Dawn Woolley (1) analysed the approach of the Walker Agency’s 2006 Amnesty International advertising campaign and positioned her conclusions in the context of Susan Sontag’s argument that a proliferation of images of suffering has led to our being desensitised. Sontag used the example in 1977 that, because of similarity and repetitiveness, Don McCullin’s pictures of the Nigerian Biafran war had less impact on “some” viewers than those taken of the Indian famine twenty years earlier (2: loc. 237) and came to the damming conclusion that “In these last decades, ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.” (2: loc.264)
Woolley “generally” agrees with this argument and whilst she sees the Not Here But Now campaign as an exception, a point that I will return to, it is interesting and worth investigating that forty years on from Sontag’s essay the ideas she expressed are still used as the basis for nearly any discussion of pictures of suffering, or as Sontag was later to put it “the pain of others”.
But before testing Sontag’s ideas (in a separate essay here) I will look more closely at the Not Here But Now campaign.
The Not Here But Now Campaign
In 2006 the Swiss office of Amnesty International commissioned The Walker Agency to create a campaign with the objectives of “sensitising people to the issues of human rights and to stimulate debate” (3) and with the aim of increasing brand awareness from 11% to 13% (5). The concept was to use real photographs of abuse, as captured by witness journalists, cut out the subjects and superimpose the cutout images onto photographs of Zurich taken by Federico Naef (4). This idea was taken to another level by matching the cityscapes that would become the poster sites with the backgrounds of the images so from the viewer’s vantage point the posters blended in with the real street scenes and created the illusion that the atrocities were happening on the streets of Zurich.
The campaign comprised two hundred different posters, each matching the display locations so, as can been seen in the two examples shown above, the same original images was superimposed onto many different backgrounds.
Pius Walker, the creative director and founder of the Walker Agency explained the concept:
“Advertising for touchy subjects doesn’t profit from exaggeration. What was needed here was the simplest truth being told in the simplest way. Something no one can argue with is harder to ignore” (6)
However, can these advertisements really be described as simple? For Woolley they were the exception that proved the rule; photographs of suffering that disrupted Sontag’s theories causing her to think again about images of humanitarian crisis being “familiar but remote”; by creating the illusion of events happening on local streets she believes that they broke the “feeling of safe distance” and brought the crisis nearer to home.
The posters weave a complex web of reality and illusion, they are manipulated to combine two documentary images – the cut out and the background, a real event and a real cityscape – but by matching the background to the poster’s display site the creative director has neutralised the falsehood; the viewer is able to suspend their belief and only register the documentary event being played out on the streets of Zurich. The Amnesty International logo gives these posters authority, they are legitimised by the brand creating the paradox of a credible illusion, an untruth elevated to a truth by being associated with an organisation that people would generally perceive as truthful.
They had a remarkable impact on their audience. According to The Walker Agency “spontaneous brand awareness” increased from 11% to 15% between 2006 and 2007 and the visitors to Amnesty International’s Swiss website “soured” from less than 1,000 to over 10,000 a day (5). The campaign also won seventeen awards and was discussed on over 400 blogs (6) so by any measure it would appear to have been hugely successful.
It is worth considering how this was achieved. Christine Arnold (7) sees the posters as “objects of encounter” that disrupt the viewers expectations and demanding a response (7); a boy holding a gun apparently inside a tram shelter is outside the experience of a Zurich commuter. The viewer is compelled to react – a Macdonald’s poster can be ignored, it is part of the normal cityscape – but these posters are abnormal in every regard. Initially they shock the viewer who sees a boy with a gun or Guantanamo inmates being tortured on the streets of Zurich then, after the viewer recognises the scene is a poster, they become intrigued by how it was done and then, for many viewers, they will ask why it was done? Thereby achieving Amnesty’s objectives of increasing awareness and stimulating discussion.
Woolley reported that these constructed photographs had a different effect on her than other images of suffering, it disrupted Sontag’s theory and as, I assume, she was not in the streets of Zurich the morning they appeared there must be something more than just the shock of how they blend into the cityscape to create that different reaction. One of the problems with photographs of suffering or atrocity is that they are viewed with their contained context, a photograph of a body in a tropical jungle will have less emotional impact on a city dweller than a photograph of a body in their street. The context is our emotional get-out clause, it isn’t here, it is in a place that is clearly very foreign and it has already happened so, for all these reasons, I can’t do anything about it even if I cared.
However, in this instance by decontextualising and recontextualising the event in a recognisably close-to-home setting, the tram stop at the end of the street or the railway station, there is the inference that it could happen “here”. Through this process of breaking the original context and convincingly providing a new and local context The Walker Agency have created not just the illusion that an unexpected event is occurring on the streets of Zurich but more importantly made the event itself appear possible to occur, not just in Zurich, but in any city that has railway stations or bus stops. The event has been disconnected from its history, its geography, and its place in time. It has changed from being specific and acquires the status of an universal example; a specific act of abuse in a single place and at a specific moment in time becomes an icon for acts of abuse being committed in several places at different times including the present and future.
This transformation is important; when confronted with photographic evidence of a specific event the viewer is freed from any pressure to contribute to a solution, they recognise the event is historically and geographically removed. However if the photograph of the event becomes iconic it assumes a quite different nature, an unique characteristic identified by Susan Meisela when she asked:
“Can I make an image that makes you think about all the pictures you’re not seeing?” (8: p.120)
As we have seen throughout the history of photojournalism iconic single images, Kevin Carter’s 1993 Sudanese child, Don McCullin’s 1969 albino Biafran child, become the images that demand a response by engaging the public and their politicians. The images in the Not Here But Now Series have the characteristics of iconic atrocity images, they make us think about all the pictures that we are not seeing.
(2) Sontag, Susan (1971) On Photography: Kindle version of the 1978 Penguin edition. London: Penguin Books
(8) Meisela, Susan ( 2012) Body on a Hillside (an essay in Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis) London: Reaktion Books
(1) Woolley, Dawn (2015) Looking at Adverts 13 (accessed at OCA 3.6.16) – http://weareoca.com/photography/looking-at-adverts-13/
(3) Walker Agency (ND) Human Rights Abuses Taking Place on Swiss Streets (accessed at Walker 4.6.16) – http://www.walker.ag/en/2006/05/01/es-geschieht-nicht-hier-aber-jetzt/
(4) Naef, Federico (2006) Amnesty International (accessed at the practitioner’s website 4.6.16) – http://www.federiconaef.ch/3081320/amnesty-international
(5) Walker Agency (ND) Results: Amnesty International Not Here But Now (accessed at Walker 4.6.16) – http://www.walker.ag/en/2006/05/03/amnesty-international-results/
(6) D&AD (ND) Case Study: Amnesty International – It’s Not Happening Here, But It’s Happening Now (accessed at D&AD 4.6.16) – http://www.dandad.org/en/amnesty-international-its-not-happening-here-its-h/
(7) Arnold, Christine (2015) Producing the Ethical Global Subject: Amnesty Iinternational’s Not Here But Now Campaign and the limits of representation (accessed at The University of British Columbia 4.6.16) – https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/24/items/1.0166164#downloadfiles