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Just think back for a moment to the terrible summer we had. Bushfires burned around 46 million acres of land and destroyed nearly 6,000 buildings. And tragically, at least 34 people lost their lives. We saw that iconic footage of several people in the fire-ravaged town of Cobargo refusing to shake Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s hand.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I saw that footage many times. It was all over the news and all over social media. And in fact, it was seen all over the world. What I really thought about though is exactly how images like this shown repeatedly on the media and on social channels impact our views of current issues.
With me to discuss this now further is Professor [01:00] Roland Bleiker from the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. Roland is an expert in what’s known as visual politics and how it impacts us. He’s also a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.
Roland, thank you so much for joining me.
Roland Bleiker: Well, thank you very much, Ginger, for the chance to discuss this topic with you.
Ginger: Now, before I had spoken to you and learned of your work, I had never heard this term ‘visual politics’, before. So, let’s start right at the bottom. What is it?
Roland: Look, I’m not sure how official the term ‘visual politics’ is. About a dozen years ago, I started a research program here at the University of Queensland that looked at the political role of images. We kind of looked for a term that could capture what we’re trying to do and somehow, ‘visual politics’ stuck.
It’s a term that tries to capture the wide range of visual phenomena that surround us [02:00] and the way in which they are political. There are some obvious ones. There is the role of images in the media, on the Internet, on social media and the way in which they depict political phenomena: terrorism, war, or as you’ve mentioned before, bushfires.
There’s also, of course, moving images. There are videos, there is film, the way in which they shape our attitudes and there is sort of less obvious phenomena. There are maps, for instance. There are drones, satellites, surveillance video. They’re all part of the visual world around us and they all play different political roles that shape how we view the world and how we enact it.
Ginger: Early on in the first season of Seriously Social, we talked quite a bit about AI and about drones and surveillance. Do you consider those sorts of apparatus part of this world that you’re looking at?
Roland: Very much so. I think drone surveillance, they’re a means through which politics is enacted. You know, they depict the world in a certain way. They’re part of how governments survey [03:00] their population. They’re part of the information we get when we make legal decisions. Whether it’s about military intervention, whether it’s about pandemics, whether it’s preventing terrorism, they’re all part of the political world around us and they’re visual in nature.
Ginger: When you say political, though, you’re not just talking about pure politics, are you?
Roland: No. I think political for me is not just about the mechanisms in parliament, democracy. It’s really about how we construct the world around us and that excludes, for instance, the construction of gender norm and the constructions of norm around race, how we treat refugees, how we construct national identities. So, in that sense, the political is a very wide-ranging phenomena around us that goes beyond institutional politics.
Ginger: You sent me a copy of your book, which is actually called Visual Global Politics and it came out in 2018. And what I was surprised about, Roland, is the breadth of academics that you had featured in that book. [04:00] It’s not just about someone, say, in political science, or someone in the arts, it’s academics across such a broad range of fields. Why did you do it like that and why do you see that as part of visual politics?
Roland: Look, I realised that we don’t really have a book out there that surveys the role of images and the visual artefacts in a comprehensive way. And it dawned to me early on, there’s no way I can possibly write the book myself. The phenomena are just too complex.
So, over about four or five years, I gathered over 50 contributors from different disciplines, from politics from my field, but also from anthropology, from art history, from communications, from a range of different fields to kind of see how they look at the visual in their own discipline. And to look at how the visual goes across a range of different visual phenomena.
Again, that includes anything from both images to visual artefacts, including for instance, national monuments or fashion. And [05:00] then look at a whole range of different political phenomena and from things like diplomacy, from after colonialism, to gender, to refugees sort of to see how the visual is an extremely comprehensive phenomena that really surrounds us every day from morning to evening and is inherently political in the way it functions.
Ginger: So, this is quite a big question for such a broad book, but what did you learn that you weren’t expecting perhaps from such a broad investigation into this idea?
Roland: The key think we learnt probably is that the visual is really absolutely central to politics and perhaps more so in today’s age. I mean, the visual has always been central to politics from the beginning of time. We had cave paintings, again, we celebrate certain monuments, but I think there’s in the last 20, 30 years, there have been sort of phenomena 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 [06:00]. 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 then to circulate around the world. Today, in the age of the social media, literally it takes seconds for a news item, an image to be picked up and circulated. So, really, that speed at which images circulate is hugely important and shapes the world we live in.
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 conglomerate states that could circulate images. But today, of course, anyone can circulate an image.
We all have smart phones, most of us. We can take an image. We can put it up on Instagram, on TikTok or whatever 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. And these two factors together, they do account for [07:00] an increased importance of images and the political role they play.
Ginger: There are so many things I want to ask you about that, Roland. So, you’ve got the ubiquity and you’ve got the speed, and you’re talking about it as a kind of democratisation, but not everything is good that comes out of that. In a way, yes, we have control over it, but also, a lot of images get out of control and they don’t necessarily convey a correct meaning with them or people don’t understand necessarily what information is being conveyed to them.
Roland: 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 regressive. They’re just political. I’ll give you a couple of examples. One is, of course, the videos that IS has circulated, the beheading videos that they have circulated in an attempt to gain worldwide attention and it worked. IS has been very savvy with the use of images [08:00].
Terrorism, in many ways, there is a visual phenomena and terrorist attacks are often designed such that they have a maximum visual impact. So, we see here the visual being strategically used for the purposes of bad politics, the purpose 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, to the same-sex marriage movement, people looking at climate change. Social movements in that sense, use images for a progressive cause. So, in that sense, there’s no value attached to images. It’s just images are part of the political and they’re used in a range of different ways.
Ginger: But I’m a cyberhate 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 [09:00] 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, but they appear on our Facebook feeds as if they are.
Roland: Yes, of course, and the images don’t make sense by themselves, of course, 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. And they can be manipulated, they can be used in different ways. So, I think then a task, especially for us as scholars, is to look at the politics surrounding that, so how images are used, how they are received, how they are circulated and what kind of political forces are at stake in that process.
Ginger: Let’s take that footage I mentioned of the firefighter and the young woman in Cobargo and she was refusing to shake the Prime Minister’s [10:00] hand after the catastrophic bushfires that hit that area. And actually, I’ve been to Cobargo not too long ago and it really was very damaged by the fires and a number of people died in that area.
If we just take that as one example of something you might look at in your work, how might imagery like that, that we see over and over again in the news and on social media affect a person like me or a member of the public that might see it repeatedly, not just once. How might it affect their political views, say, of what they think about the Government or the Government’s handling of those issues?
Roland: Well, there’s a couple of interesting points here. One is that it’s interesting to see how certain images, and that can be still images or video clips, like the one you mentioned, how they stick out, how they attract our attention, how they become ingrained in our collective consciousness. And that’s in some sense how icons get born.
We have certain images that stand for events of the [11:00] Vietnam War of the Tank Man standing for the Tiananmen Massacre. These are the images that stick out, like the one you just mentioned from the bushfires. It is then a lot more tricky to understand precisely what their impact is, how they shape our perceptions of how we use [inaudible 11:16]. In some sense, we can say, “Look, they had an impact.”
With the bushfires, for instance, I think one of the interesting phenomena is how the comedienne Celeste Barber was so successful in raising money for the victims of the bushfires. That was the visual phenomena when she became well known predominantly through her visuals on Instagram and so on. But also, it’s seeing visually the fires, just people rallied around that and they felt empathy, so it clearly had an impact on the population.
At the same time, as a scholar, it’s not easy to understand the exact impact of images. They don’t often work in causal ways. We can say, or we can rarely say it is one image caused this particular event. And yet, they do shape [12:00] our attitudes. So, I think we have to then sort of 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 phenomena.
Ginger: And is there something in this about not just seeing it once, but seeing it over and over again, so the message is reinforced because I wonder, if I’d only seen it once if it would have stuck in my kind of heart and mind in the same way.
Roland: It is about seeing it multiple times, but it also is the issue of how certain images hark back to images we already know. We’ve all seen images of bushfires. We see them in California, at the moment, in Oregon. But when we see these images of Oregon, probably most of us in Australia, we at the same time, remember images from January and February from the bushfires we had in Australia.
So, it’s sort of the collective memory bank we have of images that plays an important role. And in that sense, they keep being replayed [13:00], not just on television, on the Internet, but also in our own consciousness, in our own mind.
Ginger: There are two things I want to ask you about this. The first is what is it about humans that makes the image so powerful to us because I know myself, for example, if I had have just read about these folk refusing to shake the Prime Minister’s hand, it wouldn’t have the same impact. The second thing I’m noticing in almost everything you say is the emotion. It’s not necessarily this cognitive thinking thing. It’s actually something that brings up a physical emotive response.
Roland: I think this is a very crucial issue. I fully agree. To me, the thing that’s always interesting, the one manifestation that’s interesting is when media sources show us videos of particular traumatic events – a terrorist attack, or images or war, of death – we often get the warning that traumatic images follow, we should be warned. We might not want to watch them if [14:00] we get traumatised by these images.
But we never get these warnings when we read something. We don’t read a book or a newspaper article and we have a warning that says, “Traumatic words will follow. People might be shocked. You might not want to read.” But words depict traumatic events just as much as images, but there’s something about images that has us more emotional that really reaches us to the core. And I think this is the emotional dimensions of images.
The paradox is, and I feel at least in politics and economics that emotions have not really been taken seriously for a long time. Most of the models we have in politics and economics revolve around the assumption that individual states act rationally, that they make cost benefit analyses when they take decisions. For instance, also with regards to the pandemic at the moment.
But very often, people react emotionally just as much as they react rationally. So, in that sense, I think one of the big challenges in understanding images is the extent to which they contain emotions, they [15:00] circulate emotions and it’s this link between the visual and the emotional that’s absolutely crucial to understand their role.
Ginger: 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: It does so, absolutely. And sometimes, that impact can be huge. Look at the image of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old dead Syrian refugee that was stranded on a beach in Turkey about three or four years ago. It was incredible what kind of level of sympathy was circulating 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: Well, let’s talk about that because 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 [16:00] in Australia. But then, also, as you say, there have been instances of humanisation.
Roland: Images in that sense, again, they go both ways. They can humanise refugees. They can dehumanise refugees. I’ve done a study with several colleagues where we looked at how Australia has visualised refugees over the last decade or so.
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 phenomena that we were witnessing.
Now, this is very interesting and it’s politically very important because there are a lot of psychological studies that show viewers who see depictions of refugees, they feel empathetic when they see an individual refugee. We call that the identifiable victim effect. When we can see a person, there’s a face [17:00], 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.
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, 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 certain collective responses and attitudes that see refugees less as a humanitarian problem that requires our compassion, our help, but more, as it’s kind of portrayed politically, as a question of sovereignty, of border controls. And, for us, that leads ultimately to a dehumanisation of refugees.
And we can see how these visual phenomena, they interact with verbal discourses queue [18:00] jumping and a whole range of ways in which refugees are portrayed. But again, the visual in that sense reinforce the verbal messages we have and they lead to a political discourse around refugees that has a very particular kind of connotation.
Ginger: I do need to have a little disclaimer here and say that my grandparents were Jewish refugees, who fled the holocaust, and they fled Slovakia to England. So, I obviously have quite strong views about this myself. But what you’re saying to me is so interesting because it almost matches this general discourse in Australia, which I would say is at best, apathetic to refugees, but at worst, very scathing.
There’s a real resistance in Australia at the moment, I think, in terms of they’re taking our women, they’re taking our jobs, there’s floods of them coming and so forth, which seems to match largely with what you’re talking [19:00] about, which is these images of masses of people. So, do you think that that is by design?
Roland: I think the interesting point here is that this hasn’t always been the case. If we look at refugees during the Cold War, for instance, in Europe, refugees fleeing Eastern Europe, fleeing communism, they were celebrated as heroes. They were welcomed as heroes. So, refugees in that sense had a very, very different status.
So, it’s only over the last few decades when refugees arrived not from communist Eastern Europe, but from the global south that we had this shift in the perception of refugees from people that should be protected, celebrated for their freedom, to people who are basically wanting to profit form us and disturbing our society.
To what extent this is designed or part of larger discourse is a very difficult thing in the sense that, yes, politicians, public people, they have certain views, they make these views public [20:00], but at the same time, they’re part of larger societal discourses where certain values prevail and they in that sense, reflect these discourses. So, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg question and it’s a phenomenon that goes beyond particular politicians and it has to do with certain values that prevail in society.
But it might be a that politicians have a particular responsibility to even go beyond these values and show us a better way forward, a more ethical way forward and refugees to me is one of the key issues. I think we should take our global responsibility, our humanity a lot more seriously and feel a lot more compassion for people who are in need.
Ginger: And it’s interesting because, as a journalist, for example, I would suggest that editors are not deliberately going about putting mass pictures of people on boats, for example, to dissuade the public from particular points of view. But [21:00] then the question I have in my mind after what you’ve said is why aren’t they putting individual pictures of refugees on the front of their papers? Why are they putting masses of people together? Is there something deeper going on there?
Roland: I think to a large extent, I think it had to do with journalists not having access to individual refugees, to detention camps. They did not have access to individual refugees and the official sort of course given by the Government to constrain access was that this was to protect the family at home.
If you have individual depictions of refugees, they could be identified. There might be consequences for families at home. But it then led to really an inability to depict refugees as individuals with clearly recognisable facial features, with a story, with something we can actually identify with and feel compassionate about to seeing refugees mostly from a distance, in boats, queueing with all the consequences that I have mentioned [22:00] so far.
But there have been sort of concerted efforts by Amnesty, by other kind of organisations to organise exhibitions with refugees as individuals with stories to kind of humanise our relationship to refugees. And in that sense, yes, 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 kind of be aware of our privileged position in Australia and the responsibility we have towards those who are less privileged.
Ginger: But this leads into another project you’re doing in terms of the way that refugees are depicted, say, by humanitarian organisations. And one of the things I remember, Roland, so clearly is growing up in London in the ’80s and all over the television screens were starving Ethiopian children with flies all around their eyes and distended bellies. And this was, of course, a time of great famine in Ethiopia.
And still to this day, although [23:00] I have met many Ethiopian people since as adults and in all different kinds of fields of professional work, I still have those images in my head. And those were images, of course, used to depict this tragedy, to get people to donate money to the cause to save the children. But that is also incredibly problematic in its own way.
Roland: Yes, indeed. And that’s one of the main projects I’m working on at the moment, is this whole question of the politics and ethics of visualising humanitarian crises. And as you say, the prevailing visuals, they tend to focus on starving women and children, they portray victims in the global south largely as passive, as not having any kind of agency, as being dependent completely on the north for rescue. And we meanwhile have widespread awareness that these images are problematic. They’re sort of neo-colonial, if you want to use that term.
A lot of NGOs, for instance, are fully aware that his is problematic. [24:00] The dilemma they have is that we know that people in the West, they feel empathy when they see these images. They feel sympathy, they donate, so NGOs know, using these images works for them. It allows them to raise money to actually address humanitarian causes.
So, what our project tries to do, we try to find ways of depicting victims of crises in more humane, in more empathetic ways without losing that empathy effect. So, we have a whole range of people involved from photojournalists, photographers, but also social scientists and social psychologists, who actually test empirically how people respond to images.
And with a team of about a dozen people, we work with four organisations. We work with the World Press Photo Foundation, which is one of the leading organisations in photojournalism, with the International Committee of the Red Cross, with the Australian Red Cross and the Médecins Sans Frontières.
There are no easy solutions, but what we try to basically is we try to help NGOs to develop [25:00] a visual policy that is more attuned to victims, more sensitive and at the same time, remain successful in their funding campaigns.
Ginger: Roland, thank you so much for talking to me today.
Roland: Thank you very much, Ginger. It’s been a great pleasure and a privilege to talk to you.
Ginger: Thanks again for listening to Seriously Social. Don’t forget, if you like what you are hearing, share our podcast with your friends and on your social channels and rate us wherever you get your podcasts from.
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