Disaster Imagery and the History of Humanitarian Emotions

This Project examines the development of ‘humanitarian emotions’ in the modern era in order to trace the emotional origins of contemporary humanitarianism.  Specifically, the project scrutinizes how the history of representing distant suffering has contributed the proliferation of the ‘politics of pity’ through which humanitarian action is understood and practised.

Disaster Imagery and the History of Humanitarian Emotions

The emotional dimensions of witnessing developing world suffering through images are key to ensuing humanitarianism. Yet while images of suffering have historically evoked a range of ‘humanitarian emotions’, contemporary commentators lament that a ‘politics of pity’ now commonly fuels a North/South humanitarian dynamic. Central here is that images of developing world suffering regularly rely on cultural stereotypes that problematically position developing world sufferers as passive and powerless victims, as objects of pity dependent upon foreign intervention and aid.

While this is often highlighted as a more recent phenomenon, emotions summoned in response to suffering have deeply historical origins. Scholars speak, for instance, of the guilt, sympathy, 'irresistible compassion' and again even pity, which so moved people in the seventeenth to eighteenth century to act and alleviate others' pain. These and other historical emotional discourses undoubtedly influence contemporary feelings for suffering others, however few if any contributions have traced the linkages between, and the significance of, historical and contemporary humanitarian emotions.

This project begins to address this shortcoming by examining the development of ‘humanitarian emotions’ in the modern era and exploring the proliferation of the ‘politics of pity’ through which humanitarian action is understood and practised. Doing this then in turn enables reflections upon − and the potential identification of alternative, more ethical − representational practices through which contemporary humanitarian emotions (and concomitant responsibilities) can be realized.

Publications

Hutchison, E. Affective Communities in World Politics: Collective Emotions After Trauma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Hutchison, E. 'A Global Politics of Pity? Disaster Imagery and the Emotional Construction of Solidarity after the 2004 Asian Tsunami'. International Political Sociology 8.1 (2014): 1‒19. 

Image Citation: Image 1: An internally displaced Pakistani carries aid delivered as part of the relief efforts, 25 August 2010.  Photo by Cpl. Jenie Fisher. Image 2: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) aid workers load emergency shelter supplies on the trucks for distribution to the survivors of the cyclone 'Nargis', across the Mae Sot north-western border between Thailand and Myanmar, 10 May 2008.  Photo by UNHCR.