Rodanthi Tzanelli's Weblog

In this weblog I post updates on my teaching, research and publications, as well as other relevant academic activities.

Worldmaking images of disaster: the ‘art’ of speaking of/for the disenfranchised

Recently, the massive human migrations from war-ridden and natural disaster-plagued regions of the world has flooded my Facebook account. I know I am not the only one participating in this digital philanthropic revolution unwillingly, as a passive site-seer: a subject apprehending the social world as a detached landscape, a collection of sites. By using the concept of ‘site’ I wish to stress the domination of the sensible by seamless geometry, hence a violence of detachment as abstraction from immediacy. But I would also like to note that such involuntary ‘site-seeing’ activities form an essential aspect of sight-seeking: an in-built propensity most humans from the developed world have to associate emotional engagement or its cognitive-ethical equivalent with particular sensory input-output functions we relate with sight. I do not suggest a fundamental lability in the absence of such ‘propensity’, quite the contrary, I wish to bring the significance of its Western European cosmological pathway to the fore. Connections of vision to Western phenomenology, or of landscape tourism to the Western activity of tourism at large are not new, but their digital transposition into the new mobile humanitarian spaces of the internet is.

There is a notable difference between browsing through holiday brochures and browsing through photographs of human tragedy that sight-seeking bridges in unpalatable ways, turning the privileged viewer into a banal consumer of exoticism we associate with suffering. There is no malice involved in such visual mobilities – on the contrary, they are meant to ‘reveal’, ‘expose’ and thus alert others of the humanitarian crisis. At the same time, their actual effect rarely exceeds the reproduction of their practical gesture: it leads to the proliferation of image circulation, endorsing the use of icons as a sort of painful souvenir. I receive posts on Facebook and by email that are dominated by visual narratives of such tragedies: an anxious mother holding her son on a boat; a tearful young man in torn clothes; whole families en route to unknown points of reception or deportation. It is all gruesome and utterly real in the ways the camera lens tells the story, but also strangely non-relational, delightfully exotic. I click on ‘like’ or ‘share’ with the certainty that some of my Facebook friends will also ‘like’ and ‘share’ the image before moving on to another mundane activity such as shopping. None of us is malicious or completely indifferent; the truth is that we don’t know what else we can actually do with such iconic shrines of pain. Are they not there to be shared?

But while we are happily sharing the spoils of yet another disorganised ‘consciousness industry’ (in Enzensberger’s (1970) original terms), we actively participate in precisely what Hollinshead (2007) recognised as worldmaking in tourism: if you are ‘there’ through/in the reality of the image ‘and you are “sentient”, you are engaging in it’ (Hollinshead 2009: 432, italics in the text). The paradox of thereness is all too obvious, as nobody is actually there without the visual mediation of tragedy – which is why charities of the Amnesty International calibre use image to increase political awareness and secure financial support of various important causes. What is more paradoxical is that while our second-order touring into the ‘other’ is industrially designed to contribute to our well-being (as all tourism does), morally it is designated to alert us to well-being’s unequal distribution across the world (thus producing an inescapable guilt). Evidently then, photographing such events – mundane for Facebook participants but life-changing for the camera’s visual ‘objects’ – is both part of globally inculcated regimes of mobility that support Western epistemologies and their markets. To what end, other than the management of capital flows?

Enzesberger, H.M. (1970) ‘Constituents of a theory of the media’, New Left Review, 64: 13-36.

Hollinshead, K. (2007) ‘Worldmaking and the transformation of place and culture: the enlargement of Meethan’s analysis of tourism and global change’, in Ateljevic, I., Pritchard, A. and Morgan, N. (eds) The Critical Turn in Tourism Studies: Innovative Research Methodologies. Oxford: Elsevier, 165-93.

Hollinshead, K., Ateljevic, I. and Ali, N. (2009) ‘Worldmaking agency-worldmaking authority: the sovereign constitutive role of tourism’, Tourism Geographies, 11 (4): 427-43.