Why images matter to the Women, Peace and Security agenda

Columba Achilleos-Sarll

International Affairs
Jan 22 · 6 min read
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A Pakistani woman touches a photograph of Malala Yousafzai during a ceremony to mark “Malala Day” in Lahore on November 10, 2012. Photo by Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images.

The visual politics of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda is profoundly understudied in the WPS literature. Although inextricably linked to words, the image is politically significant, and deserves scholarly attention in its own right.

‘Seeing’ is not a neutral act but is infused with power relations that exist at the intersection between the viewer and the subject/object being represented. Indeed, ‘seeing’ is co-constitutive of power relations including, but not limited to, gender, ‘race’, and coloniality, which affect how we interpret images. The way we ‘see’ — as well as what we do and don’t see — enables particular forms of knowing which condition political action. Thus, while what the camera captures may be ‘real’, its focus and interpretation will always be partial and personal. I therefore contend in a recent article in International Affairs that the visual is a vector of power in the (re)production of the WPS agenda.

In this blogpost, I outline how visuality operates within the WPS agenda, how images reinforce gendered, racialized, and colonial power relations within UK WPS national action plans (NAPs), and engage with ways of representing conflict that avoid such objectifying tendencies.

‘Seeing’ the WPS agenda

State and non-state actors deploy visual imagery in order to communicate policies and events. Institutionalized and implemented by multiple actors, at multiple sites and levels of decision-making, the WPS agenda depends on visual communication.

At the international level, the visual politics of WPS can be seen in the formation of the agenda at the UN Security Council. For example, the annual Open Debates on WPS are photographed and archived. At state and regional levels, NAPs, which are the primary documents that translate the WPS agenda into policy, often contain visual imagery, including photographs, graphics, graphs, and charts. Advocacy and campaign materials produced by different civil society organizations that advocate for WPS also use visual imagery, and sometimes include artwork or other types of illustration.

Yet, despite the utilization of images across the WPS policy ecosystem, analyses of WPS often ignore the visual form of WPS communication in favour of unpacking the language of policy and advocacy documents. The visual, however, like language, is also a ‘discursive artefact’.

From hypervisibility to invisibility

When ‘reading’ a policy document, it is important to pay attention to what images are chosen, what they depict, and how they are curated. It is also vital to interrogate the wider context of the image. In other words, how an image works alongside text, captions, and other visuals, to effectively attribute meaning.

Beyond this, images can be placed on a visibility spectrum, from hypervisibility to invisibility, according to the prevalence and/or strength of a particular representation. This, I argue, is also a product of power relations. Indeed, governments produce particular images of their targets and beneficiaries, which then become fixed in ways that create certain dispositions that facilitate or foreclose particular responses.

A visual analysis of successive UK government NAPs on WPS and corresponding Annual Reports to Parliament reveals the prominence of four subject-positions on this visibility spectrum: the ‘agential women-in-conflict’ (hypervisible); the ‘international community’ (visible); the ‘women-as-victim’ (absent presence); and the invisibility of ‘men and boys’. Unpacking each of these subject-positions, and their visual signifiers, reveals gendered, racialized, and colonial power relations that underpin the visual (re)production of WPS in the UK.

A visual analysis of UK NAPs

The ‘agential women-in-conflict’, engaged in activities such as voting, is the most dominant representation across UK NAPs. Smiling images of women and girls from the Global South have become the quintessential image of development. By focusing on women’s ability to act and make choices in the context of war and fragility, such photographs convey a sense of the progress made on WPS. But rather than challenging racialized and colonial power relations inherent in the security/development nexus that UK NAPs capture, they focus on a particular type of liberal agency, which obscures structures of oppression and exploitation.

Depicted as military actors, peacekeepers, or political figures, the ‘international community’ makes up a small proportion of those depicted. Though appearing less frequently, such representations place the UK in an ostensibly authoritative and benevolent position of power assisting those from the Global South. Cast as protectors, such representations mask the role imperial powers played in creating or exacerbating the conflict dynamics referred to in the documents.

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Cover image of UK NAP 2014–17, captioned ‘Women waiting to vote in Pakistan. Source: Image © Rachel Clayton/FCDO. Reprinted with permission.

Although the image of the ‘women-as-victim’ is somewhat displaced by agential images of women and girls, this representation is not entirely subverted. The emergent trope of agency is accompanied by an underlying trope of victimhood. One photograph in particular, that of a grandmother and grandchild who have been displaced by ISIS that is included in the 2018 UK NAP, is politically significant. It accompanies the strategic outcome — and controversial addendum to WPS — ‘Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism’ and is the only photograph that depicts what we might perceive to be victimhood. However, it reinforces, I argue, Spivak’s observation about colonialism: ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’.

Conversely, perhaps the most interesting finding is the absence of men and boys from the Global South. Whilst this absence is unsurprising given that the WPS agenda reproduces the ‘women-in-conflict’ as the primary target of WPS policy, it serves to construct a limited and regressive form of masculinity in so-called ‘fragile and conflict-affected states.

‘My mission is to make sure that nobody can say: I didn’t know’

During my research, I considered what a more humanising way of documenting states of fragility, conflict, and crisis would look like. Although I do not have a clear response, I was drawn to the work of late photojournalist and senior editor with Reuters, Yannis Behrakis.

In 2015, Behrakis and a team of photographers covered refugees who were fleeing war from Syria to Afghanistan and beyond. During this time, Behrakis took what many consider to be his best photograph, a Syrian refugee carrying his daughter in the heavy rain towards Greece’s border with Macedonia. Such powerful photographs are seldom seen in policy documents or the mainstream media. Behrakis’ work captures a deep sense of humanity and empathy, a sensitivity towards the complexities of humanitarian crises. And, perhaps they are more ethical in the sense that the photographs depict people and events but without turning them into objects of our pity. Reflecting upon his work, Behrakis said: ‘My mission is to make sure that nobody can say: I didn’t know’.

Columba Achilleos-Sarll is an ESRC PhD candidate at the University of Warwick researching the Women, Peace and Security agenda in the UK.

Her recent article,‘“Seeing” the Women, Peace and Security agenda: visual (re)productions of WPS in UK government national action plans’ was published in the November 2020 issue of International Affairs.

Read the article here.

International Affairs Blog

The official blog of International Affairs, the…

International Affairs

Written by

A leading journal of international relations, edited at Chatham House. Subscribe at http://cht.hm/2iztRyb. Follow for analysis on the latest global issues.

International Affairs Blog

The official blog of International Affairs, the peer-reviewed journal of Chatham House.

International Affairs

Written by

A leading journal of international relations, edited at Chatham House. Subscribe at http://cht.hm/2iztRyb. Follow for analysis on the latest global issues.

International Affairs Blog

The official blog of International Affairs, the peer-reviewed journal of Chatham House.

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