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It’s often said a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of NIU historian Heide Fehrenbach’s latest book, a more appropriate measure might be tears.
In “Humanitarian Photography: A History” (Cambridge University Press), Fehrenbach and co-editor Davide Rodogno of the Graduate Institute of Geneva, Switzerland, examine the historical evolution of the mobilization of photography in the service of humanitarian causes.
The volume, the first to explore this aspect of history, contains more than 60 images alongside essays by 13 historians. They reach back to the late 19th century to consider ways that humanitarians – from missionaries to international organizations – have turned large-scale episodes of human suffering into causes and fund-raising campaigns through the use of imagery and storytelling.
A specialist in the history of modern Europe, Fehrenbach has spent her career asking provocative questions, using photography and film in her scholarship and illuminating aspects of history that have been largely overlooked or even uninvestigated.
Why is this book important?
We live in a world in which photographic images of human suffering appear in our mailboxes, newspapers, newsfeeds and social media, commanding us on a daily basis to care about, and contribute to, easing the pain of others. Photographic technologies have become essential to humanitarian campaigns and fundraising. We wanted to investigate how this happened. When was photography put in the service of humanitarianism? This book examines how strategies of visual representation gave rise to a recognizable “humanitarian imaginary” that not only reflects, but has also influenced, the historical evolution of humanitarianism itself.
What are some of the humanitarian campaigns discussed in the book?
The essays are written by experts on Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, and explore diverse humanitarian disasters, including the Indian famines of the late 19th century, the Congo atrocities of the 1890s-1910, the Armenian Genocide, colonial and world wars and the Biafra crisis of the 1960s, among others. In addition, the volume explores the controversial and exploitative aspects of humanitarian photography, including attempts to regulate it in recent decades.
What surprised you in the course of working on this book?
The types of debate we see today over the use of technology and photographs depicting human suffering was also common going back as far as the late 19th century. It is also very interesting that by the turn of the 20th century, fundraising tactics were already very refined and included the use of publicity departments, storytelling and subscription mailings. So the commercial aspects that some NGOs employ today really had their conception more than a century ago. Even modern day social media seems to be rooted in practices used by missionary societies in the 1890s, when they worked to get people to ‘friend’ the organization and contribute money on an ongoing basis. They were trying to mobilize people’s interests and amplify connections to their causes.
I examined the use of children in humanitarian campaigns—when did this focus on children develop, why is it so prevalent and how do we make sense of this imagery? While children always appeared in humanitarian photography, there was an evolution. Initially in the 19th century, they were typically shown in colonial settings, in their villages and alongside adults. It was only after World War I that we begin to see children alone—the suffering of a single child came to represent the larger problem of famine, or genocide or poverty. This trend, I think, has to do with our modern notions of childhood and children’s innocence. I also talk about who mobilized this imagery, ranging from liberals to communist organizations in Russia. Even the Nazis used the trope of the innocent suffering child in their propaganda, though not for humanitarian purposes.
What does this book accomplish?
It shows how crucial visual culture is to the development of humanitarianism. Visuals are important in setting agendas. Only certain events get turned into humanitarian causes. One of the things that contributes to that is the visual quality of the events and whether photographs can be taken, how they can be taken and who they address.
Did you come across any photos in your research that particularly stand out in your mind?
There are a lot of powerful photos. Particularly disturbing are photos showing the atrocities of the Congo near the turn of the 20th century, when Belgian authorities used murder and mutilation to terrorize villagers into harvesting more rubber. There’s one photo taken by British missionary Alice Harris of a father looking at a hand and foot belonging to his murdered young daughter. It’s a powerful photograph that outraged the European and American viewers. You would think it would be off-putting, but it was effective because it shows the relationship of the grieving father to the remains of his daughter.
You always need more than the photo to make sense of it. There has to be a compelling story, and humanitarians often use family themes to touch viewers’ emotions. I think it’s clear that the story they tell can’t be too politicized. In stripping away the politics, you’re stripping away the morally gray areas. Beyond that, I don’t think there’s a formula. We observed that humanitarian campaigns often follow or piggyback off of news events. Photojournalism took off in the 1920s and 1930s, and then we see photo journalists who wind up becoming humanitarian photographers for organizations like UNESCO after World War II.
Who is the audience for this book?
We’re hoping to reach a general audience but also students and scholars of history and media. Knowing the developmental history of humanitarian photography makes your understanding richer. Our contributors have worked in archives in a number of countries, and the fact that the visual history of humanitarian campaigns reaches back as far as it does will surprise some people.
What criticism has humanitarian photography encountered?
There’s a longstanding ethical concern in using photos of human suffering and asking whether the photos themselves can be brutalizing. On one hand, the photos open your eyes to the truth, but what are the dilemmas unleashed by this photography? Photographs are interesting; they seem to put you in proximity to the suffering, but the viewer is still at a distance. The fact that you’re looking at a photo shows you are removed from the situation depicted and are in a more privileged position. That’s the ongoing tension in humanitarianism photography that’s always been there. As viewers, part of the response we have is monetary, we want to do something to mitigate the suffering. But we also have to think about our own ethical positioning. To what extent do we feel relieved – and perhaps superior — that it’s not us in the photo?