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3 November 2023

Desensitisation to the Global Majority’s Suffering

An Images Matter blog.

Media portrayals and imagery play a huge role in how we view certain groups of people. For years, so many of us have become accustomed to graphic images of suffering, war, shelling and starvation of people in the Global South. Despite the initial horror and outrage this can spark in our collective consciousness, it is only a matter of time before we become numb to these images.

At MRN, we want to defy established narratives on migration and displacement. In all our campaigns, we try not to use images of people at their most vulnerable because we believe this erodes their agency and, most of the time, these photographs are taken without their consent. 

In 2015, the images of the death of Aylan Kurdi shocked the world and prompted outrage from media outlets, including anti-migrant publications. Across the political divide, people called for action and safe routes to avoid such a tragedy from happening again. However this compassion was short-lived and soon the divisive status quo resumed. 

This is trauma voyeurism. Trauma voyeurism exploits a person’s pain, suffering, body or misfortune for the purpose of viewing, sensationalism and entertainment. This is especially prevalent in the age of viral content and 24-hour news content. 

Humanitarian campaigns and media depictions have instilled in the West the ideas that make us associate Africa with starvation, or the Middle East with war and bombing. Ultimately, we become desensitised to their struggles and it becomes harder for us to empathise. On the other hand, when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the steady stream of footage showing the exceptional, ‘unprecedented’ suffering of White Europeans grappling with things we associate with the Global South, horrified us. As a result, many states felt compelled to help and people across the West called for immediate action. 

As we speak, the world watches unphased as people in Palestine, Armenia, Sudan or the Congo suffer. How we relate to people matters because it has implications in policy. It is why the UK is happy to create safe routes for Ukrainians but not Sudanese people or Afghans. It is why we struggle to feel empathy for people forced into small boats or who have drowned in the Mediterranean. 

We need to rethink how we depict people, particularly in relation to the root causes of migration and displacement. Enacting a trauma-informed approach, tackling exploitative media practices and addressing power imbalances by actually giving people agency in how they should be depicted is essential. Agency matters. Images Matter.

Learn more about our work on defying the narrative:

Words Matter 

Who is Welcome