Constructing Humanitarian Imagery
Disabled children from the Kome School in Tokyo.
Photo presented as part of the 1981 International Year of Disabled Persons.
Permalink to UN Photo Library » Although questions of communicable disease and malnutrition have had significant exposure in the UN, the issue of disability – the world’s largest minority group – has never entered similar levels of public consciousness, whether in public health or human rights.
The concerned public often views or visualizes the disabled through the perennial African child with the cleft lip, or one on crutches, maimed by landmines – images relayed over and over again from commercials and advertisements from charity organizations. These are images of incomplete bodies, often marked by the physical legacies of violence. They are meant to elicit the most visceral of emotions – disgust, pity, shock. Its subjects are presented with a child-like vulnerability and fragility that often elicits a paternalistic desire for deliverance.
Postwar images of disadvantaged and vulnerable people in faraway places – from photographs to documentary films – often took on the same sensibilities of the colonialist photography that preceded it. As Heide Fehrenbach notes in Humanitarian Photography: A History, “early humanitarian photography had roots in ethnographic travel literature, missionary photography, and the internationalizing ‘new journalism’ of the 1880s” (Fehrenbach and Rodogno, 167). The late nineteenth century’s increasing interest in scientific classification and empiricism came as Europe scrambled for colonies and photography emerged as a viable medium. Thus, humanitarian photography matured in conjunction with imperialist projects, documenting eyewitness accounts of the “individualized narratives of suffering” of exotic peoples. This early history shaped the conventions of the genre (167). Exoticism and a penchant for depicting children of color in their ‘natural habitat’ still inform the visual language of postwar and contemporary humanitarian imagery.
This project seeks to answer the question of projection and gaze during the age of decolonization: How did and does the UN perpetuate or problematize the same images of the disabled as objects of pity? Who populates the “disabled” world UN’s images? Where are they from and what types of people are presented as the “faces” of this issue? Furthermore, does the visual language of disabled imagery change over time? The United Nations’ visual legacy as the world’s most prominent arbiter of the narratives of global humanitarian crises, merits greater analysis.
Fehrenbach, Heide, and Davide Rodogno, eds. Humanitarian Photography: A History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.