Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Western Gaze

An Alibi for a Magazine
     Images of female refugees have been used by the US and many international organizations to promote and draw attention to a specific cause. The photograph of the Afghan Girl is not unique, but the global circumstances surrounding her 1985 National Geographic cover allows communications scholars to draw connections between post 9-11 images of the plight of Afghan women and those of the Afghan Girl. Recent communications scholars have seen a connection between the justification for military intervention in Afghanistan and the use of images of Afghan women in creating the “Afghan Alibi.” The Afghan Alibi is a relatively new field of study and is founded on “Eurocentric representations of Afghan women.” [1] The Afghan Alibi is centered on post-colonial and feminist theories and how their interpretations of images depicting Afghan women, supports western justifications for intervention, colonization, and territorial occupation. For this cause, no image has had more of an impact than the groundbreaking image of the Afghan Girl in 1985. 
     National Geographic has long played a role in US history and continues to promote a distinctly pro US agenda as with its depictions of the Afghan Girl on the cover of the 1985 issue. The decision to place the image of the Afghan Girl on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 was calculated and strategic with an aim to foster public support for increased US aid to Afghanistan.
     National Geographic was founded on racist ideologies that promoted paternalistic colonialist attitudes that reinforced the existing stereotypes that Europeans were “at the pinnacle of civilization” while non-western cultures and civilizations were inherently backwards. Rae Lynn Scwartz-DuPre lays emphasis on the importance of National Geographic as an institution for promoting the US as “rational, generous, and benevolent.”  
A Western Gaze
     The Afghan Girl is seen by Western audiences as a frail, helpless girl, who has no control over her future. This simplistic representation of the plight of refugees from the conflict in Afghanistan following the Soviet occupation, has allowed Western audiences to feel sympathy and promote change in the region. Schwartz-DuPre identifies race, veil, refugee status, direct eye contact and frontal posture as signifiers of inferiority.  The photo shows a girl looking directly at the audience with “sea green” eyes.  The uniquely “western” eyes allow for the audience to connect and identify with the subject and help to evoke paternalistic emotions which helped justify US intervention to aid the refugees.  These emotions are reinforced by the fact that she is twelve years old, a refugee, and is wearing a veil. The veil further exemplifies western perceptions of the plight of women in Afghanistan and the Muslim world. Although the Western perception of the Muslim woman can be linked to the colonial narratives, more recently there has been a close link with feminism The veil is seen in the West as a tool of oppression towards women and evokes emotions amongst Western audiences to intervene and “free” or “unveil” them.
Pictures Change the World
     In the article Schwartz-DuPre states, “Photographs of the victims of war are themselves species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They Agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.”[2]  The timing of the depiction of the Afghan Girl and the scale and sophistication of the aid given to Afghanistan demonstrates the effectiveness of images as tools to convey messages. The Afghan Girl is not unlike other photographs which depict the horrors of war where images of nameless female refugees have been used by a plethora of international organizations to evoke emotions, raise awareness and gain support.  Schwartz-DuPre makes a very relevant point that after American audiences were familiar with the 1985 Afghan Girl, the US media could simply evoke the same emotional response using images of veiled Afghan women. The image of the Afghan girl and veiled women bring to light the justifications that sold the current war in Afghanistan to the American public. It is important to “recognize that history often repeats itself; fort he images that refigure our future in many cases mirrors our past.”[3]

[1] Rae Lynn Scwartz-DuPre (2010): Portraying the Political: National Geographic’s 1985 Afghan Girl and a US Alibi for Aid, Critical Studies in Media Communications, 27:4, 337
[2] Sontang, S. (1973). On Photography. New York: Picador. 6
[3] Rae Lynn Scwartz-DuPre (2010): Portraying the Political: National Geographic’s 1985 Afghan Girl and a US Alibi for Aid, Critical Studies in Media Communications, 27:4, 352


  1. Your last sentence (It is important to “recognize that history often repeats itself; fort he images that refigure our future in many cases mirrors our past.”) reminds me of one of our first readings -- Armand Mattelart's "The Emergence of Technical Networks." I made a note out of personal interest that Mattelart states that the Crimean War was the first time that images of the "theater of operations" were censored. It seems that techniques such as those used with The Afghan Girl have been around for as long as photo documentaries have been. However, good photography, for me at least, is something that maintains its ability to move people much better than words or drawings. Though, I have to believe that photo editing is reducing photography's credibility. Here's a link to some doctored photos that I found fun (along with the reasons they were changed):
    Along the vein of history repeating itself, the removal of a Soviet soldier's watch is echoed by this more recent story:

  2. Posting the Afghan girl on the cover of NG during the Afghanistan situation in the 80s is a political move that I had not thought of before. There are many that cite human rights violations as a reason for human intervention and while even myself I'm greatly interested in feminist theory/etc, I think these women have other things to worry about besides their rights as women: probably food, health care, and water are a few of those issues.
    I work for a professor who researches health advocacy in the developing world and often he's found that when NGOs come in and inform women that they have rights and everything is better in the West, the only thing that happens to these women is that they get angry. It's lie, thanks for telling me about all the rights I am supposed to have but don't, so can I have some food now?
    I agree with you that citing a humanitarian cause probably isn't the best way to defend one's nation that's immersed in a war (and it probably isn't the truth anyway). Citing these causes is fractionating the issue to try and sell a war to a public.

    1. An interesting followup to this is a documentary were the photographer of the famous picture went to a Pakistani refugee camp in order to find the Afghan girl 20 or so years later. The ironic thing was that in the picture and subsequent story the girls name was never mentioned and by watching the documentary you come to understand that the photographer actually did not bother to get the girls name or to get any information about her. In the documentary you see a photographer who claims to be an expert in the region making basic societal mistakes about the role of women in that society. The photographer became famous from the photo, which became an international symbol for woman's rights movements, but the girl (now woman) was still living in the refugee camp 20years later. The role of photography and images to sway public opinion is undeniable, but the actual change that occurs is what needs to be observed. In the case of the Afghan girl, there was no change, no hope, and although she was globally recognized, a voiceless victim.

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