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  • Ruyi Liu

The Power of Images in IR

In this Voice piece, our student contributors have explored how images shape international events and our understanding of them. They unpack a broad range of themes in visual politics, from colonialism, diplomacy, identity politics and propaganda to refugee policy.


This article contains distressing images. 

Visions of the Congo, Real and Symbolic

Alexander Rodriguez, MSc International Relations


At the 1884 Berlin Conference, Belgian King Leopold II personally claimed the present Democratic Republic of the Congo. Under his forced labor program, villages failing to meet rubber harvest quotas were brutalized by the Force Publique. These abuses remained hidden until journalists started to investigate, with the photography of English missionary Alice Seeley Harris and her husband John proving especially powerful in mobilizing public opinion against the King’s policies. They captured the corporal aftermath of horrific state violence, most strikingly severed hands and stumps. One of the most notorious portrays Nsala (image 1), whose wife and children were killed and eaten by Force Publique soldiers. These images’ truths tore through the Belgian state’s posturing as a civilizing force for the dark continent. The clear savagery of the colonial administration enacted the ills they professed to fight. The public condemnation this journalism instigated led to a government takeover of the colony in 1908.

Image 1: “Nsala of Wala... with the hand and foot of his little girl of five years old- all that remained of a cannibal feast by armed rubber sentries.”

Sixty years later, images again struggled for meaning in the mind of the spectator, this time with a symbolic remove. On the occasion of King Baudouin’s 1955 visit to the colony, colorful cotton prints were made depicting the young king flatteringly (image 2; now displayed in the Belvue Museum in Brussels). Some represent the King as the powerful sovereign of the Congo. Others imagine friendly encounters, with children or elders placed lower in the image to visually reinforce the King’s dominance. The museum includes an anecdote of the Congolese nickname of “Bwana Kitoko” or ‘handsome chief’ heard during Baudouin’s visit, positioning these images as amiable African tributes to a kind and benevolent leader.

 Image 2

However, when the King returned in 1960 for ceremonies conferring independence to the Congo, a photographer captured one spectacular moment(image 3) cutting through the state pageantry. Here, a Congolese citizen dashed into the parade and snatched the sword of the unaware King. The playfulness of the act, disregarding royal prestige, undermined Baudouin’s narrative of Belgium generously bestowing statehood on the Congolese. The image resonates as a decolonial symbol, but differently than the mythos of Dien Bien Phu representing colonized peoples’ capacity for victory. Rather, this moment declares that the colonized would not defer to the grace of their oppressors and instead seize freedom for themselves - a truer liberation.

Image 3

Paula Collio Méndez, MSc International Relations

"Ayer el diablo estuvo aquí - se persigna - en este mismo lugar, huele a azufre todavía" (Yesterday the devil was here - he crosses himself - in this very place, still smells like sulphur)

 ----Hugo Chavez, ex-president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela 

Extract from CNN, "2006: Chavez calls Bush "the devil"


The year was 2006. During the 61st United Nations General Assembly the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, delivered his now-famous speech where he accused the then-U.S. president, George W. Bush, of being the very “devil himself”. He went on to deliver a blistering attack on Bush’s policies, citing: “The government of the United States doesn’t want peace. It wants to exploit its system of exploitation, of pillage, of hegemony through war (…) but what’s happening in Iraq? What happened in Lebanon? In Palestine? What’s happening? What’s happened over the last 100 years in Latin America and in the world? And now threatening Venezuela — new threats against Venezuela, against Iran?”. Years later, Chavez — who died in 2013 — said that his “devil” comment was not scripted and that he did smell sulphur that day.

The symbolism behind this image, captured at the headquarters of the UN, placed Chavez in the heart of New York City, openly insulting a U.S. president. Hugo Chávez’s discourse has been studied as a form of mythical rhetoric with epic connotations that aims to consolidate a political identity – and simultaneously turn his speeches synonymous with the 'anticapitalist model'. He emerged as  a symbol of ‘resistance’ and ‘courage’ against the capitalist and Western ideology, suggesting that Venezuela must fulfil a central role in the global arena. This would make Venezuela “lead an alternative world order (commencing in South America) against the U.S.-led globalization.”

This disruptive act’s intention was to utilize the platform to capture media attention, provoke, and polarize the international community. The underlying motive was to challenge prevailing discourses, instigate 'dissensus' and 'discord,' and ultimately 'displace' established forms of institutional recognition. Regardless of our own agreement or disagreement with his ideas, Chavez's actions objectively constituted an act of rebellion against the establishment, contributing to discourse fuelling the polarization of opinions on U.S. policies globally.

To this day, the image of Chavez confronting the General Assembly is used as a ‘war flag’, so-called ‘symbol’ of the fight against 'American imperialism'. This rhetoric shifts from facts to feelings, the validation of ideologies, and how the power of visual politics applies critical thinking on what the visual can do – rupture, appeal to the senses, disorient – serves as an illustration of the same. 

From Poster to Meme - a history of the political poster and what it has become

Francesca Corno, BA History, 2nd Year


It is hard to grow up in England and avoid being taught about the infamous “Your Country needs YOU!” poster. Legend narrates that the poster was so influential it led to the enlistment of the highest number of volunteers throughout the war. Myth or reality that may be, the use of political posters to incite specific popular reactions has been a successful political tool that dates back to 19th century Europe.

 The London Opinion published poster: "Britons: Lord Kitchener Wants You. Join Your Country's Army! God save the King." Modern reproduction from Imperial War Museum

In the Western world, the use of posters spanned chains of events throughout the 20th century, and has also been faithful companions to political campaigns since then. Sporting recurring similarities, political posters employ design techniques geared to catch a viewers’ attention - bright colours, short, bold statements and recurring images; features set to draw you in. The continuity of these features spans the globe both spatially and temporally, and can, for example, be seen in Soviet posters during the revolution, as well as in Velasco’s Peru in the 1960s, during the agrarian reforms. 


“Долой капитал, да здравствует диктатура пролетариата!” (Down with the capital, long live the dictatorship of the proletariat!) - Artist: Dmitrii I. Mel'nikov. Place of Publication: Moscow Year of Publication: 1920,

‘24 de Junio: Día del Campesino’, Poster Published by the DDRA, 1968–70, Sam L. Slick Collection of Latin American and Iberian Posters, Center for South West Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico

Such methods of propaganda owe their success to accessibility. Taking Soviet Russia as an example; in the early 20th century, 83% of the rural and 55% of the urban population was illiterate - though written rhetoric might have been a success in drawing the attention of the upper classes, it was ineffective in encouraging the lower ones to subscribe to the political ideals put forth by the Bolsheviks. Visual prompts presenting recurring, vibrant images, on the other hand, were ideal in quickly portraying sets of ideas to a wide sect of society. 


The use of physical posters has lessened in recent times, adapting to the new digital world we live in. Some argue that it has merely shifted into the form of the “meme”, which mirrors the old political posters in its short, concise messaging, often colourful background and rapid dissemination. Yet the impact of this new type of propaganda has been questioned by many in recent times. The digitalisation of such media constitutes a danger in the dissemination of false information, with the creation of propaganda wings such as the Internet Research Agency posing a threat to governments in their potential influence over voters. Yet the overall aim remains the same - swaying public opinion through visual prompts in favour of a specific political reaction. 


“Drowned boy on the Beach”: How did the Image of Alan Kurdi Influence Refugee Policy Making?

Qianying Zhou, BSc International Relations, 2nd Year


The Death of Alan Kurdi. (Nilüfer Demir)

The original source is not retrievable. Please refer to the secondary source

A mural depicting Alan Kurdi in Frankfurt. (Boris Roessler/Getty Images)

On 2 September 2015, the photo of a three-year old boy named Alan Kurdi, drowned face-down  and lying dead on the beach near Turkey’s Bodrum, made global headlines. He was among a group of refugees fleeing to Greece from the Syrian town of Kobani, where there were intense armed conflicts between Kurdish troops and Islamic State earlier that year. 


The image heightened global concerns about refugee waves, shifting discourses about refugees in Western countries. In the UK, for instance, a petition calling the government to accept more refugees had  more than 320,000 signatures two days after the photo went viral online. Expressing that he was  “deeply moved” by the photo, British Prime Minister David Cameron reversed his initial stance against accepting further refugees and announced Britain would accept “thousands” more Syrian refugees in response to increasing domestic pressures.


Images can evoke strong feelings, and photographs of children, like “The Death of Alan Kurdi”, hold unique ability to invoke public compassion since the world’s youth often symbolise vulnerability and innocence. This sympathy in turn sometimes prompts the public to take a pro-refugee stance, influencing government policy. Typically, in liberal democracies such as the UK, public opinions can be considered independent from elite groups. Therefore, when making refugee policy, political leaders are pressured to take the pro-refugee public opinions into account, since unpopular policies can result in defeat or narrow victory in the next election, undermining their mandate to govern in the future. Thus, policy power is fairly distributed across society, especially when it comes to deeply emotive issues. 


Yet, the influences of compassion-evoking images are short-lasting. With the developing “attention economy”, one is receiving and is increasingly distracted by more information, resulting in “less time for depth”. Over time, the memory of Alan Kurdi faded. Eventually, the rate of refugee resettlement in the UK fell rapidly from 1,085 in the fourth quarter of 2015 to 517 in the first quarter of the following year. Despite the image’s emotional resonance with public opinion, it failed to make fundamental shifts in the Cameron administration’s refugee policies. The UK politically refused to accept any refugees who had voluntarily arrived in Europe earlier, but was and today remains faced with legal challenges that make such a policy impossible. To make more fundamental and long-lasting changes in refugee policies, we may tragically need another heart-breaking photo, but precedent suggests it alone won't be enough. 

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