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picturing need…

September 13, 2011

Back to the work of imagery and power…

Radley and Kennedy write that “It is commonplace in western countries to see images of people from Africa, parts of Asia or South America in conditions of need.  These pictures appear in magazines and newspapers, as well as on television, where they often form part of appeals relating to natural disasters or to periods of widespread social unrest.  To understand how westerners view images relating to overseas aid, it is first necessary to acknowledge that these photographs play an active part in the formulation and maintenance of ideologies about need and about cultural difference.   …It would seem that the use of images that support the identification of people in the Third World as helpless may reinforce patronizing attitudes among those in the West, even towards members of ethnic minorities within those western cultures.” (p436) “This is not just a matter of cross-cultural perception,” they continue, “but concerns how a particular cultural activity – photography – helps constitute the form and content of sociocultural identity.  Rather than being merely the photographic evidence of extant conditions of need, of taken-for-granted differences, aid images are examples of how photography is used to represent, depict and construct meanings in the service of particular social aims.” (p436)

Introducing this same (1997) article, Radley and Kennedy posit: “While much has been written about how members of different societies view each other, little has been said within psychology about the formative nature of a culture of aid/dependency, and even less about the place of images in its maintenance. This is perhaps because a social psychology based upon the tenets of individualism removes people from their cultural settings and then equates them with respect to their capacities and interests.” (p435)

“There are,” they observe, “conventions for taking photographs of various sorts, for how widely they are displayed, and to which persons and in what context it is deemed fitting that they be shown (Beloff, 1985; Goffman, 1976). As a technique for holding on to the past and for capturing fleeting moments of the present, the camera’s interventions have come to articulate our very sense of situation (Sontag, 1977). As with other methods of technical reproduction which make images available to all, our relationship to the original object is transformed (Benjamin, 1970). Photography is more than a medium; it is a way of making known, and indeed of shaping, the observer of the image. As Tagg (1988( has pointed out, photographs are not just evidence of history, they are historical; social constructions (discourses) work through them, not merely on them.  Photographs of the needy can mobilize feelings (of pity, of revulsion) only because they can be linked to a particular sociocultural situation; they do not contain these meanings in and of themselves (Barthes, 1977).” (p437)

there are not only different genres of photographs, but changing fashions, styles and uses of images in various settings, which we continually use to represent ourselves and our world. This is an important point to make, because a shift in the categorial status of a photograph has implications for the judgements that might be made about its meaning, and therefore about the status of the subjects portrayed.” (pp443-444)  “the ‘charity photograph’ is itself an exemplar of a class of images that people in the West use to order their understanding of their own and other societies.” (p444)

In itself, this article was really interesting… current applications… How do images of the Sept 11 planes flying into the Twin Towers shape our ideas of the US? or of ‘the Other’? Do these images feed our ideas of ‘terrorism’ (almost surely) and shape our readings of such experiences in literature? How?


(emphases mine) Alan Radley and Marie Kennedy (1997) ‘Picturing Need: Images of Overseas Aid and Interpretations of Cultural Difference’ Culture & Psychology 3(4); 435-460

NB Quoted are: Barthes, R. (1977). Image-music-text. London: Fontana.

Beloff, H. (1985). Camera Culture. Oxford: Blackwell.

Benjamin, W. (1970). The Work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Illuminations, London: Jonathan Cape.

Goffman, E. (1976). Gender advertisements. Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communications, 3 (Whole number 2)

Sontag, S. (1977). On photography. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Tagg, J. (1988). The burden of representation: Essays on photographies and histories. London: Macmillan.


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