Exhibition: “Victims of the image: how photographic images are made, exploited and criticized”
Victims of war, natural disasters or epidemics – for half a century civilian victims have invaded our daily lives. We see them in the press, on television, on billboards in the street, in the subway. In a way they become banal, so that the effect they provoke is often the opposite of what was intended.
These images are meant to move us and provoke a rapid reaction during the few seconds when they attract our attention. They exploit codes and stereotypes already registered in our cultural memory to represent radical violence, terror, horror and Evil.
But do the images which now flood our field of vision really represent the victims? Does a simple photo accompanied by a slogan like an advertisement not mask a different reality? Do the media, advertising and/or humanitarian methods have the ability to explain the extremely violent situations and events to which they refer?
This exhibition aims to make us reflect on the power and meaning of contemporary ways of representation, what they enable us to understand or show us without making us understand, but also what they conceal and what they leave out.
Today the civilian victims of collective violence, whether as a result of natural disasters, epidemics, war or genocide, are almost always rapidly presented as victims who must be saved and remembered.
It seems obvious to everyone that they must be helped as quickly as possible, and that those who are suffering injustice must not be forgotten. Moral values and aid initiatives are supported and upheld. Memory is kept alive so that IT NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN. But the media are also criticized for flooding our screens with images of suffering.
But do we realize that the way the victims are represented is as important as the victims themselves?
They are represented according to codes and with references which in general have nothing to do with the real victim in question.
So we need to know what these images stamped on our retina are.
- The camps
- The gateway to Auschwitz
- Starving bodies
- Childish innocence
- Religious imagery
Exploiting photo images
From the 1970’s images of civilian victims became widespread. These representations incorporated the concentration camp. The situation began to change during the Biafran war (1968-1971), when a veritable communication campaign of little Africans with stomachs swollen by hunger flooded our screens. At the same time, political denunciation of the Vietnam War, supported by media reports, turned public opinion against the “imperialist” forces.
In a few years the journalistic slant shifted from political to humanitarian, and the bodies of deportees which had been shown and shown again then became standards for humanitarian action as well as symbols of remembrance.
To this end they underwent some bizarre mutations, and they now accompany other models, notably that of unhappy children, to form the great landscape of world suffering.
“No image, no indignation: without an image it seems that misfortune is only striking the unfortunate, so helping hands and fraternal aid need not be stretched out to them . The greatest enemies of dictatorships and under-development are photos and the reactions they inspire. Let us accept that without being resigned to it – it’s how making a fuss works. Let us make use of that.” Bernard Kouchner, founder of Doctors Without Borders
“Let us make use of that”, says Bernard Kouchner. Must we really make use of images? Is that not what propaganda is about? Are we not seeing new forms of propaganda?
- Humanitarian action
- Humanitarian advertising!
- The press
Criticism of the use of images
In the 1990’s humanitarian activists, photographers and journalists began to criticize these spectacular displays of victims. They asked if it would be possible to do without images, and wondered whether the public would be prepared to read about victims. These criticisms sometimes led to new ways of behaving and acting.
- Humanitarian activities
Why does an image move us?
Because we recognize in it a suffering to which our education in the broad sense and our culture – our cultural education – have already given a meaning even before we saw that image of suffering. Because we are not indifferent to the victims we are shown (how can we be when they are vulnerable people, women and children?)
But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that emotion as such is negative. Indeed, it is fundamental for balanced relationships with other people, for our sociability, for our humanity. It is a vector which enables us to think while approaching what we are thinking about. The problems start when it becomes an end in itself – when we are overcome by weeping, we can no longer think clearly – or when it seeks to manipulate us, a classic advertising technique.
Project Manager: The Auschwitz Foundation, Mémoire des signes and the Wallonia-Brussels Federation
Organizer: Gwenaëlle Aznar
Supervision: Philippe Mesnard (Director of Remembrance of Auschwitz ASBL)
Graphics: Yann Collin
This exhibition is an adaptation and synthesis for educational purposes of the original exhibition “Prisonniers de l’image” [Prisoners of the Image] (organized by Philippe Mesnard) presented at the Lyon Centre d’histoire de la résistance et de la déportation (CHRD) between October 2005 and January 2006.
Reservations: Georges Boschloos (the exhibition is available in French and Dutch)
For any information, please contact Geroges Boschloos at Remembrance of Auschwitz ASBL:
Tel.: +32 (0)2 512 79 98 – Fax: +32 (0)2 512 58 84 – Contact by e-mail