Images of suffering in international politics

Dramatic media images of crisis and suffering affect their spectators in many different ways. Images of horror are emotional, they evoke empathy, and may result in efforts to protect the lives of those at risk. Images of the suffering of others have been important in the evolution of humanitarianism and protection of humanity, and in the development of human rights. However, they are also central in international politics, as suggested by a doctoral dissertation currently being examined at the University of Helsinki.

“Whose suffering we see in images, how the objects are depicted and in what kind of images – all these things impact our understanding of international politics, wars and crises as well as how human dignity seems to be divided globally within the hierarchies of humanity,” says MSocSc Noora Kotilainen.

Emotional images have impact

Noora Kotilainen maps out the use of images of suffering, war and crisis in the Western sphere, from the mid 18th-century Enlightenment to the present time. The research focuses on Western visual practices in the 21st century, as well as the position of images in recent Western politics.

According to the dissertation, emotional images are used in political speech in times of crisis; they are utilized to strategically shape conceptions, and even as justification for military action. Emotional images of crises have a significant role in international politics and in shaping conceptions of the surrounding world. Kotilainen is particularly interested in how images address Western spectators in a variety of international political contexts.

The images reflect prevailing modes of thinking while constructing the spectators’ understanding of crises, war and international politics, and the practices of presentation as well shape the conceptions of lives considered valuable. The way in which images of suffering are used and presented reveals the spirit of the international politics at the time as well as the way we think about humanity and its protection.

Images speak of our divided attitudes towards the value of humanity

The dissertation maps recent visual practices in a multitude of different contexts. For example, the dissertation discusses imagery which has been used in Western media to illustrate the "European refugee crisis" of the past few years.

“The ways in which refugees, for example, are visually depicted, reveal a divided attitude not only towards refugees and refugeeness, but human rights and the value of humanity in a broader sense,” Kotilainen explains.

The dissertation also examines the imagery used to depict terrorism, natural disasters and epidemics in recent years, and describes the ways non-Western sufferers and their Western benefactors are shown.

“The images present the globally divided roles of humanity: the strong Western humanitarians and weak non-Westerners who need help,” Kotilainen summarizes.

Using images as part of international power politics

The dissertation also discusses the use and influence of images in international political speech and decision-making as well as their role in the strategic communications of military operations. The use of current war images and their spread from social media to conventional media is studied through the ways images were disseminated following the gas attack in Ghouta, Syria in 2013.

 “Even though there is a great deal of talk about how social media is changing the way we react to crises, the Syrian example proves that even the most shocking images of suffering are subject to interest-based international power politics," Kotilainen states.

MSocSc Noora Kotilainen will defend her doctoral dissertation entitled Visual Theaters of Suffering - Constituting the Western Spectator in the Age of the Humanitarian World Politics at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Social Sciences on 9 December 2016 at 12.15. The public defence will be held in the University of Helsinki’s Main Building, lecture hall 5, Fabianinkatu 33.

The opponent will be Associate professor Shani Orgad, London School of Economics and Political Science, and the custos will be Professor Pauli Kettunen.

The dissertation will be published in the series Publications of the Faculty of Social Sciences. The dissertation will be available for purchase from the Unigrafia Bookstore

The dissertation is also available in electronic form through the e-thesis service.

Contact details of the doctoral candidate:

Noora Kotilainen

Tel. +358 40 577 9350