Interview with Bruno Cabanes : “Humanitarian Photography”: an historian’s point of view

Bruno Cabanes
Bruno Cabanes

Bruno Cabanes is an historian, specialised in contemporary history. He is the Donald G. and Mary A. Dunn Chair in Military History at Ohio State University in the United States. He has written several books on the First World War and the post-war era, including The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism, 1918-1924 (Cambridge University Press), which received the 2016 Paul Birdsall Prize, awarded biennially by the American Historical Association. In 2018, he edited the collective volume Une histoire de la guerre du xixe siècle à nos jours published by Éditions du Seuil. This interview in fact relates to another of his books, entitled Un siècle de réfugiés. Photographier l’exil, published in 2019 also by the Éditions du Seuil.

The central theme of this publication, illustrated by a wide range of photographs dating from the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913 to the current crisis in Syria and the wave of migrations in the Mediterranean, is the concept of “humanitarian photography”.

Humanitarian Alternatives – Tell us a little more about the concept of “humanitarian photography”, how it came about and, perhaps in a nutshell at this stage, the ways in which it has developed to this day.

Bruno Cabanes – Photography is, first of all, a technique that was initially developed in the late 1830s and the early 1840s, gradually encompassing a range of different themes as its subjects. War, and the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the American Civil War (1861-1865) in particular, was an important period of development for photography. But what we specifically refer to as “humanitarian photography” developed much later, at the very end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, at a time when an interest in the suffering of others was starting to grow in the public consciousness. This emerging sensitivity, which was accompanied by an affirmation of common humanity between suffering populations and oneself, came about with the rise of investigative journalism. In 1899 and 1900, there were, for example, great reports by English journalists who travelled to India to cover a famine happening over there, and extensive studies into poverty in New York and London. There was, therefore, a conjunction between two movements that crystallised around conflicts in the early 20th century: on the one hand, a new sensitivity, and on the other hand, a new technique, which became a new form of representation. At that time, humanitarian photography aimed to document atrocities perpetrated against civilians. During the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913, soon after the first two Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907) that helped lay the groundwork for humanitarian law, a commission of inquiry financed by the Carnegie Foundation and led under the direction of Paul d’Estournelles was sent into the field to assess violence against local populations. This commission, which thirty years earlier would no doubt simply have issued a written report, also included a professional photographer, who took fifty photographs that were included in the expert report. This was a real turning point: it was no longer a question of simply eliciting pity, but documenting and informing this growing interest in humanitarian law. Humanitarian photography subsequently went on to become institutionalised, gain public recognition and be broadcast via the media during the First World War. One very moving photograph, from amongst those taken of thousands of Belgian refugees in the north of France, is printed in my book: it shows a group of refugees arriving at the Gare du Nord, pushing prams laden with parcels and dressed in winter clothes, even though it was the middle of August. What this photograph captures is how war erupted into the daily lives of ordinary people, who took all they owned of any value in a matter of minutes and took to the road. And it is interesting to see how an almost iconic image of the start of the First World War, like this one, reappears in all of the conflicts through the 20th century.

First World War. Serbian refugees who fled towards the Adriatic are evacuated from Corfu by allied ships towards Thessaloniki, France, and the French colonies of North Africa. Several thousand families arrived in the port of Marseille at the end of 1915. (© Maurice-Louis Branger/Roger-Viollet)

So, the first major moment was the early 20th century with the Balkan Wars and the Great War. The second was the Spanish Civil War, where great war reporters such as Robert Capa were sent out and captured human suffering closer than ever before. After the fall of Barcelona in January 1939, 500,000 civilians ended up stranded at the border between Spain and France. They encountered a dozen great photographers who captured not only the crowds, but also expressions, faces, gestures and moments taken in an instant, all to connect closer with human sensitivity. It was also at this point that major subjects emerged, which would dominate the 20th century, such as women and children, playing on themes of Western culture and European art such as the Virgin and Child or the Flight into Egypt.

The third great moment, I would venture, was the wave of refugees in the wake of the Second World War and, further afield, the partition of India and Pakistan , which put hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets, photographed for example by Margaret Bourke-White. There was also a moment in the late 1960s-early 1970s, during the Nigerian Civil War, and then, at the end of the 1970s, the crisis of the Vietnamese boat people.

The exodus of Vietnamese refugees began in 1975 with the Fall of Saigon. Tens of thousands of boat people fled to the South China Sea. Some were picked up by humanitarian boats, such as the French hospital ship Île de Lumière, or arrived at the Malaysian coast after dramatic journeys. (© Kaspar Gaugler/UNHCR)

In the 1990s, there was a major crisis in representation: we can all recall the terrible images of Albanian refugees hanging like a kind of human swarm from boats that were leaving for Italy, which then featured in a Benetton ad campaign. Since the mid-2010s and, I believe, as a direct result of this crisis in the 1990s, we have seen photographers learn from their contact with refugees, for example Syrian refugees, and attempt to photograph them differently. They try to take a more considered approach to photography and to these refugees: who they are as individuals, and not just as a group, where they come from, what they have to say, their past and their future. This is important because photography can be dangerous in the way that it immortalises people in the moment, often at the point of relief, but without going into their past, their future, their plans. These photographers also try more and more to include refugees in the photographic process, either by adding text and interviewing them, or by training them to take photographs and encouraging them to share their experiences, from their own point of view.

H.A. You chose exile as the subject of this humanitarian photography. Why have the exiled so often been photographed throughout history?

B. C. I think that what interests and fascinates people is the human, lived dimension of displacement and war. There is a link between the development of humanitarian photography and that of historical research which is increasingly focused on civilians and history seen “from below” – the history of individuals.

There is also a dramatic dimension to displacement. Photography depicts above all spaces, camps. I think that it is very difficult for humanitarian photographers to show these camps, with their wire fences and huts all in a row, incorporating a whole collective imagination that stretches back to the 1930s and 1940s and all the extreme violence against civilian populations that has peppered the 20th century. The main difficulty, it seems to me, is to photograph camps that are very old now. I emphasise this because it is something that we tend not to discuss, but which is important nonetheless. Of course, there are camps that relate to very recent humanitarian crises, but what interests me particularly as an historian are the camps that are now nearly seventy years old, in the Middle East, or that have been in Africa for forty years, and where two, sometimes three generations have lived together and developed the site over time. I think that what also interests photographers is capturing how these spaces, which might be completely sanitised and perceived by us as non-places, are actually places that have been gradually appropriated by successive generations and now have shops, restaurants, common areas and so on.

Finally, when we depict refugees, we are suggesting something that anticipates photography: the violence of war. What literally fascinates photographers and spectators – and there is a certain risk of voyeurism, of course – is what the refugees have seen. Photographers and spectators do not always have access to places where extremely violent acts are committed against civilians. Through the gaze of refugees, or the gaze of a child who lived in their bombarded city for months before fleeing with their family, we are looking at war. It is this eruption of the violence of war into the everyday lives of people who are not much different to us that moves us – and that is what photographers draw on. Of course, these refugees are not us, but there is a kind of proximity and empathy that Adam Smith showed very well in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), and which comes into play when we imagine our own lives through the gaze of refugees.

H.A. Beyond the situation of the refugees themselves, photographers, the media, NGOs and international organisations therefore seem to be interested in the shadow of war, in a way. This raises a real question about photography’s subjects of interest: the paths of those who are exiled for economic or climate reasons clearly do not attract the same attention. This is also the case for other social themes that are more complicated to photograph. How do you explain this?

B. C. – I think that there is a polarisation around war. Some 80-85% of refugees are in the Third World and there are lots of photographers on the ground. And yet the vast majority of photographs published in the press are images of refugees arriving in Europe, which merely represent 15-20% of all refugees worldwide. Not only do we focus on war, we also focus on the refugees who come to Europe: we present them as groups, we essentialise and dehumanise them, which constantly fuels a feeling of ambiguity. This is the great danger of this kind of photography.

There is perhaps a magnifying glass effect with respect to war. I think that this may change with this latest generation of photographers, who are also interested, amongst other things, in climate refugees. It is a topic that is going to become increasingly important and will have to be developed through fresh imaginations. When you photograph war refugees, there is a century of humanitarian photography behind you. Now, we will need to invent a new kind of photography. Maybe we will work more on individual journeys, and also on something that interested me a lot when I was preparing this book: the objects that refugees carry with them. Photographing these objects obviously raises the question of the attitude one takes towards refugees. There are photographers who ask refugees to open their bags to see the contents. There are others who ask them to choose which object they feel is most important. Most refugees leave with hardly anything, sometimes with just a family or symbolic object, as well as an item that nearly systematically appears: a mobile phone. Charging one’s phone has become a question of survival for many of them. This iconic, protective and somewhat sacralised object that refugees carry with them and that we see in many photographs also strikes me as an important theme.

H.A. NGOs widely use humanitarian photography for their campaigns and actions. Having studied thousands of photographs in order to compile this book, what is your view of how photography is used by these organisations?

B. C. – Humanitarian photography is contemporary with the emergence after the First World War of what were then known as transnational philanthropic organisations. I am thinking of Save the Children, which was founded in 1919 and still exists today, and of the Red Cross, which has played a very important role since the late 19thcentury. Already at the time, campaigns were developed, especially in the United States, to collect money, and used photography – particularly on the subject of Armenian refugees. It’s fascinating to see how American Red Cross supporters grew from several thousand at the beginning of the First World War to dozens of millions afterwards. These people donated money and received a newsletter every month with photographs, explaining what the Red Cross was doing.

In early May 1994, several hundred thousand Rwandan refugees fled to Tanzania. Most of them were Hutus who had participated in the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda. (© Ullstein Bild/Thielker/Roger-Viollet)

Fundamentally, what distinguishes humanitarian photography from a form of publicity? It’s a kind of photography that perhaps highlights the value of the organisation’s work more than the reality of the lives of refugees; which naturally shows only successes, not failures; which is focused on specific moments, such as food and water distribution, and under no circumstances on moments of despair; and which gives the impression of an always organised, somewhat militarised space, like the refugee camps we saw after the Second World War and even more so since the 1970s and 1980s. And that’s a real problem.

As you said, I had to choose, look at, and sort through thousands and thousands of photographs. My feeling, in spite of everything – although I don’t want to sound unfair – is that all of the shots used by photographers working for humanitarian organisations are very similar and we always see the same kind of images, sequences and attitudes. There is never much originality. Exceptions aside, it’s not where we find the most interesting elements in terms of the use of photography, either as a way of depicting real life or as a narrative on refugees. Since the 1920s, we have also often wondered whether the accumulation of photographs on human suffering might dull the emotions. In a short pamphlet published in the United States in 1921, entitled How much shall I give?, philanthropist Lillian Brandt questioned the act of donating to the humanitarian organisations of the time: in a world where we are flooded with images, is there not a risk of becoming desensitised from seeing too much? Because the Armenians look like the Russian refugees, and those in the Balkans too, we can no longer tell them apart; no-one explains what is happening and all meaning is lost. I think it’s also a real question today: how effective really is this mad dash towards capturing the spectacular, towards an increasingly terrifying vision created by NGOs and which is not always successful in urging the public to support the efforts of humanitarian organisations or making them aware of their responsibilities?

H.A. You quote a hard-hitting passage by Susan Sontag, who talks about the “pornography of violence” in reference to what we might interpret as voyeurism with respect to the reproduction of the same kind of images. If humanitarian NGOs are in a sense prisoners of this iconography, which has been repeated ad nauseam over the years, what can organisations and photographers – who, incidentally, are working for NGOs in increasing numbers because of the difficulty of finding work with the press – do to mobilise people, donors, opinions?

B. C. – The essay in which Susan Sontag uses the expression “pornography of violence” was published just after 9/11 – which she saw as an almost vertiginous live display of violence. She also published an article (“Regarding the Torture of Others”) in The New York Times about the atrocious images of tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib – photographs taken by their jailers as kinds of trophies. This was the context for Sontag’s reflection on violence, its spectacle, what it does to society and the ways in which it harms it. Twenty years on, things have not improved.

How can we escape this pornography of violence? There is a whole generation of young photographers exploring the question. I am thinking of Anabell Guerrero, Sergey Ponomarev, and many others. In my opinion, we first need to develop the narrative, over the long term, and avoid suspending individuals in a moment in time. They should be put into the context of their life journeys, say what they have been, the reasons they left and their hopes and dreams. By making the effort to individualise, we can also avoid the spectacular and the anecdotal, which is also highly dangerous.

Described by the American administration as an “invasion”, several hundred migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala wait in Tijuana to be seen by immigration authorities for their asylum applications, in April 2018. Some scaled the border wall between Mexico and the United States. Photography has been used to denounce the migratory threat or to support the humanitarian cause of asylum seekers. (© David McNew/GettyImages)

The second solution is to make refugees the actors of their own narrative, by training them or by using refugee photographers. What shocks me, and what shocks a lot of the young photographers I write about in the book, is that we forget that many refugees are also trained and are sometimes artists. The United Nations organised a very beautiful exhibition in Venice a year ago entitled Rothko in Lampedusa, which was a dialogue between refugee photographers and professional photographers. This seems essential to me and yet it is nothing new: as far back as the Spanish Civil War, professional photographers who were also refugees took photos, bore witness, and expressed themselves – as artists – about their reality. This was also the case at the end of the Second World War amongst former photographers who had survived the Holocaust, and who took photographs of camps of displaced people in 1945-1946. Out of all of the photographs I used in my book, those were the ones that moved me the most: these photographers took shots of families with very young children, or of athletes, such as footballers, which I saw as a way of showing the recovery of bodies after years of persecution, hunger and deportation – a way of saying: “they wanted to exterminate us, but we survived and the future is ours”. It is fascinating to think that this is, perhaps, the answer to your question about the pornography of violence: to use photography not only as an instrument to objectify, document and inform, but as a promise for the future, a form of genesis, showing men, women and children with the power to propel themselves into the future. We must show that the movement of refugees is not simply one of departure and flight, but also a project and a form of faith in the future. I think that is fundamental, and it is what young photographers today are increasingly trying to do.

H.A. Humanitarian action, which you have incorporated into your work, is very often underestimated, almost accessorised in the social sciences. From your point of view as an historian, what place does humanitarian aid occupy in contemporary history?

B. C. – The practice and history of humanitarian aid is an old interest of mine that predates this book on photography since I published, a few years ago, a book in English on the origins of humanitarian aid after the First World War and the development of the great non-governmental organisations – even though they were not called that in the 1920s[1]See our introduction (Editor’s note).. What interests me relates to the general evolution of the history of war violence. The first thing that interests me is simply including civilians more in the history of war. This goes back to the 1970s and 1980s, when there was more and more research to show civilians – not just as victims, but also as actors in the war. Relatively recent research on children, adolescents (I’m thinking of the important works of Manon Pignot, for example) and women in wartime also attempts to highlight the specific experience of civilians. This only takes into account the evolution of the violence of war in the 20thcentury: remember that at the time of the First World War, civilians accounted for around 20% of victims of war, whereas today they represent more than 90%.

In a bus driving them to a shelter, a mother and her child look at the liner chartered by the Greek government to transport them to Piraeus, in response to the worsening situation on the Greek islands of Kos, Lesbos and Chios in 2015. (© Louisa Goulouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images)

The second area of humanitarian aid that interests me is the relationship between practice and humanitarian law. It’s a debate between historians, but in my view it is the practices in the field that affect the development of humanitarian law, and not the other way around – and this is clear from the 1920s. I am fascinated with the circulation and collection of the experiences of these first humanitarian “technicians” – engineers, doctors – who went to the Balkans or to Russia during the great famine and who implemented techniques often inherited from the army, developed them, learned to build camps, feed 10,000 people or transport food. And gradually, this was combined with consideration of human rights and what needed to be done to protect civilians in times of war. I find it really interesting to see how a kind of back-and-forth flow develops between practice and law in these contexts, and this is a big theme of my work.

The third area is the question of the paroxysm of violence. What is named, what is concealed? What do we end up showing and what do we choose not to show? Photography is not just a matter of staging, framing and themes, it is also about everything we do not see, everything off-camera, all that is not shown or cannot be shown. This interplay of what is named and shown compared to what is unnameable and hidden is really important.

Finally, humanitarian aid interests me because it is part of a more all-encompassing history, which is of course made up of a flow of people, but also of ideas, tools, raw materials… of everything that makes war a global phenomenon. This is not often studied because we are still very deeply rooted in national histories of war. With the First World War, there was at best a comparative history, but global history is developing very dynamically. Clearly, the history of humanitarian aid and of refugees will play a central role in this global history of conflicts, but this will require major efforts, not only to open up to other cultures and languages, but also to integrate the expertise of historians and social science experts who are not from the West. And the main limit on the history of humanitarian photography is that very often, it must be said, it is the history of the image created by Westerners about the non-Western world. It would interest me greatly to understand, for example, what Japanese humanitarian photography is, which is also important, and difficult to access. What has been photographed, since when, with which themes in mind? Understanding this flow at the global level of images, representations, ideas and practices is fascinating. I believe that it is one of the central elements driving the practice of war historians for decades to come.

Interview by Boris Martin, Editor-in-Chief

Translated from the French by Alan Johnson

This text is an edited summary of an interview with Bruno Cabanes, the recording of which is available in French on our website.

Bruno Cabanes’ new book was published in October 2020 by the Éditions du Seuil. Fragments de violence. La guerre en objets de 1914 à nos jours focuses on the objects made or collected during wartime by soldiers in order to escape danger, suffering or boredom, as well as those that evoke the war experience of civilians.

ISBN of the article (HTML) : 978-2-37704-763-5

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1 See our introduction (Editor’s note).

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