Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Media Studies


Sharon Sliwinski


Since the invention of photography, the medium has played an increasingly central role in shaping spectators’ imagination of distant suffering and calamitous experiences. The discourse of humanitarianism has evolved alongside photography and has relied on the medium to give it shape. Indeed, humanitarianism is and always has been a photographic situation, which is to say, photography has played and continues to play a significant role in constituting the very terms of humanitarianism, including how it is referenced, conceived, understood, and practiced. This dissertation is concerned with the historical role of photography in shaping the humanitarian imagination, as well as the ways the medium has given form to and mediated the relations between its central actors. It also argues that knowing this history is crucial for advancing humanitarian photography and humanitarian relations writ large.

Regarding Aid: The photographic situation of humanitarianism takes a cultural history approach that enables an exploration of the way in which photography can present links to the past, revealing the origins and the longstanding nature of some of the practices and debates around humanitarian photography. Using a variety of visual theories, I define photography as an event rather than a technology for producing pictures. The dissertation is built around three case studies: 1) Henry Dunant’s graphic language in A Memory of Solferino; 2) Lewis Hine’s European photographs for the American Red Cross taken during and immediately after the First World War; and, 3) a journalist’s photograph of the French army in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide which is prominently used in a memorial site. These case studies allow for an exploration of photography’s role in altering people’s perceptions with regard to distant suffering, in focusing on particular types of subjects, and in mediating humanitarian relations. I examine the ways in which humanitarian actors and Western spectators have been prioritized in aid discourse at the expense of the objectified suffering “other,” but coinciding with a recent movement within the humanitarian ecosystem, I also explore the way that photography might reshape aid in more collaborative and de-imperialized ways.