Can Visual Diplomacy Save the World?

American clarinetist, Benny Goodman, performs in Red Square, Moscow, 1962. I(Image courtesy of the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Benny Goodman Papers, Yale University)

American clarinetist, Benny Goodman, performs in Red Square, Moscow, 1962.
(Image courtesy of the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Benny Goodman Papers, Yale University)

For many decades now countries like the United States, France and the United Kingdom have used public diplomacy to spread their soft power.

One of the elements of public diplomacy is known as cultural diplomacy and includes exchange programs, musical tours and international photographic exhibitions.

The fundamental idea is simple; through cultural exchange, nations can achieve a level of understanding between their peoples that politics cannot.

Ashley Doliber, a Masters Degree candidate at Tuft University’s Fletcher School is keenly interested in an idea that pivots off this notion of cultural diplomacy; How can images be used effectively as tools for international diplomacy? Can we foster better understanding between nations and a more peaceful co-existence by leveraging the power of visual communication?

"We know that even one picture can change the course of someone’s thinking about a topic."

Doliber thinks there are many merits to this notion. She asserts, “We know that even one picture can change the course of someone’s thinking about a topic. Just taking a recent example that’s been talked about a lot; the image of the Syrian toddler who died and washed ashore in Turkey; certainly people were talking about the [refugee] crisis before and after that, but you saw that one image spread like wildfire on social platforms and it really galvanized a lot of people who maybe saw their own kid, or their niece or their sister in that one image, and it sparked a political debate, it sparked empathy…”

I asked her a few questions about this idea and its possible implementation;

How did the idea of merging photography and international relations come about?

I did both of those areas of study in my undergraduate degree as two separate degrees. I did one in International Affairs and one in photography, a Bachelor of Fine Arts. I think at the time it started as two things that I was really passionate about but over time it’s really become clear to me that those two things inform one another pretty dramatically sometimes.

I think as you’ve seen working in the media space, an image, a video or even an info-graphic translates immediately; it goes across borders, across languages, across depth of understanding, those types of media have an extra-ordinary amount of power and I think especially in a global context it’s important to have something that brings someone into the story, that gives them an immediate spark of understanding about what’s going on in the world…”

Ashley Doliber

“Images can be used more effectively as tools for international diplomacy,” Ashley Doliber

Does that  exist as an actual area of study?

I don’t think there are too many people studying exactly that, buy I do think that there are quite a number that are working with those ideas. Certainly photojournalists are doing that all the time, and people that are working in strategic communication or working in the media industry more generally are thinking about how to use whatever visual content they have.

Organizations are one thing. How do we take this concept and apply it to nations and international diplomacy?

Before I came to school I was with an organization in DC called Meridian International Center. They do a lot of public diplomacy work, supporting some US Government Projects and some of their own. We had a department that focused on cultural diplomacy.
Some of the coolest projects they did were these photo exhibits that traveled either throughout the US and/or around the world.

They had one during the Cold War that was very successful where the US government brought together a lot really famous Jazz musicians to travel mostly in Soviet areas to share American jazz music and interact with the community and find those common areas of interest. The idea was, “Sure we don’t agree on politics, but we all love good music and we share the same emotions and we share the same values in some areas.” So there were these great images of these guys going out and playing the saxophone in the middle of a crowd of children in a square in Moscow or driving into a soccer pitch to play. Those images were curated and sent around the US and to a tonne of countries around the world.

an image, a video or even an info-graphic translates immediately; it goes across borders, across languages, across depth of understanding...

They did another project a coupe of years ago where they had images from different sources cataloging the history of US-Afghan relations before everything that’s going on now. It was kind of a lost part of history that a lot people don’t now much about and hearkens back to times when there was a little bit more hope, a little bit more understanding. That toured across Afghanistan, and in particular they brought in a lot of students to see it.

If we can take this notion to a far extreme and say at the UN General Assembly. Everybody is quiet and all we are doing is showing images. Would that be how to do it or do you see it happening in another way?

I would love to just see that happening, to see what would take place. Of course, you still need people to talk to one another. Generally speaking, an image isn’t going to be the end all be all of a transformative thought… however I do think it would be kind of an interesting experiment to see if delegates to these types of discussions could bring one or two images that exemplified how they were reflecting on a given issue.

Should poorer countries even consider spending money on this when they are grappling with issues like food security, health and education?

I would certainly never tell somebody that they should prioritize getting a picture out there over someone’s life or death. At the same time, I think a little bit of time and effort, maybe from an NGO partner or Civil Society, leveraging something to help tell your story better and help people understand you could help solve some of the more critical, pressing problems, because sometimes, unfortunately, it’s all about how you sell your needs. Engaging in some of these discussions; visual or verbal, I think could only help.”

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