In search of visibility: The ethical tensions in the production of humanitarian photography

Nissinen, Sanna Maarit (2012). In search of visibility: The ethical tensions in the production of humanitarian photography. PhD thesis The Open University.



For humanitarian organisations that use photography as their major medium of communication the visual portrayal of suffering remains an issue surrounded with controversy and sensitivity. Despite the adoption of regulatory codes and protective protocols by non-governmental -organisations, the criticism which has circulated during the past three decades still remains, directed at NGOs. media and-photographers by academics and audiences, over the production of formulaic and stereotypical imagery with accusations of subjugating populations of the global South. The main tension in this form of imaging is how vulnerablee populations can be portrayed in ways that do not infringe on dignity, yet meet the need for effective NGO visibility and fundraising communications in the image-saturated media landscape. Little primary data exists on how ethical behaviour in this type -of imaging is understood by its producers and how principles of ethics guide ,the processes and practices in tbe field. This thesis explores a way to redress this gap in Understanding by exploring the photographic representation of humanitarian subjects from the perspective of their production. The research draws on four humanitarian pbotographic assignments in Bangladesh supported by interviews with the social actors involved in the production of NGO visual communications. The ethnographic accounts of the experiences of the author as researcher and photographer point to complex production processes and practices that are imbued with continual ethical considerations framing the interactions of image-making. The findings emphasise the capacity,of the so called victims to negotiate and represent themselves and draws into question the regulatory claims of ensuring the protection and rights of photographic subjects. The findings reveal highly complex, if not haphazard, processes that evolve through situations in the field and the context of assignments, which complicates interpretation and realisation of this type of regulation as operational strategy.

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