When the lens is too wide: The political consequences of the visual dehumanization of refugees

May 17, 2021

Manos Tsakiris

NOMIS Awardee Manos Tsakiris and colleagues have demonstrated how images of refugees in the media dehumanize them and lead to political consequences. The research was published in Nature Humanities & Social Sciences Communications.

Researchers show how media image choices dehumanise refugees

Yes, pictures of crowds of refugees do have a strong emotional effect on viewers. But it’s largely a negative one, according to researchers on the Body and Image in Arts and Sciences (BIAS) project at the Warburg Institute, part of the School of Advanced Study (SAS) at the University of London.

The research has strong implications for the imagery used in debates on sensitive issues like immigration. The power of images of ‘identifiable’ victims is overall positive. It was the photograph of the drowned three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach on 2 September 2015, that prompted international responses, the EU’s change of policy on refugees and a ten-fold increase in donations to the Swedish Red Cross.

However, media pictures of identifiable victims are relatively rare. In the majority refugees are typically depicted as large faceless masses, in medium-to-long distance camera shots. Given that the majority of images shown in the media are not of identifiable victims, what are the consequences of exposing audiences to images of large groups? This question, addressed by the BIAS team, is timely and crucial for societal and scientific reasons.

‘In mainstream media, audiences are predominantly exposed to visual framings of large, unidentifiable groups. Exposure to images of large groups may either render audiences numb or simply be ineffective, as past research suggests, or instead could have adverse effects on people’s attitudes and behaviour, as our studies suggest,’ Professor Manos Tsakiris from Royal Holloway, University of London, who led the BIAS project, says.

Their research shows that when people are shown images of large groups, as opposed to images of identifiable individuals, viewers are more likely to dehumanise refuges, less likely to support pro-refugee policies and more likely to support anti-refugee policies and authoritarian leaders.

Continue reading this SAS release

Read the Nature Humanities & Social Sciences Communications publication: When the lens is too wide: The political consequences of the visual dehumanization of refugees

Feature image: Images depicted here are all illustrative examples of the visual framing (ie were not presented in the studies). Source: Wikimedia Commons