Photographic Representation of Children of War

Aida Izadpanah, Environmental Psychology
Faculty Advisor: Colette Daiute

Photographic Representation of Children of War

Many images of children in war contexts that humanitarian organizations publicize online suggest that their missions are genuine, yet it is essential that there be a systematic analysis of this imagery in order to assess how such representations are generated and what ends they actually serve. This entails identifying the cultural and political processes that contribute to professional appropriations of suffering, so as to resist essentializing and naturalizing human misery (Kleinman & Kleinman, 1996). This dissertation considers the image to be a complex system of signification that not only represents but also communicates, and the work pursues the following related questions: (1) Which characteristics and dimensions of children’s experiences of war do the child-serving humanitarian organizations use in their photographic representations of children in war? (2) How well do the images reflect the written claims of the organizations about these children? (3) What different purposes do humanitarian organizations have in representing children in war, and how are these various dimensions prioritized? (4) To what degree were children and their families informed, involved, and engaged in the process of production of these representations? This study identifies social and political processes involved in the production of images of war-affected children, and assesses humanitarian organizations’ ability to respect war-affected children’s and their families’ participation in being represented. The work consists of three phases.

In Phase One, extensive analysis is done on 300 images of war-affected children in Iraq and Afghanistan on the websites of four prominent humanitarian organizations helping war-affected children: the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees (UNHCR), War Child International, International Rescue Committee (IRC), and Photo-voice Organization in the U.K. Analysis is based on criteria from the United Nations children’s rights documents (CRIN, 2009; Hart, 1992; 1999; Hadkigns & Newell, Unicef, 2007) and on strategies gathered from close reading of prior discourse analyses that consider both verbal and non-verbal symbol systems as communications (Daiute & Lightfoot, 2004; Daiute, 2010; Parker, 1999; Rose, 2007; others). The aim is to understand the various ends the individual images and collective photo galleries are being used to serve. Typologies of visual representation of children are generated. One key example of the criteria applied in discourse analysis of the images is that of Voice. This criterion employs a five-point scale: (1) no caption or supplemental information; (2) no account from the child but reference to issues relevant to such children; (3) reference to the child by name or by account of his/her specific story; (4) any other account of the subject of the image; (5) account from the photographed child of what he/she is saying to the viewer and/or to the organization. The rationale for the criterion of Voice is based on the following articles from United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child (CRC): Article 12, Child’s opinion; Article 13, Freedom of expression; and Article 17, Access to appropriate information.

In Phase Two, interviews are conducted with key informants of each organization, including people working in the field and/or in media service. The aims are to understand the role of these groups’ respective decision-makers in preparing representations of children, and to examine how their perspectives may differ. A set of criteria will be extracted based on conversations with the humanitarian aid workers about their image selection methods and their review of my image analysis.

In Phase Three, a coding manual is generated based on criteria derived from theories and research relevant to child development in war; theories on visual research; the UN Convention of Rights of Children (CRC); and the Oslo Challenge’s protocols, which specifically promote children’s participation in their relationship to the media. For reliability, a research community at my institution (arranged by my adviser) will use this coding manual to analyze 10% of the image data. Their findings will be compared to mine for the purposes of calibrating and verifying the manual’s criteria. Results of these analyses will be compiled to create analytic and interpretive frameworks with which to advance further inquiry and practice.

Projected Results

Using the lenses of children’s rights documents and theories of child development in war to analyze the imagery of organized humanitarianism is a new interdisciplinary approach that engages politics, human rights, visual methodology, and environmental and developmental psychologies. There has not yet been such a study analyzing these images within a humanitarian context. Discourse analysis of individual images and collective photo galleries reveals the rhetorical intent of the corresponding organizations, such as gaining sympathy for victimized children, providing evidence for particular claims, supporting participation of children, and so on. Analyzing interview transcripts reveals the criteria of respective decision-makers in taking and selecting photographs, in composing captions, and in involving or not involving participation of children and their families. This analysis explains how such images construct specific views of humanitarian organizations about the photographed children, and it clarifies the power dynamics within each organization, as well as their criteria in producing and choosing the images.