Gender in Humanitarian Imagery: The Case of CARE International

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Introduction: Paying Attention to the Imaging of Gender in Humanitarianism

When seeking to attain gender equality, it is necessary to consider all that may affect understandings of gender. Imagery falls into this category, and for good reason. Visual sociologists argue that representation is connected to practice (Pole, 2004: 129), hence what is shown in a photograph affects public opinion and ensuing action (Mansurov, 2016). Plakoyiannaki et al. (2008: 109) also argue that the depiction of gender roles in images shapes societal values and consequent appropriation of behaviors and identities. 

This implies that achieving gender equality relies on an according visual representation of men and women. In this vein, various scholarly criticism has brought to attention the disempowering way women are represented in film (Tudor and Meehan, 2013), advertising (Plakoyiannaki et al., 2008), and other mediums. A less-discussed medium is humanitarian imagery by which visuals intend to produce a compassionate and empathetic desire to help others in need.

The subjects most often utilized for portraying need and motivating others to give are female, as women and girls are seen as more fitting to symbolize victimhood and/or receive aid (Al Nawakil, 2015). Given this identification, this essay seeks to examine the state of visual representation of women in everyday humanitarian imagery on social media through the case of CARE International. It also seeks to examine the implications of the existing narrative whilst keeping in mind that discourse is rooted in historical context and the power relations entrenched therein.

Gender and Victimhood in the Humanitarian Narrative

Scholars have traced the origins of the humanitarian narrative to colonialism in Africa in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the nascent narrative’s help-oriented calls to action attributed Africans a low and uncivilized status in opposition to a superior European, male-dominated culture (Magubane, 1997: 18; Haskell, 1985: 339). Developing upon these foundations, the narrative proceeded to offer agency to the heroic spectator of the “civilized” world able to alleviate the suffering of the “lowly” victims (Hunt, 1989; Magubane, 1997: 3-4). This hero-victim narrative was only further embedded throughout the 20th century (Noble, 2013: 1).

According to Libal and Martinez (2011: 156), victimhood is based on three criteria: passivity, innocence, and nonviolence. Each of these characteristics limits individuals’ agency. Assumption of passivity presupposes that a victim is not capable of active response, that is acting on behalf of oneself. Innocence reinforces passivity, according to Small and Loewenstein (2003: 14), in that if a victim is seen as innocent, then a heroic actor is more likely to react compassionately whereas a perception of capability may actually evoke anger and disgust. Also feeding into passivity is nonviolence, connected to vulnerability (Krystalli et al., 2018: S19), which implies a higher likelihood to become negatively affected by a humanitarian crisis and thereby embody victimhood.

Combining with the paradigm of victimhood to infuse subjects with meaning is the co-constituted symbolic system of gender (Krystalli et al., 2018: S20). Multiple scholars (Bleiker et al., 2013: 408; Small and Verrochi, 2009: 777; Al Nawakil, 2015) have noted the greater prevalence of women and girls in visual humanitarian communication, suggesting a societal view that these subjects better personify victimhood and ergo generate compassionate reactions. In fact, research by Bleiker et al. (2013: 408) revealed that the public reacts negatively to images of groups of men in a humanitarian setting and Krystalli et al. (2018: S30) found that humanitarian actors do not often see men as subjects that can be vulnerable and in need.

The evidence points to a humanitarian narrative entrenched in its colonial beginnings and serving to preserve and replicate gendered hierarchies whereby women are vulnerable victims and patriarchal figures their protectors (Ticktin, 2011: 98). Such a narrative reflects what we understand and expect to be true on the level of society as a whole; Krystalli (2014) states that the narratives we allow to emerge depend on our expectations of masculinity and femininity, hence a narrative that is ingrained in gendered differentiation and feeds into society’s perception of gender.

As it so happens, the humanitarian narrative has received criticism, for example by Noble (2013: 17) and Kennedy (2009), for representing power relations which are harmful to aid recipients and strip them of their agency. Accusations of humanitarian communication creating an “us-verse-them” dichotomy (Al Nawakil, 2015: 19) have been met with reactions such as the development of codes of conduct that promote a non-stereotypical portrayal of aid recipients with their own aspirations and capacities (IFRC, 2003; Dóchas, 2014). Such actions represent canonical moments in the humanitarian narrative, as they seek to change the dominant discourse.

Visuals embedded with different meaning also have the power to change a dominant discourse (Fuery and Fuery, 2003: 6). Recently, scholars have identified greater agency connected to the imaging of women in contemporary humanitarian and development communication characterized by a “‘turn to the girl’ and the mobilization of ‘girl power’” (Koffman et al., 2015). This accompanies the observations of Dobson (2015) of media practices across the board portraying women and girls as embodying empowerment and boldness. Such a change in the representation of women suggests that the feminist movement is shaking the dominant discourse of female passivity, yet the matter still remains that mostly female subjects – women and girls – are utilized to generate giving and compassionate action. The representation of gender in humanitarian communication is subsequently examined through the analysis of photographs posted to CARE International’s Twitter account.

CARE International’s Representation of Women

For the purpose of exploring the portrayal of gender in humanitarian communication, this essay examines 153 images posted on CARE International’s Twitter account spanning November 2017 to February 2018. Following the method of Panofsky’s iconology (Panofsky, 1972), the analysis examines only images distinctly portraying people set in the context of the developing world.

This look at everyday humanitarian visual communication reveals changes in the nature of portrayal of victimhood, concretely in a shift away from images using suffering to create a significant shock effect and in a greater integration of photos representing women as empowered actors, that is the “girl power” observed by Koffman et al. (2015). From this four-month period, 75% of the images portray a woman or girl as the primary subject with men or boys being pictured in 16% of the images and the remaining 9% picturing both genders together. The data reveals further inequality in the representation of gender: 61% of the images portraying women depict their subject(s) in a way more akin to victimhood (helplessness and passivity); 30% display empowerment, with a woman as a communicator, doer, community leader, or resilient actor; and 9% may be considered neutral. On the other hand, the images depicting men represent an equal division between victimhood and empowerment though the majority of those portraying victimhood appear in 2018 and picture males only as refugees.

Figures 1 and 2 below contrast the portrayal of women as the face of victimhood in opposition to a case of empowerment represented equally between the genders. In figure 1, set in the context of a refugee crisis in northeast Nigeria, the female subject is utilized en masse to illustrate need. The portrayed women are not partaking in any action but rather seem to be waiting passively for an aid intervention. This example illustrates the lines along which women happen to be more recurrently represented. Figure 2, on the other hand, represents a polar opposite. Here, two advocates for gender equality, a Rwandan woman and her husband, are shown on a more equal footing. Such images are rare. Of all 153 images analyzed, only 12 represent both women and men together equally with shared victimhood being the more frequent representation.

Figure 1: Women as the face of poverty, portraying passive victimhood

  Source: twitter.com/CAREGlobal, posted on 26 January 2018

 Source: twitter.com/CAREGlobal, posted on 26 January 2018

Figure 2: Equal portrayal of both genders as empowered actors

 Source: twitter.com/CAREGlobal, posted on 2 February 2018  

Source: twitter.com/CAREGlobal, posted on 2 February 2018  

At a glance, CARE’s visual communication reflects that, though changes in discourse have produced minor shifts in types of imagery, women are still the stereotypical icons of vulnerability and need. It should be noted that CARE orients much of its programming towards women and girls considering that women are disproportionately affected by humanitarian crises and poverty (CARE, 2017). However, achieving gender equality is considered paramount to overcoming these issues (CARE, 2017), and therefore humanitarian actors should consider how imagery reflects and shapes our own perceptions and actions on a grander scale since, after all, “humanitarianism is woven into a wider cultural, social and political fabric” (Tester, 2010: 386).

Conclusion: Reflection and Collective Catalyzation of Change

The analysis of CARE International’s visual communication on Twitter demonstrates that CARE’s imagery has shifted to portray a greater representation of empowered women. Yet, images of women vastly outnumber those of men, and women are portrayed as victims more often than men. As such, CARE’s communication can be characterized by a lack of gender as well as contextual variability. Thus, CARE’s communication reflects a greater entrenchment in, and perpetuation of, a victim paradigm that inadequately represents the needs and capabilities of both genders.

In moral and ethical terms, the emotions of compassion and empathy should be unconstrained by gender. Though women do suffer disproportionately as a result of humanitarian crises, their over-utilization as a means of eliciting compassion and empathy points to an unequal sublimation of who may be deserving of an assistive response. This delineates who can and cannot be a victim, elevating gender roles and dichotomies and marginalizing the agency of both.

Canonical images could change this narrative. Humanitarian organizations should consider their influence on gender discourse and seek to be active catalysts of change instead of subtly reacting to minute narrative shifts or only timidly tackling something that is deeply entrenched. As Pomerantz et al. (2013: 203) point out, strategies for social change require a collective stand built on an awareness of inequality. This means allowing the needs and capabilities of both women and men to be shared in humanitarian communication and to teach perception of gender beyond traditional roles.

Humanitarian organizations cannot act alone in this, but must do so hand in hand with all stakeholders including governments, the media, and, of course, their audiences. However, to ensure the greatest scope of inclusivity and emancipation, the most important voices within this process should be the women and men who are spoken for in the images. In order to achieve equity between women and men across societies, it is necessary to listen and let speak.


Kamila Suchomel is an independent researcher and communications professional interested in humanitarian communication and its connection to societal relations and empowerment-building. She holds a MA in International Relations from Anglo-American University in Prague. Follow her on Twitter: @KamilaSuchomel


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