22 Aug

Photo-reportage’s thwarted potential

Photographs of disasters have become mainstream images in the media, leaving us jaded. So what can seize our minds?

Parvati Nair


Parvati Nair is professor of Hispanic cultural studies and director of the centre for the study of migration at Queen Mary, University of London. Her next book, A Different Light: The Photography of Sebastião Salgado will be published by Duke University Press, Sunday 22 August 2010 16.00 BST

Article history

Pakistani flood
Photographs of Pakistan’s floods have failed to shock our sensibilities. Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/GettyRarely a week goes by when issues around photography are not in the news. This week, the photographs on Facebook of handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinian detainees posted by an ex-Israeli soldier unleashed shockwaves. A few weeks ago, Time magazine’s cover of the Afghan woman stirred up debates that are ongoing. As viewers, we respond and react. We demand action. Yet, day after day, the media also brings us images that should shock our sensibilities – but do not quite manage to do so.

The floods in Pakistan have given rise to a veritable deluge of photographs documenting devastation. On a daily basis, we have been seeing representations of untold suffering, as people struggle to survive, while filth and chaos reign around them. Nevertheless, despite efforts to mobilise relief, a certain degree of apathy often accompanies our responses to such images. Unlike the photograph of the Afghan woman, these are not one-offs.

The problem is so much larger than photography can ever hope to capture that they wash over us. For two facts stand out when it comes to how we gather news of disasters elsewhere: first, photo-documentary plays a key part, and second, there is a predictable sameness to such photographs. Whether it be Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami, Pakistan or Haiti back in January, the photo-reportage that emerges inevitably confirms the uniformity of human suffering, the base commonality of despair, concerns, needs and pain.

Too often, they also confirm that the hardest hit are always the poor, whether they be in Louisiana or Nowshera. Yet, for those of us who are far away and better off – concerned, no doubt, but personally unaffected – comes a sense of deja vu leading to a slightly jaded response. We feel sympathy, but not an urge to ask big questions or to battle seriously for action. So of what use are these images if they cannot move us out of our comfort zone when we, the globally privileged, are precisely those who can make a difference?

The plain fact is that the suffering of others is part of what we expect to see from the media. Photo-reportage of disasters and mass displacements are mainstream images, despite the efforts made by individual photographers to provide original and distinct points of view. They also confirm our relative safety: this suffering is that of others, and not ours. And so the images are solely seen in passing.

 Perhaps our pallid responses signal a crisis of conscience. Perhaps we have problems of our own to deal with. Or is there something slightly inuring about photo-reportage? Does this signal the limits of photography’s documentary potential?

 Could it be, then, that images that actually work in terms of seizing our minds are those that do not try to put facts squarely before us? Instead, the images that shake us most present their audience with conundrums, bringing into our sightline paradoxical juxtapositions. When an Israeli ex-soldier posts photographs on Facebook of herself “at work” (albeit guarding handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinian prisoners), in exactly the same way in which so many of us post images of ourselves in the workplace, we are faced at once with the intensely familiar and the totally extraneous and abhorrent.

 For the same images also churn up in our collective memories the photographs of Abu Ghraib that continue to haunt the democratic conscience of the west. And in bringing all of this together, in aligning us all together as co-users of Facebook, we, the “good” people of the world, feel the unexpected discomfort of rubbing shoulders with the troubling shadows and the muffled screams of our troubled times.

 Such images are spaces of contradiction. They force us to ask questions, to think again. They plunge us into uncertainty. Who knows – the irony may then be that when it comes to what makes a photograph work, it is precisely the earnest zeal for transparent documentary that undermines photography’s potential as a mobilising force.


More about Parvati Nair


BA (London), MA (London), PhD (London), FRSA

Professor of Hispanic Cultural Studies

Chair of Hispanic Studies

Director of the Centre for the Study of Migration

Areas of specialisation


Parvati Nair is Professor of Hispanic Cultural Studies. Her teaching focuses on Modern Peninsular Studies (19th and 20th century Spanish literature, film and photography) and on Migration Studies. The degree programmes she teaches on are Hispanic Studies and Comparative Literature at undergraduate level and the Masters in Migration Studies at postgraduate level.

Her research is in Cultural Studies, with a particular interest in theories and representations of migration, displacement, ethnicity and gender. She writes mainly on photography, film and music in these contexts. She is Features Editor of the Hispanic Research Journal and is currently on the Advisory Board of the Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies and Área abierta. She is the Principal Editor of Crossings: Journal of Migration and Culture

As Director of the Centre for the Study of Migration, Parvati Nair invites expressions of interest for interdisciplinary collaboration across faculties and institutions in what is a lively and active research environment. For more details, please see the Centre’s website.



  • A Different Light: The Photography of Sebastião Salgado (in press, Duke University Press)

  • Rumbo al norte: inmigración y movimientos culturales entre el Magreb y España, Barcelona, 2006, Barcelona, Edicions Bellaterra

  • Configuring Community: Theories, Narratives and Practices of Community Identities in Contemporary Spain, 2004, London, Modern Humanities Research Association

  • Gender and Spanish Cinema, co-edited with Steven Marsh, 2004, Oxford, Berg

Selected recent publications in edited books and refereed journals

  • ‘Trazar frontera: inmigración y movimientos culturales en España,’ chapter in Irene Blásquez and Ángel Chueca (editors), Migraciones internacionales en el Mediterráneo y UE: un reto , in press, forthcoming in October 2009

  • ‘After-Images: Trauma, History and Connection in the Photography of Alfredo Jaar,’ chapter in The Genre of Post-Conflict Testimonies edited by Daly Macdonald and Cristina Demaria, forthcoming from Nottingham: CCCPress, in October 2009

  • ‘IslaMigrations or the Other Within: submitted to Revista de Migraciones y Extranjería  forthcoming in Autumn 2009

  • ‘Europe’s “Last” Wall: Contiguity, Exchange and Heterotopia in Ceuta, the Confluence of Europe and North Africa,” chapter in Border Interrogations edited by Simon Doubleday and Benita Sampedro, Oxford, Berghahn Publishers, 2008, p.15-41

  • ‘Autography from the Margins: Photography, Collective Self-Representation and the Disturbance of History,’ Hispanic Research Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, 2008, p.181-190

  • ‘Fotografía en torno al Estrecho,’ in Dos siglos de imágenes de Andalucía edited by Alberto Egea, Sevilla, Centro de Estudios Andaluces, 2006

  • ‘Voicing Risk: migration, transgression and relocation in Spanish/Moroccan raï’ in Between the Local and the Global: Popular Music and National Identity edited by Ian Biddle and Vanessa Knights, London: Ashgate, 2007, 65-80

  • ‘The Regard of the Gypsy: Ramón Zabalza’s gitano photographs and the visual challenge to the stereotype’ in Prácticas de poder y estrategias de resistencia en
     la España democrática, edited by Óscar Cornago Bernal, special issue of Iberoamericana, 24.4, 2006

  •  ‘Border-Line Men: Gender, Place and Power in Representations of Moroccans in Recent Spanish Cinema’ in Gender and Spanish Cinema edited by Parvati Nair and Steven Marsh, Oxford, Berg Publishers, 2004, 103-118

  • ‘’Moor-Veiled Matters: the hijab as troubling interrogative of the relation between the West and Islam‚, new formations, no. 51, winter 2003-2004, 39-49

  • ‘Memory in Motion: Ethnicity, Hybridity and Globalization in Self-Photographs of Moroccan Immigrants in Spain’ Journal of Romance Studies, Vol.3.1, 2003, 73-86

  • Vocal In-roads: Flamenco, Orality and Postmodernity in Las 3000 Viviendas: Viejo Patio (EMI, 1999) in Music, Culture, Identity, ed. Richard Young, Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, 2002

  • Elusive song: flamenco as field and negotiation among the gitanos in Córdoba prison, in Constructing Identity in Twentieth Century Spain: Theoretical debates and Narrative Practices, ed. Jo Labanyi, Oxford University Press, 2002

  • In Modernity’s Wake: transculturality, deterritorialization and the question of community in Las flores de otro mundo‚ in Postscript, April 2002, 38-4

  • Albums of No Return: Ethnicity, Displacement and Recognition in Photographs of Moroccan Immigrants in Spain‚ Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, 1, March 2000, 59-73

Current research projects

Parvati Nair is currently co-editing a volume entitled Hispanic and Lusophone Women Filmmakers: Critical Discourses and Cinematic Practices with Dr Julian Gutiérrez-Albilla (University of Newcatsle), to be published by Manchester University Press.

She collaborates with Intermigra, a pan-European research network, led by colleagues at the University of Zaragoza, Spain working on migration to Europe from diverse disciplinary perspectives. Parvati Nair’s contribution to this network focuses on migration from North Africa to Spain, Islamic communities in Spain and questions of cultural diversity, cultural hybridity and cultural memory.

Her current writing focuses on displacement and photography from the global south.

Courses taught

At undergraduate level, she teaches two modules a year from the following list:

                 Society and Photography in Spain: 1939-1975
                 Re-Viewing the Spanish Civil War
                 Exile and Memory in Modern Spanish Fiction
                 Spanish Realism: Galdós and Alas
                 Feminine Voices in Modern Spanish Fiction
                 Migration Through Photography

Research Students

Parvati Nair has acted as first or second supervisor to several doctoral students, working in the areas of film, literature and photography. Those who have completed their doctorates have gone on to establish themselves as practicing academics. Current doctoral students are working in the areas of film, literature, photography and migration.

She welcomes proposals from prospective students interested in pursuing research studies in the following areas:

Migration Studies

Visual Culture

Comparative Cultural Studies

Modern Peninsular Studies

Proposals must have a strong interdisciplinary focus and a well-defined theoretical framework. Parvati Nair will be happy to discuss draft research proposals with those interested.

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