The theatrical stage for humanitarianism

While the structure of communication in humanitarian campaigning is changing, we are still witnessing campaigns that illustrate the classical and modern West public culture based on the significance of the mediation of suffering and vulnerability as catalysts for solidarity and compassion.
By showing three examples of campaigning from Amnesty International, Doctors of the world and Unicef, I try to exemplify some of the arguments of Lilie Chouliaraki about the theatrical stage for humanitarian communication and its spectacles of suffering.
Amnesty International: “Fireworks from Aleppo”

Amnesty International in Denmark launched a campaign on January 2017 that reconstructed Danish New Year’s Eve built from the sounds of bombs falling in Syria. It was broadcasted across Denmark the days following New Year’s Eve. The campaign presents a direct message to the spectator that says “we hope these sounds remind you of a wonderful news year’s eve. In Aleppo they remind people of something completely different. That is because these sounds are recordings of the bombings of Aleppo”.
Doctors of the world: “Indifference is a disease”

In December 2016, Doctors of the world launched the campaign “Protect Syria: not like us” in US. The almost 2 minute’s video highlights the narrative of the “West” towards refugees with messages such as “they are not like us”, “They are all terrorists” and “They should go back where they came from”. All these titles are combined with the voice of those ones who we refer to highlighting with their voices and testimonies that they are not that different than us. The campaign concludes with an explicative message of “They didn’t choose to be refugees” and poses the question of “Why are we choosing to let them die?”.
Unicef: “Granatapfel”:

Unicef launched in January 2017 a film in Germany about children in war zones. This movie portrays children as victims of a world that they don’t understand. The main characters of the story are a mother and a girl in a warzone. The girl is chasing what for her is an apple but in reality is a grenade. This story is an attempt to assimilate the spectator with the characters by somehow bringing us to that situation. This aim becomes clear on the message at the end of the video that says “Imagine you and your child in a warzone”. The video finishes with the precision of a number “Every 20 minutes a child dies in a warzone”.

Since those campaigns are a mix of sounds, images and recreations of different realities, they are calling for the imagination of the spectator. This is what Chouliaraki calls as a “humanitarian imaginary” and defines it as a viable space for Western populations to engage with non-Western sufferers. Similarly, this space presents a distant suffering that can threaten the sympathetic identification factor, that catalyses on the emotions of indignation (towards the injustice of suffering) and empathy (care towards the victims) and enable us to imagine ourselves as political actors. This morality of revolution or the modern pity (idea of action for salvation or revolution that separates those who suffer from those who not) (Boltanski: 1993) is within the moral education of the west, according to Chouliaraki, and is represented in all the campaigns above, under a call for empathy, indignation and compassion. Likewise, we can highlight the separation of “us” and “they” in all the campaigns and we can see and attempt to assimilate the sufferers and the spectators with their final messages.

Chouliaraki, after a wide criticism towards the west model of mediation of humanitarianism claims the need to develop a novel approach to humanitarianism that recognizes the perspective to life in a tangible manner. Stating that the citizen is an ironic spectator of other people’s suffering. Thus, rather than engaging with solidarity of distant others, she proposes to use ironic solidarity to engage with the self and relating solidarity with choice, lifestyle and ourselves.

To finish with, I have gathered some examples to exemplify this tendency than is increasingly used by campaigners.

Garde-Mange Pour Tous: “Help us fill the emptiness”

fill the emptiness.jpg

Smoke free life: “Forbidden”


Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity: “Ordinary World – Trolley”


The aim of those campaigns is to encourage people to act, since it is the essence of humanitarian campaigns. Although in those ones with new approach in particular the individual is conceived as the main character of the campaign, what makes the spectator less distant from its message.

This model seems effective in a growing narcissist West where the new approach to humanitarianism is about the self rather than engaging with the solidarity of distant others (Chouliaraki: 2013).


Chouliaraki, L., (2013) The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism. Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity.

Boltanski, L. (1993) Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





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