Human suffering through visual politics

The dramatic images of the Nazi’s mass manufacture of corpses in concentration camps, in the spring of 1945, provided the backdrop as members of the newly created UN began to call for an international bill of rights. This demand manifested in the UDHR, which was born amid of the twentieth century’s most dramatic visual scenes.

In this sense, little is spoken about the fact that human rights can also be told as a story based on the circulation of visual images and spectators’ complex, and the emotional experience of viewing them (Sliwinski, 2018). However, looking at the human rights (and at the IR, more generally), through the lenses of visual politics, entails critical examination of power dynamics.

Put differently, examining IR through the lenses of visual politics means to become critical, not solely of the limitations and practices surrounding the politics of human rights, but also of how Western visual culture can shape our political imagination and the way we see the world reality.

The first critical examination about visual politics that we should take into consideration is that images need to be grasped as part of strategic attempts to exercise power through organized persuasive communication. For the viewers of images, this realization demands that we look beyond the image to grasp the political context from which it emerges, whose interests might be being served, and the strategic intent of the source of the image (Robinson, 2018).

But to understand the power of mediation and how it works, we should define its actors. Thus, carrying out Chouliaraki’s idea of ‘staging’ further, I borrow the theatrical metaphor to define the actors by giving a special attention to casting. Anna Leander pointed out that “attention to casting means a break with the accounts assuming that the actors of IR are anthropomorphized states and institutions (2011, p. 299)”.

In such a dramaturgical reading of IR, whereby the visual politics takes place, the main actors are described as statesmen, policymakers, and privileged members of elites capable of speaking and making important decisions about the issues and problems of great priority for them to show us through images on the arena of representation, also described in the theatrical metaphor as the international stage of IR.

For Anna Leander, “the cast is composed of the rich, powerful males acting on behalf of the institutions that we study in IR” (2011, p. 299). These actors are indicated by Leander as “(…) real identifiable people (and institutions) with names, positions, pasts and identities (2011, p. 300)”. They happen to rule powerful states, mass communication channels and companies worldwide.

Obviously, they are privileged actors making use of the power of mediation in order to tell us about the world and how we see it. To uphold this power of mediation, these actors are aware of the role played by visual representations. Roland Bleiker appoints that “(…) images delineate what we, as collectives, see and what we do not and thus, by extension, how politics is perceived, sensed, framed, articulated, carried out and legitimized (2018, p. 4)”.

Circulating more quickly, and in more venues than ever before, images function like stage material of a grand, tragic play – providing the medium that world spectators exercise their capacity to imagine humanity as one entity. In this reading, the ideals of human rights are for better or worse tethered to this fraught arena of representation (Sliwinski, 2018).

This might lead us to think of a world reality that, as described by Guy Debord, “(…) emerges within a political spectacle, presenting itself a vast inaccessible reality that should never be questioned” (2002, p. 4). The consequence of this spectacle is for Debord “(…) alienation, which is the essence and support of society” (2002, p. 17). The only alternative to overcome alienation is to recognize our place in the tragic play, beginning with contesting the behavior of those who make benefit from the political use of images to shape our imagination about the world.

For this to happen, we must also grasp the importance of human suffering in the dynamics of visual politics. Since human suffering of distant others began to be mediated by the Western mass media, we believe to be living in a global civil society moved by sentiments of pity, demonstrations of solidarity and many charitable causes.

This is particularly because, as Lilie Chouliaraki reminds us, “(…) CNN or the BBC addressed the spectator as a global citizen of the ‘be the first to know’ or ‘putting news first’ type, whereby their news broadcasts reproduced a version of world order,” which is “(…) defined by space-times of safety and danger and hierarchies of human life (2006, p. 61)”. Chouliaraki concludes that “mediation as a governmental technology is neither purely regulatory nor purely benign. Mediation combines the exercise of rule on spectators by promoting modes of conduct” (2006, p. 61).

In the 1990s, with the CNN effect becoming closely associated with the debate over intervention during humanitarian crisis, an underlying premise was able to flourish: that advocacy journalism could transform the conduct of states and underpin a fledgling norm of humanitarian intervention. The ensuing challenge was, therefore, to explore how post-Cold War global media environment was shaping global power regulations (Robinson, 2018).

Susan Sontag explains that “(…) public attention was steered by the attentions of the media, which means images. When there are photographs, a war becomes ‘real’ (2003, p. 81)”. She believes that “the feeling that something had to be done about the war in Bosnia was built from the attentions of journalists which brought images of Sarajevo under siege into hundreds of millions living rooms for more than three years (2003, p. 81)”. In her conclusion, “this illustrates the determining influence of photographs in shaping what crises we pay attention to, what we care about, and what evaluations are attached to these conflicts (2003, p. 81)”.

Since then, images of human suffering are brought to our attention because political actors attempt to persuade us of the legitimacy of a particular policy. Indeed, one of the key findings of research into the CNN effect, and the humanitarian interventions during the 1990s, was that seemingly apolitical and altruistic interventions were often based on selfish national interests. Images of suffering became part of the justification of foreign policies (Robinson, 2018). More than that, images of suffering also became part of what I call spectacles of good versus evil, important tragic plays of visual politics.

Spectacles of good versus evil

Visual representations of human suffering do not only depict the pain of distant others, but also entrench existing power relations in the politics of international relations. Crudely put, images of suffering play a key role in spectacles of good versus evil. Spectacles involving the Self-superior and the Other-inferior are characteristics of visual politics of suffering. These spectacles can be defined as what Luc Boltanski calls “(…) asymmetrical distribution of good and evil, a division between evil, assigned entirely to the persecutor, and good which would then be the share of the unfortunate and those who assume responsibility for denunciation and accusation (2004, p. 145)”. Spectacles of good versus evil are embedded in scenarios of distinctions and dichotomies.

Spectacles like this always existed in the IR history, and they are shaped in historical encounters serving as “legal justifications” for the excessive use of force. Take as examples the Crusades in the eleventh century, the European colonization in the fourteenth century, the witch-hunt in the sixteenth century, the slave-trading in the eighteenth century, the Soviet enemy in the Cold War, and more recently, the War on Terror. Indeed, all these examples are marked by distinctions of Self-superior and Others established by security narratives. The ones having the power to speak were able to manage their speeches to convince their audiences with the purpose of legitimizing their security aims by creating Others, enemies whose existence threatens the Self.

What is particularly interesting to highlight is that, with the emergence of new technologies and techniques for the recording, construction, and presentation of motion pictures, the film and picture industry played a crucial role in the reproduction of spectacles of good versus evil after the Second War. Special attention must be given, therefore, to Hollywood cinematography and the aestheticization of the American- (or Western) Self.

Hollywood reinforced the spectacles of good and evil, and it helped to introduce the dynamics of visual politics into the haggling of IR. With the development of what Susan Sontag referred to as “nonstop imagery – television, streaming video, movies(2003, p. 20)”, the film industry had the deeper bite in the power of mediation, serving as a mechanism to achieve political projects. The threat or advent of conflicts spurred Hollywood, for example, to make many popular films that address the foreign challenges of the US and other Western democracies (Philpott, 2018).

By making films performed by American or Western heroes (most of them white men and sexually attractive), Hollywood taught us that spectacles of good versus evil are simply heroic stories to save humanity from barbarism. The power of mediation had shifted its mode, from discourses reproduced by radio or printed words in newspapers to nonstop imagery in the screen. Of course, this meant a break of content in the spectacles of good and evil, and the newly created media industry contributed greatly to this shift. As Klaus Dodds indicates, “the seeing and scripting of the popular films might help us think further about how geopolitical imaginary work and how friends and allies are distinguished from enemies and suspicious others (2018, p. 159)”.

In the visual politics of human suffering, films of foreign policy became important because of the long history of Hollywood demonizing peoples, cultures and ethnicities. Many people have noted how Hollywood entrenches highly negative views of the US’ various others. Representations of Muslims and Arabs in the recent years are almost without exception unfavorable. This popular visualization of supposed enemies strips them of their humanity and makes their killing not just possible but desirable (Philpott, 2018).

Recognizing the power of popular film, Bush’s advisers, for example, were keen to frame the War on Terror as a black-and-white story that opposes “us” versus “them,” “good” versus “evil.” In this civilization versus barbarism narrative, the capture of Osama bin Laden, dead or alive, raised no significant moral questions (Shapiro, 2004; Philpott, 2018). Roland Bleiker seems convinced that “in the world of politics, the ensuing implications are particularly pronounced” (2018, p. 4). In his view “our understanding of terrorism, for instance, is intertwined with how images dramatically depict the events in question, how these images circulate, and how politicians and the public respond to these visual impressions” (2018, p. 4).

Additionally, Bleiker goes beyond the film and picture industry, saying that “images of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 circulated immediately worldwide in the mainstream media, giving to the audiences a sense of how traumatic and how terrible the event was” (2018, p. 4). Therefore, in his conclusion about this matter, Roland Bleiker comes into the argument that “(…) many of the emotional images not only shaped subsequent public debates and policy responses, including the War on Terror, but also remain ingrained on our collective consciousness” (2018, p. 4).

Klaus Dodds also believes that “the key links between the visual and geopolitics were clearly understood by the US government. Movies, photographs and television bulletins were meant to depict the US personnel and technology being put to work in the fight against terrorism (2018, p. 159)”. For him, “how those threats and dangers facing the US and allies are articulated and visually depicted deserve critical scrutiny (2018, p. 159)”.

In this sense, take as an example the images of troops delivering food aid in Iraq, or of liberated Afghans flying kites over Kabul following the fall of the Taliban in 2002, have becomes part of strategic attempts t persuade audiences of the moral legitimacy of wars that are often presented in humanitarian terms. Here images are also part of deceptive communication that leads us to believe that our government’s actions are righteous, when, in reality, they may be harmful (Robinson, 2018).

Roland Bleiker once again explains that “spectators view and review crises through various media sources until the enormity of the event seems graspable (2018, p. 13)”. Images shape, in his opinion, “(…) not solely an individual’s perception but also larger, collective forms of consciousness (2018, p. 13)”. Therefore, Lilie Chouliaraki pointed out that “(…) the function of image is reduced to the ‘signal’ (2006, p. 56)”. For Chouliaraki, “the image as a signal is present in Manuel Castells’ argument that ‘the media tend to work on consciousness and behavior as real experience works on dreams, thus providing the raw material out of which our brain works’ (2006, p. 56)”.

Following this line of thought, we might agree with Roland Bleiker’s argument that “there are inevitably power relationships involved in the nexus between visuality, society and politics” (2018, p. 16). This is crucial for grasping the dynamics of visual politics of suffering. Visual representations in spectacles of good and evil do not speak for themselves. The creation of the Soviet-Other throughout the Cold War, the Iraqi-Other in the War on Terror, or the potential threats posed by migrants depended on the interpretation of images and representations and on our Western values accepted as common sense.

In simple terms, images are to be interpreted by spectators according to their previous experiences, memory and values. These factors construct our political imagination about the emotional contents selected to be presented to us. We are imprisoned in this dynamics in the way that we are led to care about some humanitarian crises and encouraged to forget others.

Forgotten tragedies

In visual politics of human suffering, the ones possessing power over representational practices have the power to determine whose suffering is visualized, made visible and significant, and thus they have power over who’s suffering matters. It seems that what determines the iconization, representability and the extent of circulation and processes of atrocity images – besides the atrocities themselves – is the political context and the cultural appropriateness (Kotilainen, 2016).

Just to give a simple example, the images of suffering of the migrants in distress ah the Mediterranean Sea, even though circulating in the conventional media a couple of times, have neither been remembered as a “visible” brutality or tragedy, nor have the most of European authorities been appropriately framed by the society as bystanders or even perpetrators of such suffering. We all know that the lack of assistance and negligence of European authorities in relation to the thousands of deaths at high sea only exacerbate the suffering of those human beings fleeing from violence and seeking for a safe haven in the free and democratic lands of Europe.

This considered, when it comes to observe the dynamics of visual politics of suffering, a comparative analysis must be done. The images of refugees and migrants in distress at the Mediterranean have not been circulating in the mass media with an equivalent intensity as have the New York’s World Trade Center images of American citizens in panic running away from the falling towers.

A simple comparative analysis of the visual politics applied in both contexts would identify the Western sense of superiority, whereby the ones who are different in terms of culture and beliefs are barely recognized as individuals in need and worthy of protection. As a result, the tragedy in the Mediterranean becomes forgotten, while the images of the tragedy on September 11 dictated the parameters of the Western political responses against terrorism.

Roland Bleiker argues that “the television coverage of the terrorist attack of September 11 made sense to the public (2018, p. 25)”. For him, “the prevailing script had already delineated what it meant to stand up in times of crisis; how to rally around the nation and its ideals; and, last but not least, how to act and retaliate with purpose and determination (2018, p. 25)”. In his conclusion, “the result was, not surprisingly, the entrenched hostile perceptions of others, and eventually led to more violence and terrorism (2018, p. 25)”.

The process of making the suffering of some visible, and thus significant, is a process of making the suffering of some others invisible, less significant and less reacted to. Whose suffering we see and how we see it, and whose suffering remains unseen to us, are subject to political governance and power. This is substantially a matter of politics of humanity (Kotilainen, 2016). In other words, this process is the nature and character of visual politics, whereby forgotten tragedies become the rule and not the exception.

Human suffering is selected by the ones possessing power over representational practices, and this makes us to bear witness to events of pain involving Western people or some events taking place in regions where the Western interests are at stake. Meanwhile, similar events with non-Western people and in regions that afford little matter for the Western interests barely make the news.

Susan Sontag highlights “the diagnosis of several distinguished French day-trippers to Sarajevo during the siege: that the war would be won or lost not by anything that happened in Sarajevo, or in Bosnia, but by what happened in the media (2003, p. 81)”. This is because beyond the persuasive power of the image itself, visuals are also fundamental in terms of the overall visibility of a humanitarian crisis as defined by how much media attention it may receive (Robinson, 2018).

As Roland Bleiker points out, “various factors – from algorithms to the legacy of old media and the interference of states – might structure and mediate the flow of images (2018, p. 7)”. For Bleiker, “political events, such as protest marches or terrorist attacks, gain immediate worldwide media attention when they take place in the heart of the Western world, say in Paris, New York or Berlin (2018, p. 7)”. Other humanitarian tragedies – even the ones taking place in regions surrounding the Western world, such as the aforesaid crisis in the Mediterranean or the humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border – do not gain immediate media attention.

Not to mention the armed conflicts in Africa, Asia and Middle East, where the images of human suffering, when they happen to be released by the mass media, tend to be seen by the Western audience as spectacles. In Susan Sontag’s observation, “it is often asserted that the West has increasingly come to see war itself as a spectacle (2003, p. 81)”. Having this in mind, she argues that “for a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, news has been converted into entertainment (2003, p. 81)”.

It became usual to see images of suffering of distant others and do nothing to understand the causes or perhaps what feels wrong about it. When images of suffering of distant others circulate in global media, most of the spectators who live in free countries neither exercise their rights to talk about it publicly, nor eventually do something to pressure authorities to relief the suffering of others.

These spectators become bystanders, and they happen to see human suffering as entertainment. Unfortunately, this reinforces the states of distancing, denial and forgetting. This explains Debord’s definition of society, which is in its essence alienated. In dealing with suffering as entertainment, we exclude a range of alternative ways of, among other things, developing our empathetic concerns and increasing our levels of political participation.

To be engaged in a long-term change of this scenario, we, students of IR and spectators of visual politics, should firstly ask ourselves about the immanent possibilities that can be undertaken and improved to give voice to stigmatized groups that are victims of suffering. These immanent possibilities are tools that must be used to overcome distancing or forgetting. They are examples of resistance, reactions developed by reflexive spectators against the power of mediation and the struggle over visibility. It is worthwhile, therefore, to briefly explore some of these immanent possibilities that can potentially change the dynamics of visual politics of suffering.

Resistance in the audience

Attempts to engage our sympathy are to do with political actors securing our support for policies that may, in fact, be a source of great harm. Then, our key challenge is to become critical viewers of images and the absence of images. The challenge is as gargantuan as it is crucial for it is an essential first step in our defence against manipulation and deception (Robinson, 2018).

Simply put, this means looking beyond the dynamics of visual politics by enlarging our moral boundaries to include the forgotten worlds in a more open dialogue within our public sphere. This requires great sensibility and resistance. Thus, if we are to understand the dynamics of visual politics of suffering, it is also important to improve our reactions and responses to the pain of distant others, hence recognizing that human agency has a great capacity to activate our imperative of ‘doing something,’ either by acting or speaking out on behalf of the victims and against the perpetrators of violence and oppression.

Take as an example the European refugee crisis that exacerbated in 2015, when people reacted with unusual levels of empathy to the image of a three-year-old Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, who was found dead on a Turkish beach. Roland Bleiker reminds us about this event. He asserts that “all of a sudden, public attitudes toward refugees changed across Europe, but particularly in Germany, where one witnessed the emergence of what was called a Willkommenskultur, a culture of welcoming refugees (2018, p. 19)”. High levels of empathy increased political participation through the creation of an unusual culture of welcoming. Obviously, the image of Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, played an important role in the development of this social phenomena.

By creating the perception of sensory closeness to distant victims through direct sensory inputs related to the victims’ suffering, emotional contents allow the audience to sense the suffering of the victims as if they were on the spot – no matter where the victims live – which helps to bridge the actual geographic distance between the audience and the victims (Cao, 2010).

Consequently, we should note that it is not the legal discourse of human rights, but the visual discourse that has the power to make audiences respond to distant suffering as deserving moral action (Sliwinski, 2009; Seu, 2010). In addition, this sensory closeness is even more significant when people are confronted with images involving children. As convincingly indicated by Roland Bleiker, “we all empathize with a three-year-old boy. Children are innocent, and to see innocent victims is something that rallies people (2018, p. 19)”.

This image was able to generate emotional reactions by viewers, resulting in several political responses, such as manifestations of empathy, solidarity and responsibility compassion. The welcoming culture was, then, followed by the establishment of European NGOs comprised by volunteers who were engaged in conducting rescue operations at the Mediterranean Sea to safeguard the life and dignity of migrants and refugees. These people still fight against the stigmatizing rhetoric against humanitarian aid.

Against all odds that they often face in their battles to save lives at high sea, these volunteers are examples of resistance. By facing a repressive and militarized European regime of border control that often obstructs them to undertake save and rescue missions, disembarkation, or relocation, the NGOs remain with their spirit of defiance and resistance as they develop nonviolent forms of activism through digital technology.Digital activism can be the key factor for us to rethink the dynamics of visual politics by defying the power of mediation.

NGOs that show their work in the social media are intentionally trying to make us see the world anew, then recognizing a different reality. Knowing that, as Roland Bleiker indicates, “(…) images make, unmake, and remake politics (2018, p. 28)”, the society groups making use of digital activism by offering insights of forgotten worlds help us imagine the unimaginable. In doing so, they represent an expression of political hope, once they show what is not visible in the dynamics of visual politics of suffering. The NGOs Mission Lifeline, Sea Watch Crew and others alike are examples of resistance that make possible for us to think and rethink about the invisible in the politics of IR.

In closing my argument, it is imperative for us, the Western audience, to disrupt the dynamics of visual politics by understanding how it works. But for this to happen, we have to know that humanitarian images are often presented to their audiences with deliberate intentions: targeted to tell particular stories, with the intention of producing certain meanings and affecting their spectators in intentional, and often politically formulated, ideologically ways (Kotilainen, 2016).

Thereafter, we should move our understanding to action. This means challenging the dynamics of visual politics by contesting its political narratives that are inherent to the power of mediation. In doing so, we could join the ones who are already attempting to reconfigure what Jacques Rancière calls “our sensory experience of the world (in Bleiker, 2018, p. 28)”, thus pushing the boundaries of what can be seen, thought and done about human suffering and improvements on inter-cultural exchanges.


Bleiker, Roland. Mapping visual global politics. In. A. Bleiker, Roland (ed.), Visual Global Politics. 1st ed., pp. 1-29. Abingdon: Routledge. 2018

Boltanski, Luc. Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2004.

Cao, Xiaoxia. Pathways to Eliciting Aid: The Effects of Visual Representations of Human Suffering on Empathy and Help for People in Need. PhD dissertation submitted to Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, United States of America. 2010.

Chouliaraki, Lilie. The Spectatorship of Suffering. London: SAGE Publications. 2006.

Débord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Canberra: Hobgoblin Press. 2002.

Dodds, Klaus. Geopolitics. In. A. Bleiker, Roland (ed.), Visual Global Politics. 1st ed., pp. 157-162. Abingdon: Routledge.2018.

Kotilainen, Noora. Visual Theaters of Suffering: Constituting the Western Spectator in the Age of the Humanitarian World Politics. PhD dissertation submitted to the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki, Finland. 2016.

Leander, Anna. The Promises, Problems and Potentials of a Bourdieu-Inspired Staging of International Relations. International Political Sociology, v.5, pp. 294-313. 2011.

Philpott, Simon. Foreign Policy. In. A. Bleiker, Roland (ed.), Visual Global Politics. 1st ed., pp. 144-149. Abingdon: Routledge. 2018.

Robinson, Piers. CNN effect. In. A. Bleiker, Roland (ed.), Visual Global Politics. (1st ed., pp. 62-67). Abingdon: Routledge. 2018.

Seu, Irene Bruna. ‘Doing denial’: audience reaction to human rights appeals. Discourse & Society, v.21, n4, pp. 438-457. 2010.

Shapiro, Michael. Methods and Nations: Cultural Governance and the Indigenous Subject. New York: Routledge. 2004.

Sliwinski, Sharon. The Aesthetics of Human Rights. Culture, Theory & Critique, v.50, n1, pp. 23-29. 2009.

Sliwinski, Sharon. Human rights. In. A. Bleiker, Roland (ed.), Visual Global Politics. (1st ed., pp. 169-175). Abingdon: Routledge. 2018.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2003.

Sobre o Autor

Doutor em Relações Internacionais pela Universidade de Lisboa

Deixe um comentário