J. Thompson: Refugees, performances and our response

The history of responses to disasters seem to require clear narratives, they appear to need heroes and saviours, and victims who are so innocent they are presumed to be unable to answer back…

Humanitarian response needs to be staged, to have a spotlight, to tug heart strings. It needs performers and simple plots of goodies and baddies. And it uses artists to tell its stories – Bono. Geldoff. George Clooney.

In these performances – since the founding of the Red Cross on the fields of Solferino, Northern Italy in 1859 – the Europeans have been placed as the saviour to the poor.

All performances construct myths and fantasies – and misrepresent.

4 Stories:

  1. From 19th century history: Barnados

Thomas John Barnardo (1845-1905). Famous for creating homes for street children in the 1870s, Barnardo used photographs of his rescued orphans in his adverts for fundraising. “Before” and “after” pictures would be taken, showing orphans in an impoverished state when they had been rescued from the streets of London, and then afterwards, sparkling clean and well dressed. In 1877 Barnardo was accused of artificially staging the photographs – he admitted in court case examining this accusation, the artistic license he took with the photography. He basically had in some images, found better looking middle class kids and dressed them for the roles.

  1. From Tsunami 2004 – the invention of orphans. My colleagues in Colombo was asked, after the Boxing Day tsunami, to document the orphans in the South West of the country for the international aid organisations who had entered the country with finances to build orphanages for the ‘poor Tsunami orphans’. After scouring the southern area of the country she found 6. Women and children had died in the Tsunami and men had survived (a simplification of course) – but broadly men’s upper body strength had enabled them to cling onto things that aided their survival. The international aid agencies had their narrative – poor orphans – and the resources to back up that story. And so the orphanages were built. And Sri Lankan parents sent their children to them, so the aid organisations got their pictures.
  1. From Haiti 2010 – The aid group Medecines Sans Frontiers complained that the flight-scheduling priorities of US military controllers running the Port Au Prince airport delayed the arrival of field hospitals, resulting in some deaths. However, they prioritized John Travolta and his aid and scientologists cargo – an actor/artist arrived – others were diverted…
  1. A playwright a few weeks ago – speaking to be proudly said that s/he had arrived on a Greek Island dealing with refugees, announced him/herself as an international playwright and told the UN authorities how to do their jobs – because s/he knew better…

Humanitarian performance expectations changes the priorities of humanitarian action. Not necessarily in the direction of real human need.

So to the image of 3 year old Syrian Kurdish Aylan Kurdi on a beach.  I don’t want to denigrate the way that some of the racist/hatred narrative has been challenged. A good thing. But can this happen only if it is children? And how come we’ve flipped from indifferent to Florence nightingale overnight.

  • If it was an old man on a beach?
  • If it was a 30 year old man?

Yes – this image changed the rhetoric (perhaps temporarily) – but artists should be wary of dominant stories – and keep searching for the story that is not there, and that is untold.

What should artists do in the current crisis? 5 points.

  1. Should start from the fact that humanitarian crises are already performed – full of characters, stories, image creation, invention, people taking on roles and projecting certain roles. If artists simply join in – they repeat a predominantly European fantasy that we can save the world and we are the heroes. Geldoff. George Clooney.
  1. Artists should check what is in the spotlight and what isn’t – the press shines a light on what fits with the story it wants to project. We should be focusing on what is not under the media glare – not in the limelight. Or focus on trying to shift the political spotlight. We need to remember that often the powerless cannot orientate the spotlight and it is things in the shade – out of the limelight – that might be more important.
  1. Artists should aim to complicate stories, seek to question them – they shouldn’t be comfortable in repeating them verbatim
  1. Artists should undermine assumed roles of victim, saviour and perpetrator that have existed from Solferino onwards. Most refugees are not in Europe, most people in the Tsunami were saved by their neighbours not international aid agencies. Most Syrians are saved by Syrians.
  1. Artists should sometimes not join in – be humble, recognize we are not somehow important or superhuman…just because we are artists. Or realize that maybe its time to cook food, make a bed, clean a wound and not expect or ask people to perform…because they will perform what they assume we need or want to hear…

James Thompson
Written and delivered for the Parallel Crossings: Art, Culture and the Refugee Crisis at Toynbee Studios, London on 26 Nov, 2015.


Core section on Barnados story taken from – http://www.theguardian.com/society/2002/oct/03/advertising.childprotection

Other bits of above taken from JT’s book  ‘Humanitarian Performance: from disaster tragedies to spectacles of war’ (2014).

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