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How images twist our perception

24 minutes


Roland Bleiker

Professor of International Relations, Peace Studies and Political Theory
The University of Queensland

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Episode Notes

Do you have an image you just can’t get out of your mind? Something from the news or a current event? Did it impact how you thought about that issue – maybe for decades? According to Professor Roland Bleiker (and at least one Ethiopian taxi driver) visual politics is a real thing, and it’s twisting our perceptions every day.

[Start of recorded material]

Woman’s voice: (00:00):

I’m only shaking your hand if you give more funding to our RFS…so many people here have lost their homes.

Ginger Gorman (00:07):

So last summer, the one before lockdown, when most of us had never heard of the phrase novel coronavirus, the biggest story around at that time in Australia was of course the bushfires.

Greg Nelson (00:24):

We’d been covering the story for a few days. And I think there was a lot of antagonism toward the prime minister at the time, because he was, seemed to be off on a holiday before Christmas. And while the fires were burning elsewhere in the country, there was a perception that he was absent or AWOL.

Ginger Gorman (00:41):

That’s ABC news cameraman, Greg Nelson, at this point, Prime Minister, Scott Morrison had been copping heaps of flak for going to Hawaii a few days before Christmas. And meanwhile volunteer rural firefighters were working around the clock to save properties and save lives.

Greg Nelson (01:01):

On that day, we had been news gathering and word came through that the Prime Minister was coming to do a tour of the region, which is not uncommon when there’s a big disaster. One of those little towns is Quaama, which had been pretty badly hit by the fires. They weren’t getting as much attention as the bigger population centres, but it was still quite devastating for them. They had a very small fire shed; we’d already been to that fire shed and spoken to people that we knew how upset people were generally.

I could see that the Prime Minister was talking to the brigade captains and the high ranking officers and the RFS liaison. He was talking to them off to the side of the shed and the rest of the crews were mingling inside. So I stayed close to them and waited, expecting the prime minister’s advance people, his media team, to go in first as they normally would and gauge the room or the feeling in the room, or even just the space itself to make sure it was appropriate for him to come in. They didn’t do that.

Greg Nelson (02:11):

And so the prime minister walked in with his entourage and the press gallery camera was still sort of off covering that. And I saw him go straight for this firefighter. It was quite a shock when the prime minister reached out his hand and the firefighter absolutely refused it. And I thought that in itself was going to be newsworthy. But then the prime minister reached down and grabbed his hand and shook it. And I thought, well, now we’ve got something altogether different.

Ginger Gorman (02:42):

I remember this footage so vividly. When I first saw it. I thought, wow, people are so angry. Australians are pretty polite, so that’s a big deal refusing to shake the Prime Minister’s hand. I suppose we all have moments like this, when an image really leaves a lasting impact and maybe even shapes our perception of an event and our emotions and feelings.

Speaker 1 (03:09):

I definitely recall this image really well of the little girl in Vietnam. It was all over the news and the newspapers and magazines when I was a child, probably about the same age as she was. And it raised a lot of questions that no one in my family was able to answer.

The media story and image that affected me was the one that occurred in 1993, the two year old boy, James Bolger. He was led away by two ten-year-old boys to his tragic death. The media were like Lynch mob and fuelled the public. And it’s such a venomous state. I believe this is what led me into children’s advocating and looking after children deeply impacted me.

Speaker 2 (04:04):

For me it’s a photo of, there was a small Kurdish boy who washed up dead on the beach in the Mediterranean. And it’s one of those images that I can just never unseen.

We were living in Hobart and my son lived a lovely life of seeing and dancing, going to daycare, going for walks on the mountain, playing at the park, spending time with his grandparents. And there was just such a contrast between what my son was experiencing and what this child had been through and really how, how his life ended. I was motivated by these pictures to give a lot of money, much more than I would usually give, to humanitarian relief because I felt so powerless. That seemed like the only thing I could do to make a difference and prevent more three-year-olds from dying while seeking asylum.

Ginger Gorman (04:46):

This is Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman. And on the podcast today, we’re talking visual politics. So this is the idea that politics is not just shaped by words and actions. It’s actually also shaped by images.

Ginger Gorman (05:17):

Back in Quaama in January, 2020, Greg Nelson knew that awkward interaction between the prime minister and a volunteer firefighter was significant. He knew that because he’d been on the ground a day or so longer than the PM.  He also knew the context of why that firefighter was not keen to play the public relations game.

Greg Nelson (05:39):

After we had been to the fire station in Quaama, it was all feeling very awkward and uncomfortable. The prime minister was keenly aware that there were cameras that had captured that moment and he kept offering excuses if you like. The microphones were there as well. He kept talking about how the firefighter was obviously tired and he was upset. He was then pulled aside by the RFS liaison who said, look, no, actually he’s just lost his house as well.

So that it’s sort of, you know, the prime minister thought, well, I’m just leaving him alone. And he went on to talk to other people and they moved on up to the next town. In the broader context, there was a slow response in terms of the recovery or the disaster recovery. Certainly in Cobargo. People had evacuated themselves to the oval because that was the safe spot.

Greg Nelson (06:37):

And they felt like they were on their own. There were no truckloads of disaster relief, tents, food, clothing, all that sort of thing, just wasn’t coming to them. And then you have the prime minister and his entourage come in. They’re supposed to come in and offer support and show empathy, and just an understanding that they understand what you’re going through and they’ll offer you whatever support you need.

They may not have a specific announcement; they might not turn up with a truckload of supplies, but they’re there to see for themselves and then get the ball rolling. You know, make things happen. The police and rights squad had sent down their quick intervention teams from Sydney. These are the guys that cruise around in black four wheel drives with dark logos on the side and they wear the dark overalls. Often in times of disaster, you’ll see them brought into these small communities to bolster the local ranks because, you know, you don’t have big police forces there or big teams. So there’s all sorts of things that they need to come in and help out with.

And that’s what we assumed they were doing there at the time. But it became apparent later on that they were there for the prime minister’s visit. They weren’t working in the town; they were shadowing him and they were part of his security detail.

Ginger Gorman (07:54):

Greg, because I didn’t realise this, but you also shot the footage of the young woman that in the same period of time, she refused to shake his hand as well.

Greg Nelson (08:04):

That’s right. That was on the same trip…Did you know, or have that sense that you sometimes get when you’re in the media, that this would be really impactful footage that you were taking as you were taking it?

Greg Nelson (08:19):

Oh, certainly. I mean, whenever you’re following politicians around, you are looking for those interactions because for want of a better term, they do live in a bubble and those moments where they actually get to meet real people–unfortunately it’s often at the worst times of their life or when things are going wrong or when they have a problem– and when you are following that, you want to see those, those reactions, you want to gauge their level of empathy.

People just want to know that they’re understood, that somebody understands what they’re going through and that the support they need be there. So when you catch or something like that you realise straight away that there is a news value to it.

Ginger Gorman (09:02):

But did you understand it would be completely viral that people would be making Tik ToK videos about it and that would, it would be reported around the world. I mean, I would say I’ve seen that footage in various guises, 30, 40, 50 times. Over and over and over again.

Greg Nelson (09:20):

No, I mean, you expect it to play nationally, but I didn’t expect it to play as much as it did. And I didn’t expect it to get the response that it did because people take different things from it.

Ginger Gorman (09:32):

So this idea that an image, more than words or actions, can have such a lasting impact on a perception of an event or a perception of a person, there’s a term for it.

Roland Bleiker (09:45):

Look, I’m not sure how official the term visual politics is. About a dozen years ago, I started a research program here at University of Queensland that looked at the political role of images. I looked for a term that could capture what we’re trying to do. And somehow visual politics stuck.

Ginger Gorman (10:02):

Professor Roland Bleiker teaches international relations, peace studies and political theory at the University of Queensland. He’s also a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

Roland Bleiker (10:13):

The visual has always been central in politics from the beginning of time. We had cave paintings, we celebrate certain monuments. But I think in the last 20 or 30 years that been phenomenon that really accentuate the way in which the visual is political. And I think here primarily of two phenomena. One is the speed at which images circulate. Just 20, 30 years ago it would take quite a while for a newspaper article to appear in The Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald and to circle around the world. Today in the age of social media it literally takes seconds for a news item or an image to be picked up and circulate. So that speed at which images circulate is hugely important and shapes the world we live in.

Roland Bleiker (11:03):

There’s also the issue of who has control over images and their circulation. And until not long ago, a couple of decades, it was primarily media conglomerates that could circulate images. But today, of course, everyone can circulate an image. We can take it, you’ll have smartphones. Most of us can take an image. You can put it up on Instagram, on Tik TOK, wherever. And within seconds we have the chance to actually circulate images. And that leads to a certain democratisation of the control of images to circulation of images. These two factors together account for an increased importance of images and the political role they play.

Ginger Gorman (11:40):

Talking about it as a kind of democratisation, but not everything is good that comes out of that. In a way we have control over it, but also a lot of images get out of control and don’t necessarily convey a correct meaning with them, or people don’t understand necessarily what information is being conveyed to them.

Roland Bleiker (12:02):

Yes, absolutely. I think there’s a few points here. One is that yes, images are neither good nor bad. They’re neither progressive nor aggressive, you know, they’re just political. I’ll give you a couple of examples.

One is of course the videos that IS circulated – the beheading videos that they have circulated in attempt to gain worldwide attention. And it worked, I mean, IS has been very savvy with the use of images. Terrorism in many ways is a visual phenomenon and, and terrorist attacks are often designed such that they have a maximum visual impact. So we see here the visual being strategically used for purposes of, bad politics or of something that is absolutely terrible violence.

But we also see, for instance, social movements who try to advance certain social causes making strategic use of images. That goes back to the suffragette movement, the same-sex marriage movement, or people looking at climate change. Social movements use images for a progressive cause. So in that sense, there’s no value attached to images. It’s just all part of the political and they’re used in a range of different ways.

Ginger Gorman (13:10):

But I’m a cyber hate expert, for example. And what I’ve seen in my work is predator trolls taking images and deliberately making misinformation, and what the likes of Donald Trump would call fake news with it. They are deliberately propagating images that don’t mean the things that they seem to mean, or they are set up to mean. So we can be very easily tricked with the volume and speed of images as well, because they’re not coming from any official sort of verified sources often.

Roland Bleiker (13:39):

Yes, of course. And the images don’t make sense by themselves so we can control the meaning of images. So as soon as they circulate, we have to interpret them and they can be interpreted in different ways. So I think then the task, especially for us as scholars, is to look at the politics surrounding how images are used, how they are received, how it’s circulated and what kind of political forces are at stake in that process.

As a scholar, it’s not easy to understand the exact impact of images. They don’t often work in causal ways. We can rarely say one image caused a particular event, and yet they do shape our attitudes. So I think we have to use a whole range of different methods to see how our perceptions of phenomena, whether it’s bushfires, whether it’s the government, whether it’s certain policies, how they shift over time in response to certain visual phenomenon.

Ginger Gorman (14:32):

It gives us almost a physiological response with an image. Whereas I can’t always say that that’s true with words. It affects us differently, doesn’t it?

Roland Bleiker (14:43):

It does. So absolutely. Sometimes that impact can be huge. Look at the image of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee stranded on a beach in Turkey about three or four years ago, it was incredible what kind of level of sympathy was circling worldwide. And to some extent, it led to policy changes around refugee policy in Germany, for instance. So this is an instance where we had one particular image circulating that was deeply emotional that also generated political change.

Ginger Gorman (15:13):

You are doing a lot of work in this area, and I wonder what role you think images have played in the dehumanisation of refugees in Australia, but then also, as you say, there have been instances of humanisation.

Roland Bleiker (15:27):

I’ve done a study with several colleagues where we looked at how Australia has visualised refugees over the last decade or so. We systematically surveyed front page coverage of prominent Australian newspapers to see how refugees are portrayed. And, we found a very, very interesting pattern, and that is the overwhelming number of images (almost three quarters) depict refugees in large groups. And of course in the context of boats, when that was the phenomenon that we were witnessing. This is very interesting and it’s politically very important because there’s a lot of psychological studies that show when viewers see depictions of refugees they feel empathetic when they see an individual refugee. We call that the identifiable victim effect. When you can see a person with a face, or we know a story we can sort of imagine “this could be us” and most people feel sympathetic and they want to help in that context.

Roland Bleiker (16:23):

But studies have shown that with every person that is added to that image, people feel less empathetic, but they feel something else. When they see an image of 30, 50 or 200 refugees, they often don’t feel empathy, but they feel fear. So when we have visual patterns in Australia’s newspapers over a decade that show refugees primarily as large groups, this leads to a certain collective set of responses, certain attitudes that see refugees less as a humanitarian problem that requires our compassion and our help, but more as it’s portrayed politically, as a question of sovereignty, of border controls and for us, that leads ultimately to a dehumanisation of refugees.

We could see how these visual phenomena interact with verbal discourses around queue jumping and a whole range of ways in which refugees are portrayed. But again, the visual in that sense reinforced the verbal messages, and they led to a political discourse around refugees that has a very particular kind of connotation.

I think we all have a certain responsibility as scholars, as journalists, as politicians, as everyday citizens, to be aware of these phenomena and to be aware of our privileged position in Australia and the responsibility we have towards those who are less privileged.

Ginger Gorman (17:45):

I have this really vivid memory from my childhood in the 1980s of images from the Ethiopian famine. For age those harrowing scenes of malnourished kids whose bellies were distended while their arms and legs were just skin and bone. Those pictures were the only thing I knew about people from Ethiopia.

Speaker 5 (18:06):

There was a charity working in Ethiopia during that time called World Vision and information got to the famous Irish singer, Bob Geldolf. And he was alarmed by the situation and started working and telling his friends to organize. And then they produce the single famously known as “Do they know that it is Christmas time?”

Ginger Gorman (18:38):

That’s Mr. Beryihun Degu Temesgen. He’s Chargé d’Affaires to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in Canberra. And I’ve got to say those images were really effective in terms of raising awareness and aid for the people caught up in that disaster.

Beryihun Degu Temesgen (19:12):

It was done for goodwill.  Surely this was just to show how sensitive the issue and how the world should respond positively. Initially they didn’t think this would create a stigma on Ethiopia. Unfortunately through time, this was repeated in, as you have said, in many parts of the world, and then it reached a point that Ethiopia reached a point where it was considered as a poster child for the famine.

Ginger Gorman (19:51):

Yeah. So this is interesting, you’re saying it was done for the purposes of goodwill, but actually over time, these images were used and misused, and have perhaps created an untrue impression of Ethiopia.

Beryihun Degu Temesgen (20:05):

Yes. It has factual fallacy. This famine was mainly in the Northern part of the country. The rest of Ethiopia was in good shape, and this was not reflected. Ethiopia is a very ancient country with a very brilliant history now with statehood for about more than 3000 years.

Ginger Gorman (20:39):

Incredible. Isn’t it?

Beryihun Degu Temesgen (20:41):

We do have famous athletes like Abebe Bikila, Haile Gebrselassie and Derartu Tulu. We had a very known coffee, European coffee. We have a very good history of independence. We have never surrendered to the colonialism.

Ginger Gorman (21:00):

So Berihun, I had a taxi driver not very long ago. He was originally from Ethiopia, but now is an Australian resident. He was talking to me about these images of the famine and he said to me, “these images have ruined our country in the eyes of the world”. He was telling me about your beautiful mountains and your coffee and your food and your culture, and lots of the things you’re talking about. And he was saying: “I wish people knew these things about Ethiopia”. How would you respond to those comments of his?

Beryihun Degu Temesgen (21:32):

Yeah, there are many, many things. That was not reflected, but it showed only some parts of the country this famine in that part of the country. And then it became a symbol for the whole country.

Ginger Gorman (21:48):

I’ve got to stop you here because this office is filling with the smell of the most beautiful coffee.

Beryihun Degu Temesgen (21:54):

Let’s have coffee now.

Ginger Gorman (21:59):

Thank you very much. 

Ginger Gorman (22:12):

So what’s the answer? How can NGOs compel people with means and security to help when we are so numb to stories of war and famine that we need to see images of children, dead or suffering, just to notice them?

Roland Bleiker (22:25):

They’re sort of neo-colonial if you want to use that term. A lot of NGOs for instance, are fully aware that this is problematic. The dilemma they have is that we know that people in the West feel empathy when they see these images. They feel sympathy and then they donate.

So NGOs know that using these images works for them. It allows them to raise money to actually address humanitarian causes. What our project tries to do is to try to find ways of depicting victims of crisis in more humane and more empathetic ways without losing that empathy effect.

We have a whole range of people involved from photo journalists, photographers, but also social scientists and social psychologists who actually test empirically how people respond to images. With a team of about a dozen people we work with four organizations, [including] the World Press Photo Foundation, which is one of the leading organisations in photo journalism, and with the International Committee of the Red Cross, with the Australian Red Cross and with Médecins Sans Frontières.

There are no easy solutions. But what we try to do basically is try to help NGOs to develop a visual policy that is more attuned to victims, more sensitive. And at the same time remain successful in their fundraising campaigns.

Speaker 6 (23:45):

This is Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman. Next time, a change of tone. We’ll look at how humour can do a lot more than just make you laugh. Thanks for all of your support. And remember, we do so much more than just this podcast. Check out our website, for videos and articles and all of the links. You can also connect with us on social media. See you next time.

[End of recorded material 24:29]

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