Elise Petrocci

Millions of images of crises enter our homes and psyches as sites of politics. They aid in authenticating, reconstructing, and narrating events and can pressure political actors. They can influence entire publics. Sometimes, images are what create the entirety of action across the political spectrum.

We are bombarded by images of crises and grow accustomed to a continual reel of images of death, suffering, and extreme violence resulting in a seemingly endless marathon of disaster. Often, this disaster marathon continues to pass us by. It moves into the background without much thought given to its content. Still, other times, we suffer from compassion fatigue caused by the overconsumption of these images of suffering and trauma. It leads to purposely looking away, and a feeling of burn out from the perpetual bad news.

Human Experiences through Visualization

While there is potential to connect with human tragedies unbounded by national borders through the communication of images, most of the time, they are regularly ignored due to overexposure or exhaustion of the audience.

It begs the question of why some images of crises capture the world’s attention and make it to the international stage while others go by the wayside. These particular images not only capture the world’s attention but produce higher levels of policy change and action.   The focal point will rest on the photo of Aylan Kurdi amidst the 2015 European Migrant Crisis, and The Falling Man, an image of a man tumbling through the air during the events of 9/11. These are images of crises that mobilized.

 What is the difference between images of one starving child and another? Is there a particular type of horrific violence that renders action? Whose image of death makes us act and what impact do those images of suffering that go viral on social media and then slowly fade away leave? Existing literature surrounding the topic maintains that this may have to do with the content of the images, such as whether they include suffering children, devastating destruction, or extreme violence. It also explores the emotional response that the images warrant and how that may or may not affect the possibility of a policy response. There also exists the question of legitimacy of images. In other words, is an image published at a specific moment a true and accurate representation of the crisis? 

In actuality, images of crises capable of maintaining a high level of international recognition and mobilization have to have something more in common than their perceived legitimacy, composition of disaster, or emotional effect. We can argue that it has something to do with how people imagine crises, especially in regard to their self or national identity.

Aylan Kurdi

The recognition of and response to images of crises is directly linked to how the audience imagines it. If they are unable to make a connection to their personal or national identity in imagining the crisis pictured, the image does not reach the level of the international stage or policy reform. One example is that of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy whose lifeless body washed ashore in Turkey during the 2015 European Migrant Crisis. His photo does not objectively have anything that sets it apart from other images of crises: there are many existing images of suffering, dying, or dead children that reflect on many conflicts in the world. 

Yet, Aylan’s photo changed the way people thought about the debate on migration. In the case of both Germany and the UK, the image of this child, and the migration crisis it narrated, challenged the citizens’ national identity, as we will see below. The governments of the two countries made policy decisions to affirm their identities to the international community. 

The resulting policy responses were that the then UK Prime Minister David Cameron vowed that his country would ‘fulfill its moral responsibilities’ by taking in 20,000 Syrian refugees over a period of five years directly from camps in Syria’s neighboring countries. Yet, there were conditions, they would be selected on the basis of need and/or special circumstances, such as disabled children, women who had been raped, or men who had been tortured. 

Germany took a different approach. The state opened its borders irrespective of refugee conditions and pledged to take up to 800,000 refugees a year for several years, arguably fulfilling a labor shortage agenda due to the aging population. This is an element of Chiara Bottici’s theory of the imaginal, which suggests that the photo of Aylan Kurdi became widely recognized and resulted in policy because of the way it caused people to imagine their national identity.

In the case of the UK, the policy response affirms their national identity as an ethical and sympathetic nation. For Germany, in addition to an ethical affirmation, they also affirmed themselves as hardworking and opportunistic, invoking the possibility of a future with a strong labor force and a successful economy. It became possible to affirm these national identities to the international community through policy responses in reaction to the image. 

While images of children may be more likely to invoke an emotional response as related to politics and encourage moral judgements, not many make it to the level of international spectacle and policy change like that of Aylan Kurdi. This stems from images triggering reactive mechanisms regarding an individual’s identity gaining more international attention and policy response than those that are perceived as the experience of a single individual human being.

The Falling Man

Although politics may require that we put ourselves in anothers shoes to understand their choices, attention and action requires an image to be thought of in a more personal way. We are often exposed to images of individuals suffering from attacks, explosions, fire and other extreme violence that gain little or no recognition; similar is the composition of the image of The Falling Man, a man falling from the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks. But this is not what causes it to have a high degree of international recognition and resulting policy. That is to say, the extreme violence and impending death depicted, nor the potential high level of emotional response from an audience, is what propels it as an international spectacle. Rather, it is how it captures peoples imagination.

The Falling Man gains more attention because the crisis is imagined as a clash of identities that resonates with the viewer and their personal identity. The image is not highly localized, nor is it imagined as so. The attacks on the World Trade Center were not imagined as an attack on New York City, but as an attack on the United States and on the West”. In this case, the clash of identity is perceived as being between Islam and the West, and the viewers are subjected to search for or to affirm their identity upon being exposed to the crisis via the image. 

In this way, people locate themselves within the crisis, and not by putting themselves in the shoes of a suffering person, but by placing themselves directly into the crisis as a way of searching for or affirming their identity. For this reason, the image of The Falling Man was widely circulated and had specific policy responses like the war on terror, invasion, mobilization for war, and creation of a new agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, that has authority over the security of the traveling public in the United States. This image of crisis is set apart from others at the same level as Aylan Kurdi.

More Than a Viral Photo

As the seemingly never-ending loop of crises and their attached images continues to infiltrate our homes through our devices, the ones with the most impact infiltrate beyond our consciousness into our imagination.They challenge us to think about who we are, what we mean, and how we want to be perceived both individually and nationally. 

These are the images of crises that make it out of the disaster reel that continuously plays in the background of our lives to the forefront of the international stage.  Aylan Kurdi and The Falling Man show that imagination is central to the possibility of action itself, and that politics depend on the imaginal because it is only by imagining that something can be done. Images and emotions have long been a part of International Relations and global politics, but in recent history, with the role of social media, we have seen an exponential increase in the consumption of still images. Their mobilizing effects are deserving of a deeper level of analysis.

Elise Petrocci is a Master’s student of Political Science and International Relations at Saint Louis University – Madrid Campus.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:  E. Petrocci (2022),  “Crises: When Imagination Determines Policy Response” https://crisesobservatory.es/crises-when-imagination-determines-policy-response/

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