What role do photographs play in our perceptions? How to present humanitarian catastrophes? Think of iconic photos such as the Vietnamese girl running after being burned by napalm during the Vietnam War or the photo of the dead toddler floating in the water off the Greek island of Lesbos. While it cannot be proven that a photo can change perceptions, Nic Ut’s photo of the Vietnamese child did increase pressure to end the war, and Nilüfer Demir’s photo of the dead toddler did increase awareness of the tragic plight of many migrants trying to reach Europe. “[P]hotographs not only shape an individual’s perception but also larger, collective forms of consciousness,” Emma Hutchinson, Roland Bleiker, and David Campbell have written in “Imaging Catastrophe: The Politics of Representing Humanitarian Crises.”
But rather than focus on wars, disasters, victims and their suffering, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva has chosen an unusual approach in its current photo exhibit: Human.Kind. The exhibit tries to show our common humanity.
“Human.Kind questions the visual codes of the humanitarian image to better equip our regard in the face of the daily media flow,” the Museum’s Director Pascal Hufschmid wrote in the exhibit’s press release. “The exhibition also shows how art allows us to better understand the world in which we live,” he added.
If “art allows us to better understand the world in which we live,” what about photography as art? We live in what scholars have called a “pictorial turn.” The images of the Vietnamese girl and toddler are etched in our collective memories. They represent more than thousands of written words about the horrors of napalm or the catastrophic deaths of migrants. If the medium is the message, according to Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, photos are a unique way of communicating a message.
Human.Kind is not a typical catastrophe presentation. It has a different message. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum traditionally shows the history of innocent victims as well as the heroic work of dedicated humanitarian workers. The Museum’s permanent exhibit is part of conventional humanitarian visual culture. Beyond the Museum, on television and in photos, we are also regularly presented images of victims. We are routinely presented individual suffering that is supposed to encourage our empathy, which inevitably leads us to question: “What if this happened to me?” “How would I react to a near-death catastrophe?”
An emotional closeness to death in humanitarian situations has varying perspectives. Elisa Rusca, the Museum’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions and co-curator of the exhibition, described the paradoxical relationship between humanitarian work and death: “If we define a humanitarian worker as someone concerned with human welfare, why is the style ‘humanitarian photography’ often used to describe images of suffering, war, and violence? Maybe an answer to this paradox lays in the fact that both, death and the humanitarian work, are defined according to what they are not. In other words, to understand what they are, we refer to the void surrounding them: death is the absence of life, a humanitarian work is that which aims to address egregious violations of the basic rules needed for human dignity.”
Why has the Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum done something different than just show human suffering? What does it try to show? “Human.Kind presents a wide variety of contemporary worldviews and focuses on notions of dignity and care, bringing the issues and values of humanitarian action to a personal, community-centred scale,” Rusca explained.
The “wide variety of contemporary worldviews” presented range from the eruption of the Taal volcano in the Philippines in 2020, the arrival of Covid-19 in Italy, digitally manipulated auto-portraits referring to events in the colonial history of Senegal, girls skateboarding in Bolivia, stories from the Arctic, parks in the Netherlands, and fires in California among others.
Ezra Acayan – Residents look on as Taal Volcano erupts, in Talisay, Batangas Province, Philippines, 12 January 2020 Courtesy of the artist and Getty Images.
Rusca further elaborated on the reasons for the unusual temporary exhibit: “We believe that in order to expand and enrich the conversations about our visual cultures, we need to move beyond fixed visual categories that associate the humanitarian photography style solely with images of disasters in which the roles of the saviours and the victims are easily recognisable….To show that humanitarian action is more nuanced than that is merely to reflect the reality of our contemporary society: if the act of making something visible is fundamental to our understanding of a subject, then for something as complex as humanitarian action we should try to make visible the many and varied aspects of these multi-faced situations.”
Evgenia Arbugaeva – From the series Chukotka, Hyperborea. Stories from the Arctic, 2014–2019.
How should one react to an elegantly presented exhibit of 300 superb images from 30 photographers from twenty-four countries? What is the relationship between aesthetically pleasing photos and humanitarian catastrophes?
The exhibit raises the inevitable question: how the photos relate to operational humanitarian action? During my visit, I asked myself why I was looking at sophisticated photos of humankind while thousands are dying in Gaza and elsewhere? Isn’t a visit to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum supposed to remind me of the need for increased respect for international humanitarian law and further humanitarian assistance? Am I supposed to forget the horrors of humanitarian catastrophes while looking at this visually enticing exhibit?
“We looked for images that speak of respect, empathy and consideration,” the co-curator William Ewing told a local television station. Human “respect, empathy and consideration” in the face of humanitarian disasters? While words such as resilience could easily be used to describe the people and images presented in the exhibit, the portraits of partially blacked out Holocaust survivors poignantly show the depth of human kind in all its paradoxes. While all the photos do not reflect disasters or their aftermath, they do portray that which positively binds us together. One needs no reminder of humanitarian disasters while in the Museum. The permanent exhibit is always there.
Human.Kind and human kind. An important, difficult, but necessary exhibit outside traditional humanitarian visual culture. It challenges what “respect, empathy and consideration” can mean at a time when we are continually confronted with images of the negative consequences of non-respect, indifference, and thoughtlessness. As the Polish photographer Maciek Nabrdalik said of his Holocaust survivors’ photos; “While not everyone may be ready for hands-on humanitarian work, fostering an empathetic and kind community should be a shared obligation.”
The exhibition’s book will be published by Thames & Hudson next spring.