seen as inseparable from those of the deserving victim. (58)  In advertising images, the villain is often (but not always) naturalized or minimized.  Aid agency images are largely a two actor play.  For Dauphinée, the suffering of the other is emptied of its immanence and reread back to us and by us infour ways that work either to condemn or excuse—in any case, to explain—the violent politics that caused the pain. (59)  In other words, pain is harvested in the service of a political agenda of intervention.  Moreover, the very simplicity of the narrative, where acts of violence are localized, abstracted from any wider conflict over political aims, and the imposition of a good v. evil framework, risks dehumanizing all involved:  it reduces conflicts to a consequence of man’s atavistic, bestial urges, narrating them as products of purely local circumstances. (60)  What is clear here is the social power of discourse:  the agency is the one who speaks, who writes a script which empowers its intervention.

Images, such as the one here, reflect both the self-identity of the humanitarians and their perception of the victims.  The characterization of the humanitarian is that of the hero:  in this folk narrative, a glamorous image simply plays better.  The photo of a doctor, Benthall writes, is more effective than that of a sanitation engineer, even though in reality the least glamorous tasks are the most common. (61)  Images also reflect a grand vision of role of the [white] humanitarian doctors, who have been variously described by practitioners as “glorious mythical conquerors” under the immodest eye of camera and as taking part in an “aristocracy of risk.” (62)  James Dawes explains that in humanitarian work, “it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the desire to help others from the desire to amplify the self, to distinguish altruism from narcissism.” (63)  On another level, these images portray the heroic West, source of civilization, intervening in the South. (64)  Humanity is split into victim and rescuer.

As for the victim, the legitimacy of humanitarianism is connected to considering the “other” as a human being.  Humanitarians are seen as victim-centered, as advocates for the weak.  However, the repeated use of the language and imagery of the ‘victim’ makes this exceptionally difficult—it strips of all human dignity the individual whom it is supposed to define. (65)  Further, the almost universal focus on women and children in positions of fragility reproduces particular social hierarchies.  In portraying the humanitarian subject as necessarily victimized, in speaking for this victim, humanitarian images perpetuate a set of power relations where the “victim” is a passive recipient of aid from the heroic aid organization.  These images thus elaborate the humanitarian narrative.  More concerning still, there is evidence that these images, interacting with common media portrayals, have been absorbed into the Western consciousness.  Benthall cites an Oxfam and EEC report on ‘Images of Africa’ which found that negative images were reinforcing stereotypes in schoolchildren of the “doomed and helpless” continent of Africa. (66)

There is a certain logic to this trope.  As Xavier Emmanuelli asks, should the scenario not always be identifiable, given that any representation relies on the public for recognition?  It should refer to themes the modern spectator will recognize.  Indeed, marketing studies emphasize that the best messages are simple and to the point. (67)  As an official from World Vision put it:  “You can’t confuse the public with complex issues.  Starving babies and droughts are something that people can understand.  But trying to explain corruption or aid abuses is not going to help our fundraising and will only hamper our work.” (68)  The fragility of the base of public interest and support in humanitarian action leads to a perceived need to amplify the gravity of the situation or selectively report the worst aspects in order to arouse a sufficient awareness and action to raise a response.  There is the belief that we are more moved by acute crises than by chronic crises, and that images must play to this. (69)

III. Conclusions: Ethics, Imagery, and Technology

Humanitarianism is tied up with the image in ways that have not largely been explored.  The image is the mediator that brings donor publics and victims of crisis together.  Agencies, together with the media, in part construct the public’s vision of the developing world. (70)  Humanitarianism’s relationship with images is both symbiotic—the image exists in the form it does because of the efforts of the humanitarian; the humanitarian exists because of the power of the image in manipulating affect—and also parasitic—dehumanization is a genuine concern; donor fatigue is a risk.

I have argued that the humanitarian enterprise is characterized by acting at a distance.  Images, especially of suffering and want, serve a bridging function:  organizations use them to bolster outreach and fundraising campaigns.  Contemporary humanitarianism is the result of agencies’ employing advanced media technologies; this has enabled them to fundamentally alter the moral universe by shrinking the globe, implicating people in others’ suffering, and offering [themselves as] solutions.  This is the notion of the recipe.  And yet, there is a darker side to fundraising imagery, namely, the appropriation and commodification of suffering:  humanitarians attempt to balance the scales between fundraising necessities and increased capacity for intervention, on one hand, and ethics of representation, on the other.

A recurring element throughout this discussion has been the interplay between interests and principles, especially so far as imagery is concerned.  This is a preoccupation shared with works such as Fiona Terry’s Condemned to Repeat? and Cooley and Ron’s “The NGO Scramble.” (71)  Both of these studies draw centrally from the observation that the multi-faceted nature of aid organization mandates can at times provoke conflicts between principles, especially when satisfying one task compromises another.  In much the same way, this article has demonstrated that the pursuit of operational independence through image-based fundraising may mean exploiting images of suffering, and thus reducing human dignity.  Further, humanitarian impartiality can mean that all humans are reduced to little other than their universal commonalities.

There are practical concerns, too.  If humanitarianism is sold as a commodity, like detergent, then people can get sick of it, as with any other product.  NGO revenue expansion is “only achieved by means of marketing campaigns whose persistence Time magazine or the Reader’s Digest would not be ashamed of,” Benthall writes. (72)  Whatever the term used—compassion, donor, or appeal fatigue—all of these concepts are rooted in a concern that repeated motifs or long-lasting emergencies sap public goodwill, that shock can become familiar or wear off.  This is a preoccupation shared by many in the field and evidenced by declining rates of return in advertising campaigns. (73)

In spite of this, it is equally clear that aid agencies are concerned about their representative practices, concerned to the point of debating and implementing codes on visual practices.  I mentioned earlier that the Assembly of European NGOs issued an updated Code of Conduct on Images and Messages.  This is an example of an initiative that originated in one national setting—Dóchas, the Irish grouping of NGOs, led the effort—and has spread to wider attention.  So, could the situation be any different?  Can we conceive of humanitarianism without images or with different images?  Harrell-Bond cites an unnamed African refugee at an Oxford conference who asks:  “Why not publicize our energy and our power to help ourselves?…  We talk about UNHCR and we talk about NGOs, but we forget the refugees themselves.  We forget the power they have to help themselves.” (74)  Why not indeed?  Harrell-Bond explains that the portrayal of this image of the refugee would severely undermine the raison d’être of relief agencies:  “Who would give money to refugees to help themselves?  Humanitarian agencies are in a straitjacket with little else than human misery upon which to base their appeals.” (75)  This question speaks volumes about the modern humanitarian enterprise and the social hierarchies on which it rests.  It is worth noting that even in this citation, the refugee is nameless, as if one refugee is the same as any refugee.

As previous quotes have indicated, these images are used because they get results.  Shock works.  One might even ask whether it is ethical to sacrifice efficaciousness for a more “humanizing,” but perhaps less successful, advertising campaign.  There are competing incentives.  As Dauphinée observes, it is difficult to question the ethics of imagery because images have the capacity to animate important forms of political resistance, though there is no ethically pure way to circulate them. (76)  Indeed, is there such a thing as an ethically “pure” form of representation?  Perhaps not.  James Dawes has studied narratives of suffering and argues that even in narrative, there are acute risks of aestheticization and of “taking voice” from the victim (77).  Text is not necessarily an ethically pure option.  Such is the complexity of the issue.

Still, even as we recognize that there are no ethically pure ways of communicating crisis (or communicating anything), we can just as surely posit that there are “better” practices.  There are ways of portraying humanitarianism that avoid—or at least minimize—some of the power effects.  What is determinant is how techniques of representation are used.  To return to an earlier point, technology has an enormous capacity to alter the moral universe.  Just as direct mail and visual technologies have shrunk the world and heightened feelings of connectedness, future technological advances may enable us to break out of this humanitarian dilemma by offering new, more nuanced ways of portraying crisis—and not just crisis.  For instance, the Internet holds great potential for humanitarian organizations to develop new types of moral appeals, and also for “victims” to express for themselves their circumstances.  Indigenous photography and “User Generated Content” are two additional developments with the potential to alter the moral universe.

2 The absence of a name is notable here, especially given the generally critical nature of the article in which the quote is found.  Of the refugees cited in the article, one is quoted by name.

However, it is not enough that technology change; the ethical use of technology is contingent on ethical practices.  Technology is ambivalent:  it can offer nuanced ways of portraying distant others, but it can also enable new mechanisms of domination and control.  It is not enough if new technologies are used in new ways to fetishize suffering or exoticize the other.  The Internet can provide new means of conveying information, of linking peoples, and of appealing for assistance.  It can help us better visualize and know a place:  articles can be backed with links, stories can be supplemented with refugee narratives, a full array of photos can be used.  At the same time, depending on how Internet technology is used, it can simply magnify current practices.  For instance, CARE offers “Virtual Field Trips”.  Thus, you can “Journey with CARE to Guatemala” in the comfort of your computer chair, complete with guides (American students), photos, student journal entries, and information on CARE’s mission.  In one of the journals, the student guide writes:  “Within minutes, we are zooming through the outskirts of Guatemala City, ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ over the lush terrain surrounding us. For the vast majority of us, this is our first time in Guatemala. And we are not disappointed.” (78)  In this case, new technologies are used in familiar ways.  Guatemala is exoticized; American aid workers (and disaster tourists) are, again, the mediators.  A novel approach to technology might allow the Guatemalans, the recipients, to speak for themselves, to take the photos, to write the journals.
This is the principle behind indigenous photography—members of local communities should be able to photograph themselves.  What could be more ethical than, in a sense, giving the camera to the beneficiary?  Once again, much depends on how promising technologies are used.  Along these lines, D. J. Clark has argued that, in the cases he studies, the photographers’ ethnicity and local knowledge does not actually impact the final images used.  This is because it is not enough that locals hold the camera:  economic forces help shape the publication of photos (79).  He or she who chooses the image exercises a power over the message.  Similarly, news media and the entertainment industry have been challenged, even threatened, by User Generated Content (UGC).  Much like indigenous photography, UGC is produced locally and at the grassroots.  It refers to publicly available media content produced by end-users.  This is one more way in which technological advances have opened possibilities for novel forms of representation.  That said, even here the trend in web and news media has been towards increased professionalization and the shepherding of content in particular ways—ways that are useful for the overall message and bottom line (80).

How then might better visual practices engage new technologies?  I suggest we return to an earlier assertion, that humanitarian images function to translate compassion into action.  What is compassion in this?  Is it simply the shock of being confronted with an unpleasant reality and an immediate, reflexive reaction?  Is it, to return to a quote from Xavier Emmanuelli, that:  “We are gripped to see them [images], one moment, from a magma of emotions that one cannot describe, and we feel immense commiseration for them if the montage is successful.  It is then that the West wants to do something to stop this death…” (81)  Is it that we see and we instinctively react?  Or, are there other ways of approaching compassion, other ways of mobilizing action around emotion?  I suggest we view compassion much as Juha Käpylä does, as bifold.  On one hand, we have “‘judgments of the body’ that… seem to manifest themselves rather spontaneously, and then there are more complex and enduring forms of conditional compassion that include cognitive content that can be rationally… considered and deliberated.” (82)  Humanitarian advertisements that rely on reflex reactions—on judgments of the body—translate compassion into action in certain ways, such as into donations and into limited engagement with the distant other.  We see, we react, and, often, we forget.  This approach views the public as a donor public.  The public’s action is limited to picking up the phone or clicking the computer mouse.  I suggest that aid agencies might instead emphasize the more sustained form of compassion, “cognitive compassion,” by focusing on practices that both compel and inform in deeper ways.  This would entail a shift from viewing the public as a donor public to viewing it instead as a civic, engaged humanitarian public.  Might agencies then be able to mobilize compassion for deeper, more fundamental engagements?
In short, despite good agency intentions—as manifested in image codes—and despite changing technologies, representing distant others remains an ethically fraught terrain.  For aid agencies, the challenge seems to lie in developing ways of communicating that are urgent and coherent, while allowing the recipient of aid to speak and act as qualified life.  Technology offers the potential to change the moral universe, but it is in the hands of the wielders of this technology to implement critically aware practices.


(1)    For more, see Stephen Hopgood, “Saying No to Wal-Mart? Money and Morality in Professional Humanitarianism,” in Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics, ed. Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).  In the same volume, see also Craig Calhoun, “The Imperative to Reduce Suffering: Charity, Progress, and Emergencies in the Field of Humanitarian Action,” and Michael Barnett and Thomas Weiss, “Humanitarianism: A Brief History of the Present.”  See also David Rieff, “The Humanitarian Trap.” World Policy Journal 12, no. 4 (1995/6): 1-12.These studies cite humanitarianism’s increased exposure to market forces, heightened competition among agencies, and the changing needs of maturing and bureaucratizing organizations.
(2)    In marketing literature, the rise of the ethical consumer is referred to as “new consumerism.”  See Susan Baker, New Consumer Marketing: Managing a Living Demand System (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003).  Corporations cultivate their image by donating to and engaging in popular causes.  As Hopgood has put it, corporate money can “enter a previously hallowed space, legitimizing itself by claiming that allowing the free play of market forces advances real freedom.” (Hopgood, “Saying No to Wal-Mart,” 15.)
(3)    Hopgood, “Saying No to Wal-Mart.”  For a related and detailed argument on moral and expert authority in the context of international organizations, see Michael Barnett and Martha Finnemore, Rules for the World: International Organizations in Global Politics (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).
(4)    The victim remains distant in other ways:  the example of the child is itself demonstrative of a certain distance between empowered giver and “helpless” recipient.
(5)    See Carlo Ginzburg, “Killing a Chinese Mandarin: The Moral Implications of Distance,” Critical Inquiry 21, no. 1 (1994): 47-51.  In short, the Western man can kill the Chinese mandarin and remain safe from both opprobrium and guilt.
(6)    Deen K. Chatterjee, “Introduction,” in The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy, ed. Deen K. Chatterjee (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 3.
(7)    Peter Singer, “Outsiders: our obligations to those beyond our borders,” in Chatterjee, The Ethics of Assistance, 11.
(8)    Richard J. Arneson, “Moral limits on the demands of beneficence?” in Chatterjee, The Ethics of Assistance, 51.
(9)    Thomas Haskell, “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility,” American Historical Review 90, no. 2 (1985): 354.
(10)    Jonathan Benthall, Disasters, Relief and the Media (New York, NY: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1993), 8.
(11)    Ibid., 27.
(12)    Judith Lichtenberg, “Absence and the unfond heart: why people are less giving than they might be ,” in Chatterjee, The Ethics of Assistance, 82-7.
(13)    Haskell, “Capitalism and the Origins,” 354-6.
(14)    Ibid., 357-8.
(15)    Lichtenberg, “Absence and the unfond heart,” 90; F. M. Kamm, “The new problem of distance in morality,” in Chatterjee, The Ethics of Assistance.
(16)    Benthall, Disasters, Relief and the Media, 6.
(17)    Carrie A. Rentschler, “Witnessing: US citizenship and the vicarious experience of suffering,” Media, Culture & Society 26, no. 2, 296-304; Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 21; Lichtenberg “Absence and the unfond heart,” 76.
(18)    Benthall, Disasters, Relief and the Media, 39, 66, 167-8; Xavier Emmanuelli, Les Prédateurs de l’action humanitaire (Paris: Albin Michel, 1991), 194.
(19)    Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 23.
(20)    Philip J. Mazzocca and Timothy C. Brock, “Understanding the Role of Mental Imagery in Persuasion: A Cognitive Resources Model Analysis,” in Creating Images and the Psychology of Marketing Communication, ed. Lynn R. Kahle and Chung-Hyun Kim (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 2006), 65.
(21)    Emmanuelli Les Prédateurs de l’action humanitaire, 243.  All translations are my own.
(22)    Rentschler, “Witnessing,” 300; Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 101.
(23)    Action contre la Faim, “25 ans de lutte contre la faim: Ensemble, continuons le combat! ” (Action contre la Faim, 2004),14.
(24)    Jean-Luc Ferré, L’action humanitaire (Paris: Milan, 1995), 30; Benthall Disasters, Relief and the Media, 57.
(25)    Anne Vallaeys 2004: 183-95; see also Benthall 1993: 128, Ferré 1995: 31.
(26)    Vallaeys 2004, Médecins Sans Frontières : la biographie (Paris: Fayard, 2004), 372-4; Olivier Weber, French Doctors : Les 25 ans d’épopée des hommes et des femmes qui ont inventé la médecine humanitaire (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1995), 178-9, 304-5.  Catherine Ninin and Pierre-Édouard Deldique, Globe Doctors : 20 ans d’aventure humanitaire (Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1991), 144.
(27)    Benthall, Disasters, Relief and the Media, 58.
(28)    Marketing research indicates that credible sources are powerful.  Credibility springs from expertise and trustworthiness.  See Glen G. Sparks, Media Effects Research: A Basic Overview (Toronto, ON: Wadsworth, 2002), 142.  On the sources of moral and expert authority, see Barnett and Finnemore, Rules for the World.  Aid agencies have cultivated moral authority by claiming to represent “universal” values and by emphasizing forms of duty-based ethics.  They claim expert authority through their experience on the ground and through specialization in relief work.
(29)    Barbara Harrell-Bond, “Humanitarianism in a Straitjacket,” African Affairs 84, no. 334 (1985): 9.
(30)    Costas Douzinas, “The Many Faces of Humanitarianism,” Parrhesia, no. 2 (2007): 19.
(31)    Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1985), 4-13; Elizabeth Dauphinée, “The Politics of the Body in Pain: Reading the Ethics of Imagery,” Security Dialogue 38, no. 2 (2007): 141.
(32)    Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 23.
(33)    For a historical view, see Karen Halttunen, “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture,” American Historical Review 100, no. 2 (1995): 305-7.
(34)    Scarry, The Body in Pain, 9; Dauphinée, “The Politics of the Body in Pain,” 139-44.
(35)    See Benthall, Disasters, Relief and the Media, 65.  See also U. Chifolo, Le Miroir humanitaire : Retour de Somalie (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1996), 73.  Chifolo describes the emotionality of humanitarian appeals:  “Information must always depend on sentiment, very little on reason.  Its intellectual level must be at least as low as the mass of people to touch is more numerous.”
(36)    Sparks, Media Effects Research, 144-5.
(37)    From World Vision’s 1980 handbook:  “WV’s programs and informational pieces are often emotional, and there’s a very good reason for that.  The needs with which WV works are very emotional.  It is difficult for most of us to realize the extreme physical and spiritual needs of people thousands of miles away.  But WV field workers have been with these people, and have seen their desperate needs.  When they report what they see, it would be unethical for us not to relay the severity of the situation to concerned friends.” (qtd. in Benthall, Disasters, Relief and the Media, 158)
(38)    Telephone interview with author, 6 December 2007.
(39)    Electronic communication, 15 October 2008.
(40)    Benthall, Disasters, Relief and the Media, 177-85.  For more on this critical reflection, see Bertrand Taithe, “Reinventing (French) universalism: religion, humanitarianism and the ‘French doctors,’” Modern and Contemporary France 12, no. 2 (2004), 153-4.
(41)    European General Assembly of NGOs, “Code of Conduct on Images and Messages (2006).
(42)    Benthall, Disasters, Relief and the Media, 177-87.
(43)    Qtd. in Ferré, L’action humanitaire, 31.  See also Benthall Disasters, Relief and the Media, 221.
(44)    Emmanuelli, Les Prédateurs de l’action humanitaire, 239, 241.  See also Rony Brauman, “Contradictions of Humanitarianism,” in Social Insecurity: Alphabet City no. 7, ed. Len Guenther and Cornelius Heesters (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2000).  Rony Brauman is a former MSF president.  He defines humanity as a “plurality of beings”.  Humanitarianism, which passes itself off as the realization of feelings of humanity, enters into conflict with the principle of humanity because it approaches human life as a homogenous totality to be healed and treated.  Clearly, there are those in the aid community who are well aware of the tensions facing their endeavor.
(45)    Emmanuelli, Les Prédateurs de l’action humanitaire, 241.
(46)    Feldman, qtd. in Liisa H. Malkki, “Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization,” Cultural Anthropology 11, no. 3 (1996), 388.
(47)    Malkki, “Speechless Emissaries ,” 390; See also Calhoun, “The Imperative to Reduce Suffering,” and Thomas Keenan, “Humanism without Borders: A Dossier on the Human, Humanitarianism, and Human Rights,” in Guenther and Heesters, Social Insecurity.
(48)    Douzinas, “The Many Faces of Humanitarianism,” 2.
(49)    Alain Finkielkraut, qtd. in Barnett and Weiss, “Humanitarianism.”
(50)    Barnett and Weiss, “Humanitarianism.”
(51)    Brauman, “Contradictions of Humanitarianism,” 47-8.
(52)    Dauphinée, “The Politics of the Body in Pain,” 142.
(53)    Are smiling faces any less problematic?  There is something jarring about this photograph of sick, starving children smiling, oblivious, as if only we can recognize their condition for what it is.
(54)    Malkki, “Speechless Emissaries,” 386.
(55)    Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 89; Malkki, “Speechless Emissaries,” 390.
(56)    Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 8, 95-6; Halttunen, “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain,” 304, 325.  See also Chifolo, Le Miroir humanitaire.
(57)    Douzinas, “The Many Faces of Humanitarianism,” 17-8.
(58)    David Chandler, From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention (London, UK: Pluto Press, 2002), 36-7; Benthall, Disasters, Relief and the Media, 189.
(59)    Dauphinée, “The Politics of the Body in Pain,” 148.
(60)    Chandler, From Kosovo to Kabul, 37; Calhoun, “The Imperative to Reduce Suffering.”
(61)    Benthall, Disasters, Relief and the Media, 190.
(62)    Ibid., 135, citing Xavier Emmanuelli and Bernard Kouchner, respectively.
(63)    James Dawes, That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 122.
(64)    Emmanuelli, Les Prédateurs de l’action humanitaire, 232; Chifolo, Le Miroir humanitaire, 93; Douzinas, “The Many Faces of Humanitarianism,” 12.  Emmanuelli is at once hailing the heroism of the “mythical conquerors” while at the same time denouncing the general image of the Western intervener, which his heroic analogy helps perpetuate.
(65)    Chandler, From Kosovo to Kabul,  37.
(66)    Benthall, Disasters, Relief and the Media, 180; See also Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 71.
(67)    Emmanuelli is not uncritical of this.  Emmanuelli, Les Prédateurs de l’action humanitaire, 231.  On marketing literature, see Sparks, Media Effects Research, 143.
(68)    Qtd. in Fiona Terry, Condemned to Repeat?: The Paradox of Humanitarian Action (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 231.
(69)    Lichtenberg , “Absence and the unfond heart,” 87; Terry, Terry, Condemned to Repeat?, 230.
(70)    Even as we interrogate humanitarianism’s use of challenging images, we must recognize that they are in turn only one part of a much larger disaster machine.  Humanitarianism is fundamentally linked to wider media structures, and, in the eyes of at least some in the aid industry, this relationship is integral and inescapable.  This is central to Bernard Kouchner’s “la loi du tapage” (the law of hype):  journalists and humanitarians are locked into a necessary partnership whereby they ‘popularize misfortunes and make use of feelings of remorse.’  See Benthall, Disasters, Relief and the Media, 133; See also Rieff, “The Humanitarian Trap,” 7-8; Steven S. Ross, “Humanitarian relief and the media: making the relationship more effective,” Humanitarian Exchange Magazine 27 (2004), (accessed November 20, 2007).
(71)    Terry, Condemned to Repeat?; Alexander Cooley and James Ron, “The NGO Scramble: Organizational Insecurity and the Political Economy of Transnational Action,” International Security 27, no. 1 (2002), 5-39.
(72)    Benthall, Disasters, Relief and the Media, 39.
(73)    See Harrell-Bond, “Humanitarianism in a Straitjacket,” 7.  With respect to fundraising, by 1993, the success rate for a cold mailing was only 1% (Benthall, Disasters, Relief and the Media, 58).
(74)    Qtd. in Harrell-Bond, “Humanitarianism in a Straitjacket,” 4.
(75)    Ibid.
(76)    Dauphinée, “The Politics of the Body in Pain,” 148-9; see also Halttunen, “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain,” 330.
(77)    Dawes, That the World May Know.
(78)    See CARE, “Journey with CARE to Guatemala: Virtual Field Trip,” (accessed November 15, 2007).
(79)    D. J. Clark, “The Production of a Contemporary Famine Image: The Image Economy, Indigenous Photographers and the Case of Mekanic Philipos,” Journal of International Development 16, no.5 (2004), 693-704.
(80)    See Alfred Hermida and Neil Thurman, “A Clash of Cultures: The Integration of User-Generated Content within Professional Journalistic Frameworks at British Newspaper Websites,” Journalism Practice 2, no.3 (2008), 343-56.  See also Zvi Reich, “How Citizens Create News Stories: The “news access” problem reversed,” Journalism Studies 9, no.5 (2008), 739-58 and Tony Dokoupil, “Revenge of the Experts,” Newsweek, 6 March 2008, (accessed February 7, 2009).
(81)    Emmanuelli Les Prédateurs de l’action humanitaire, 243.
(82)    Juha Käpylä, “Humanitarianism and the Politics of Emotions: Preliminary Steps Towards an Emotional Framing of Humanitarianism(s) and World Order,” Paper contributed to the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies (1st), Groningen, Netherlands (2009, February).

2 Responses to Selling the Distant Other: Humanitarianism and Imagery—Ethical Dilemmas of Humanitarian Action

  1. Ellen Harber says:

    Fantastic article! I’m writing on a similar topic myself at the moment. It’s a real shame but I can’t get the images to show up here. Wonderful writing nonetheless and the images were clearly only meant to support your points. Thank you

  2. Djurdje says:

    Great text and I can’t get the images to show up here too. Thank you.

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