AbstractOver the last decade or so, the rise to prominence of the study of images, and of visuality more generally, has given birth to three principal strands of research in the human sciences: the rediscovery of the capacity of pictures to document various dimensions of social life, in a manner that complements or can be substituted for other ethnographically-based qualitative methods (e.g., visual sociology and anthropology;) the status and power of the image as a cultural and political icon, and to extent to which iconicity is affected by the transition from analog and print technologies to their digital and internet-based equivalents; and normative debates about representational politics (how an event or group should be represented, etc.,) notably the impact of dominant representational regimes depicting historically stigmatized or subordinate groups on Western audiences. While these questions are essential, relatively little attention recently has been devoted to the question of understanding how images work in the social world – that is to say, how they are organized as semiotic (and therefore signifying) objects, where they come from and by whom they are created, as well as how they appear in public spheres. Therefore, in order to further explore the socio-cultural life of images, this paper focuses on iconic suffering via the topic of humanitarian visuality, that is to say, the historically constituted Euro-American visual economy created and reproduced in and through iconic still and moving images of suffering persons and groups during humanitarian crises. To properly investigate the topic, the following pages propose a conceptual model designed around the sociological notions of structure, convention, network, and field. The first component of this model, then, is the notion of the semiotic structure of the image of iconic suffering, namely, the structural relations between signs mediating the relations among subjects, objects, and context that generate this image’s initial meaning. The idea of iconographic convention is the second concept of interest, since it assists in the identification of the socio-historical formation and repetition of a set of patterns and tropes in the semiotic structure of pictures of iconic suffering. Thirdly, the notion of circulatory network can be used to trace the non-chronological “stages” of production, selection, distribution, and reception through which these images circulate in public spaces and the complex organizational relations between institutional actors and technologies that participate in processes of circulation. Finally, we can turn to the idea of an iconological field, for the Bourdieusian principles of relationality and hierarchical differentiation enable us to trace the positions of institutional actors involved in the ideological coding of iconic images of suffering and their representational styles.
Keywords: Humanitarianism, Visuality, Iconography, Field Analysis, Social Networks