New Works in the Field

The Historical Roots of Humanitarian Photography: a 19th-Century Evangelical Newspaper’s Enduring Influence on the Global Aid Industry

Editors’ Note: Heather D. Curtis discusses her new book, Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid.

On September 2, 2015, the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up ashore near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. Originally from Damascus, the boy and his family were refugees from the Syrian civil war seeking to reach the Greek island of Kos where they hoped for asylum and a new life. When the overcrowded inflatable boat they had boarded capsized off the coast, Alan drowned along with his mother, Rehana, and 5-year-old brother Ghalib. Within several days, a photograph of the lifeless toddler lying facedown on the beach made front-page headlines around the globe and circulated widely on social media. The heartbreaking image prompted a dramatic increase in international concern for the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. Donations to charitable organizations dedicated to aiding refugees surged in the weeks after the picture went viral.

The photograph of Alan’s dead body also provoked what Time magazine called “a new kind of conversation about the crisis” as editors, humanitarian agencies, and individuals debated the ethics of reproducing images of suffering or dying children in news feeds, publications, and online media sites. Many of these discussions linked the picture of the Syrian toddler to Nick Ut’s iconic 1972 photograph of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked along the road after being burned in a napalm attack during the Vietnam war – an image that exposed the atrocities of that crisis and helped shift public opinion against continuing American involvement in the conflict. But as scholars such as Heide Fehrenbach, Davide Rodogno, and others have shown, using photography to raise awareness about human suffering has a much longer history stretching back well beyond the early 1970s.[i] In my book, Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid, I tell the story of how the Christian Herald – the world’s premier religious newspaper at the turn of the twentieth century – helped pioneer the practice of pictorial humanitarianism.

Purchased by evangelical philanthropist Louis Klopsch in 1890, the Christian Herald became a major force in shaping American efforts to alleviate affliction around the world at a time when the United States was extending its global reach through economic expansion, military imperialism, and missionary outreach. During this era of intensifying internationalism, the Christian Herald inspired American Protestants from diverse backgrounds to donate millions of dollars to assuage suffering people both at home and abroad. Shortly after acquiring the newspaper, Klopsch and his editorial partner – the charismatic preacher Thomas de Witt Talmage – began to barrage readers with reports of humanitarian crises. Soon, the partners moved beyond merely chronicling catastrophes to actively spearheading relief efforts by collecting contributions and taking a direct role in distributing aid.

In the spring of 1892, the Christian Herald publicized its first official campaign to alleviate affliction: a food fund for famished peasants in Russia. Over the next several years, Klopsch and Talmage organized many more efforts to ease suffering of all sorts. During the winter of 1894, they encouraged readers to help families in New York City made destitute in the recent economic downturn. The following year, they solicited assistance for Armenians displaced by political violence in the Ottoman Empire. Next, they partnered with the federal government to rescue Cubans from starvation. From 1897 through the turn of the century and beyond, they engaged in massive fund-raising efforts to provide for victims of famine, earthquake, warfare, and flood in India, China, Scandinavia, Macedonia, Japan, Italy, and Mexico. At the same time, they offered ongoing support for ministries to the poor and downtrodden throughout the United States through soup kitchens like the Bowery Mission in New York City, fresh air summer programs for children, and schools such as the Mayesville Educational Institute in South Carolina, founded by Emma J. Wilson, whose mother had been enslaved on a nearby plantation.

By the time Klopsch died in 1910, the Christian Herald’s subscribers had donated over $3.3 million (equivalent to approximately $82.4 million in 2018) to domestic and international humanitarian causes.[ii] Only the American Red Cross (ARC), which became a quasi-governmental entity in 1900 and was subsidized after 1905 by congressional appropriations, rivaled the Christian Herald’s achievements as a relief agency during this period. No other grassroots charitable organization—religious or secular—came remotely close.[iii]

Key to the Christian Herald’s extraordinary success in arousing sympathy for suffering people was the editorial team’s creative deployment of cutting edge developments in the publishing industry. From the start of their tenure at the newspaper, Klopsch and Talmage took advantage of innovative printing technologies, entrepreneurial marketing techniques, and – perhaps most importantly – groundbreaking advancements in photography to publicize humanitarian crises and encourage readers to participate in the Christian Herald’s relief campaigns. During it’s heyday in the 1890s, in fact, the Christian Herald was at the forefront of these emerging trends in popular journalism. Although secular newspapers and missionary magazines occasionally published images of distressed people struggling to survive the effects of natural and political disasters, the Christian Herald made photographs of “living skeletons” a signature feature of almost every issue. Nor did they shy away from reproducing pictures of the dead who succumbed to the ravages of starvation or social violence. From the perspective of these evangelicals, vision was a compelling vehicle for provoking Christian compassion. Graphic pictures of people in pain were therefore an essential means of eliciting concern for suffering strangers.

While Klopsch and Talmage were confident that pictorial humanitarianism played an indispensable role in the developing enterprise of evangelical philanthropy, some of their contemporaries expressed unease with this method of generating support for relief campaigns. Missionaries working in disaster zones, for example, sometimes worried that photographs portraying aid recipients as helpless victims reinforced the social dependencies and hierarchies of power they ultimately hoped to subvert as they strove to create a global Christian community. Although a few of these outspoken critics questioned the ethics of representation on display in the Christian Herald’s pages, most subscribers remained oblivious to the darker sides of humanitarian imagery.

Over the course of the twentieth century, debates about the moral hazards of depicting the suffering of others continued to trouble philanthropists, but even the most ambivalent altruists found the persuasive power of pictures hard to resist. During the first several decades of the 1900s, the visual technologies Klopsch and Talmage pioneered in the 1890s became increasingly widespread among aid agencies. As scholars such as Julia Irwin and Kevin Rozario have demonstrated, for example, during World War I the American National Red Cross Magazine began to incorporate more images of civilian suffering than ever before. By the close of the conflict, ARC leaders were convinced that publishing graphic portrayals of affliction was a most effective strategy for fundraising and membership recruitment—just as Klopsch and his colleagues at the Christian Herald had shown twenty years earlier. In the decades ahead, many more relief and development organizations would come to a similar conclusion, so that disseminating heartrending photographs of people in distress soon became a standard practice in the international aid industry.[iv]

 Holy Humanitarians argues that the iconography of affliction the Christian Herald first made popular left a lasting mark on how Americans regard and respond to suffering both at home and abroad. As the dramatic response to the photograph of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body shows, the appeal of appalling images remains strong, despite ongoing doubts about the probity of publishing such horrific pictures. I hope this book can provide a wider historical frame for current conversations about the ethics of pictorial humanitarianism and other enduring issues in the practice of global philanthropy.

-Heather D. Curtis

Heather D. Curtis is Associate Professor of Religion and Director of American Studies at Tufts University. In addition to Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid, she is also the author of Faith in the Great Physician: Suffering and Divine Healing in American Culture, 1860-1900 (Johns Hopkins, 2007). For more information visit heatherdcurtis.com.

NOTES:

[i] Heide Fehrenbach and Davide Rodogno, “‘A horrific photo of a drowned Syrian child’: Humanitarian Photography and NGO Media Strategies in Historical Perspective,” International Review of the Red Cross (2015), 97 (900), 1121-1155; and Fehrenbach and Rodogno, eds. Humanitarian Photography: A History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[ii] This figure comes from Charles M. Pepper, Life-work of Louis Klopsch: Romance of a Modern Knight of Mercy (New York: Christian Herald Association, 1910), 357, and is reiterated by numerous contemporary news reports. The 2018 value of contributions was calculated using the Consumer Price Index.

[iii] On this point, see Merle Curti, American Philanthropy Abroad: A History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1963), 216–219.

[iv] Julia Irwin, Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 78–90; and Kevin Rozario, “‘Delicious Horrors’: Mass Culture, the Red Cross, and the Appeal of Modern American Humanitarianism,” American Quarterly 55, no. 3 (2003): 417–455.

 

 

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