The relationship between photography and humanitarianism is a long one. Indeed, the history of photography and humanitarianism is deeply entwined, with the latter having greatly been shaped by the former.
For historians of humanitarianism--historians of its actors, institutions, practices, and perceptions--what role does photography play?
More than merely illustration to colour historiographic texts, and beyond being a window on the materiality of the past, photography offers access to knowledge, imagination and understanding of the social, political and moral dimensions of humanitarianism. Approaching photography as a cultural phenomenon instead of as a static artifact inevitably becomes an act of historical thinking, and gives way to gaining a broad perspective on current situations.
In the case of humanitarian history, over the course of the last one hundred and fifty years, the camera has been pivotal in making suffering known and recognizable. It has also had the unfortunate association of limiting benevolent vision: it has been part of decisions that exclude certain forms of suffering and certain kinds of people from the humanitarian field of vision. The camera has been instrumental in shedding light on human misery; it has also created and perpetuated blind spots, some of which predate the medium’s invention. In short, photography has been pivotal in mediating social relations and in shaping responses to the calamities that humans have had to endure.
Click on the links for information on these different ways in which photography can be interpreted, read, mobilized and delved into: