My dissertation examines contemporary humanitarian media empowerment initiatives, arguing that their interventionist rhetorical strategies further exoticize their marginalized beneficiaries by mobilizing their alterity as a sign of agency. Treating ethnography as a technological, historical, and theoretical frame, I survey projects in which visual media are literally "handed over" as a humanizing prosthesis to various dehumanized subjects (ranging from the children of Third World sex-workers in India, and elephants employed as draft animals in Asian logging industries, to U.S. citizens dispossessed by Hurricane Katrina) as a means of immediate self-empowerment. I argue that the ideology of immediacy through which humanitarian projects envision their ethical task prevents them from accounting for the actual effects of media representations. Frequently adopted by advocates of self-empowerment through media, the benevolent language of autonomy and reflexivity conceals an exploitative cultural logic that is characterized by certain unexamined assumptions about visual media: to authenticate their authorial control, the subjects of such participatory projects are often required to actively and entrepreneurially reify their status and situations as "other" by drawing on the rhetorical tropes of directness, transparency, presence, and indexicality. Since their creative production is pre-mediated in advance by the ethnocentric connotations of these tropes, I contend that the beneficiaries of media empowerment are regularly harnessed to replenish the humanitarian archive with updated visual "evidence" of otherness, with the noble savage recast as the obedient child, the dignified animal, and the resourceful refugee.
Rangan, Pooja Girish,
"Automatic Ethnography: Otherness, Indexicality, and Humanitarian Visual Media"
Modern Culture and Media Theses and Dissertations.
Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library.