This collection interrogates the representation of humanitarian crisis and catastrophe, and the refraction of humanitarian intervention and action, from the mid-twentieth century to the present, across a diverse range of media forms: traditional and contemporary screen media (film, television and online video) as well as newspapers, memoirs, music festivals and social media platforms (such as Facebook, YouTube and Flickr). The book thus explores the historical, cultural and political contexts that have shaped the mediation of humanitarian relationships since the middle of the twentieth century. Together, the chapters illustrate the continuities and connections, as well as the differences, which have characterised the mediatisation of both states of emergency and acts of amelioration. The authors reveal and explore the significant synergies between the humanitarian enterprise, the endeavour to alleviate the suffering of particular groups, and media representations, and their modes of addressing and appealing to specific publics. The chapters consider the ways in which media texts, technologies and practices reflect and shape the shifting moral, political, ethical, rhetorical, ideological and material dimensions of international humanitarian emergency and intervention, and have become integral to the changing relationships between organisations, institutions, governments, individual actors and entire sectors.
Since the 1990s, there has been a marked increase in the scholarly consideration of the relationships between humanitarianism and media culture, and from a range of critical and disciplinary perspectives and institutional contexts.1 An emergent field of inquiry has been significantly shaped by several foundational analyses of the representation of humanitarian crisis, and particularly of the media’s various repertoires for relaying to its audiences the desperate suffering of distant others.2 As Suzanne Franks states, ‘Our awareness of nearly all humanitarian disasters is defined by the media’.3 Subsequently, and as Keith Tester argues, ‘if we want to understand modern humanitarianism, we need also to understand modern media culture, because the two are inextricably entwined’.4
An exhaustive historical overview of modern humanitarianism and media culture is beyond the scope of this introduction and book; however, with this collection we intend to understand some of the longer historical, cultural and political contexts that shape how humanitarian relationships have been mediated since the Second World War. As Simon Cottle and Glenda Cooper suggest, ‘media and communications … have entered increasingly and sometimes profoundly into the contemporary field of humanitarianism and this warrants sustained, critical attention’.5 Drawing and building on scholarship from sociology, journalism, development studies, politics, film and media studies and anthropology, we investigate the complex relationships between humanitarianism and popular media forms, technologies, events and cultures. Our authors explore a variety of media, from film, television and memoirs to music festivals and social media, and chart the development of different modes of communicating humanitarianism. As this book illustrates, the twentieth century is a significant period of transition in humanitarian and media institutions, which requires further analysis and investigation.
The origins of humanitarianism have recently become the subject of historiographical debate.6 Humanitarianism, as Peter Walker and Daniel G. Maxwell argue, is a system that ‘evolved’.7 Scholars such as Jonathan Benthall and Kevin Rozario suggest that global humanitarianism acquired its distinctive contemporary ethos and form in the West with the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863, and subsequently with the work of the American Red Cross during the First World War.8 However, humanitarianism underwent a significant shift in the aftermath of the Second World War. Craig Calhoun, for example, claims the civilian suffering and population displacement that characterised and distinguished the war led to a new idea of ‘humanitarian emergency’. War was no longer the sole focus of humanitarian efforts. Instead a concern for a common humanity was promoted with ‘renewed efforts to articulate humanitarian norms and build institutions to enforce them’.9 The institutional, organisational and operational development of humanitarianism that began accelerating in the 1940s is therefore simultaneous with dramatic shifts in media culture (for example, the growing popularity of television and of mass-market paperbacks) and thus warrants and requires an expansion and a reorientation of our ‘critical attention’. The popularising of the humanitarian project, intrinsically entwined with media culture, has created further tensions, as ‘media logics’ increasingly determine the character of virtual humanitarian relations.
The chapters in this collection offer original interrogations of the representation of humanitarian crisis and catastrophe, and the refraction of humanitarian intervention and action, from the mid-twentieth century to the present, across a diverse range of media forms: traditional and contemporary screen media (film, television and online video) as well as newspapers, memoirs, music festivals and social media platforms (such as Facebook, YouTube and Flickr). Addressing humanitarian media culture as it evolved over a period of more than seventy years, the chapters offer a critical assessment of the historical precedents of our contemporary humanitarian communications. The contributors to the book are all specialists in the fields of media and communications, film studies, cultural studies, history or sociology: these different disciplinary perspectives inform their approaches to and understanding of the relationship between humanitarianism and media culture. Our authors reveal and explore the significant synergies between the humanitarian enterprise, the endeavour to alleviate the suffering of particular groups, and media representations, and their modes of addressing and appealing to specific publics. The humanitarian community has more recently (since the end of the Cold War) questioned its ambitions, purposes and principles, while also debating its relationship to politics and ethics.10 Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss suggest this period is marked by the ‘struggle to (re)define the humanitarian identity’, specifically in relation to ‘the boundaries, unity, and purity of humanitarianism’.11 The role played by the media in humanitarian endeavours is arguably central to such questions and struggles.
Humanitarian media is typically constituted by revelatory yet routine representations of emergency and exigency aimed at the prompt solicitation of sympathy and solidarity. As Erica Bornstein and Peter Redfield suggest, contemporary humanitarianism ‘remains inherently presentist’ due to its concern for ‘the lives and welfare of those now living’: ‘the life-saving norm of international aid … at its core seeks to confront immediate suffering, usually understood as bodily or psychological anguish’.12 However, the ‘immediate suffering’ happening now is more often than not ‘distant suffering’ taking place somewhere else, to ‘distant strangers’.13 The suffering must be mediated to the public (in words, in images, in sounds). In many cases, the communication of suffering is combined with a plea to act (for instance, to make a donation to an appropriate charitable organisation). John Silk, in ‘Caring at a Distance’, argues that media networks ‘play a significant part in extending the range of care and caring beyond the traditional context of shared spatio-temporal locale and our “nearest and dearest” to embrace “distant others”’.14 This ‘embrace’, however, remains virtual and imaginary. Despite the instantaneity of today’s global media communications, their representations paradoxically preserve distance (and subsequently the differences) between those who are suffering and those who are able to intervene. Our book contributes to further understanding the different ways people experience such a humanitarian ‘embrace’.
Cottle and Cooper acknowledge the role of communications in ‘the growing recognition of distant others as not so different from ourselves’, and in the subsequent ‘development of a humanitarian sensibility’.15 Certain differences nevertheless obtain. The relationship between humanitarianism and media culture is often addressed in relation to strategic or ideological communications, with a particular focus on the presentation of those who are suffering to those with the potential to ‘help’. Lilie Chouliaraki, for instance, has explored how the media might ‘cultivate a disposition of care for and engagement with the far away other’ and ‘create a global public with a sense of social responsibility towards the distant sufferer’.16 Whereas Roberto Belloni is critical of the role of the media, or rather the choices it typically makes, and suggests the media ‘adopt unethical tactics to provoke an impression among the general public and enable humanitarian organisations to raise more funds’.17 The marketisation of humanitarianism (specifically monetised humanitarian action) has inevitably shaped the competitive commodification of both ‘distant suffering’ and ‘caring at a distance’ by the mass media. In turn, humanitarian organisations have become ‘market’ players. For Ian Smillie and Larry Minear (2004) the ‘humanitarian enterprise’ refers to ‘the global network of organisations involved in assistance and protection. Humanitarianism is the act of people helping people’; however, as the authors acknowledge, while ‘[an] expression of ethical concern, humanitarianism is also a business driven by market forces and by agencies seeking to maintain and expand market share’.18 In a highly competitive sector, brand design and management are increasingly important for humanitarian organisations wishing to maintain visibility.19 As this collection shows, representations of humanitarianism are created in increasingly contested environments, with financial, political and cultural pressures shaping their production.
Structure of book
In Part I, ‘Histories of Humanity’, we begin by mapping the historical contexts of popular humanitarian communication. The authors consider how moving image and print media were deployed to promote awareness and understanding of, and also active involvement in, various global humanitarian endeavours, organisations and institutions that developed during and in the decades following the Second World War: the United Nations Organisation, the Marshall Plan and the US Peace Corps. This section examines a range of media forms, including popular cinema and television shows and documentary films, and press coverage and public relations campaigns, in order to address the ways in which humanitarianism was strategically linked to images of and ideas about childhood and internationalism, history and heritage, and altruistic intervention and ‘underdevelopment’. In ‘“United Nations Children” in Hollywood Cinema: Juvenile Actors and Humanitarian Sentiment in the 1940s’, Michael Lawrence addresses the significance of the child for representations of the United Nations in studio cinema produced during and immediately following the Second World War. Lawrence suggests that Hollywood cinema of the 1940s encouraged a primarily sentimental understanding of internationalism in the era of the United Nations by offering audiences an ‘appealing’ image of displaced and orphaned children from the warzones. The chapter suggests how various genre films deployed either realism or fantasy in their ideological presentation of the war’s most vulnerable victims to promote the United Nations’ internationalist ethos and associated humanitarian campaigns. In chapter 2, ‘Classical Antiquity as Humanitarian Narrative: The Marshall Plan Films about Greece’, Katerina Loukopoulou contributes an in-depth analysis of the relationship between global humanitarianism and non-fiction cinema by examining the rhetorical representation of ancient history and national heritage in several documentary films produced to promote international relief and reconstruction endeavours in post-war Greece, audio-visual campaigns that promoted humanitarianism at a transnational level. Loukopoulou attends to the means by which Marshall Plan films sought to assert continuities between the classical and the modern periods in order to promote humanitarian campaigns to both local and transnational audiences. Focusing in particular on British director Humphrey Jennings’ The Good Life (1951), she explores the significance of the formal relationships between foreground and background, and between image and voiceover commentary, for the film’s humanitarian historiography. Agnieszka Sobocinska, in chapter 3, ‘“The Most Potent Public Relations Tool Ever Devised”? The United States Peace Corps in the Early 1960s’, investigates how public relations and popular culture were exploited to promote the Peace Corps as a humanitarian project to the general public. Using an analysis of the United States Peace Corps’ early publicity materials, Sobocinska identifies this period as a critical historical juncture that shaped popular understandings of an altruistic America that has a moral mandate to intervene. Sobocinska considers the deliberate production of a Peace Corps mystique in which an explicit emphasis on the volunteers’ patriotism, beauty and ‘pioneer spirit’ helped to popularise the belief in America’s responsibilities towards ‘underdeveloped’ nations and subsequently to normalise, and glamorise, a logic of intervention.
Part II, ‘Narratives of Humanitarianism’, considers the different actors at work producing public understandings of humanitarianism as apolitical. The authors examine a range of media, including the memoir, the news, social media, television and film, and their representations of humanitarian relationships. In chapter 4, ‘The Naive Republic of Aid: Grassroots Exceptionalism in Humanitarian Memoir’, Emily Bauman considers humanitarian memoir and argues that the genre can provide a counter-discourse of humanitarian government, specifically through its presentation of the exceptional project founder or entrepreneur as the ‘sovereign irrational’ or even ‘fool’. Bauman illustrates the significance of naivety in narratives presenting first-hand accounts of personality-driven enterprises in an increasingly institutionalised humanitarian sector. Bauman argues that popular humanitarian life-writing exploits the genre’s association with confessional authenticity to offer a reassuringly ‘human’ image of humanitarian institutions. Shohini Chaudhuri, in chapter 5, ‘“Telegenically Dead Palestinians”: Cinema, News Media and Perception Management of the Gaza Conflicts’, reflects on why such oppression is possible and acceptable. Chaudhuri explores representations of Palestinian casualties (and the disavowal of their political causes) across mainstream news coverage, social media, popular American television (The Good Wife [2009–16]) and documentary film. The chapter concludes with an analysis of Where Should the Birds Fly (2013) by the Gazan citizen journalist Fida Qishta, which, Chaudhuri contends, emphasises everyday violence so as to refuse the widespread tendency to separate the humanitarian crisis from political concerns. In chapter 6, ‘The Unknown Famine: Television and the Politics of British Humanitarianism’, Andrew Jones analyses the television coverage of the famine in Ethiopia in 1973 that was predominantly unreported in Western media. In doing so, Jones argues that there is a pressing need for sustained historical research into the relationships between media representations and politics. Jones highlights how many of the issues with the 1973 Ethiopian famine, such as NGOs’ dependency upon the mass media, are pertinent today. This chapter considers the colonialist dimensions organising conventional humanitarian representations of emergency and suffering in the global South, and the critical debates within the aid sector about the value of ‘negative’ images. Focusing on the influence of ITV’s The Unknown Famine, Jones studies its dramatic impact on disaster fundraising, and specifically its transformation of the relationship between NGOs and both popular broadcasters and government aid policy and administration.
In Part III, ‘Reporting Refuge and Risk’, we focus on the movement of people displaced by conflicts and explore the longer histories of this current ‘crisis’. Pierluigi Musarò, in chapter 7, ‘European Borderscapes: The Management of Migration between Care and Control’, considers both state and non-state media campaigns associated with Mediterranean border controls amidst the migration ‘crisis’. Focusing on Europe’s border controls, and narratives of national security, Musarò’s chapter critiques the dichotomies between care and control, threat and vulnerability, solidarity and indifference, which are presented in media campaigns and coverage. Musarò argues that the securitised approach to managing migration produces a depoliticised discourse of humanitarianism. The ambiguities and contradictions that characterise discourses and practices constituting the military-humanitarian governance of migration are addressed with an analysis of media representations and campaigns concerned with the loss of life as well as those targeting would-be migrants. In chapter 8, ‘The Role of Aid Agencies in the Media Portrayal of Children in Za’atari Refugee Camp’, Toby Fricker charts the evolution of media coverage of young Syrian refugees in Jordan and considers refugee camps as a ‘melting pot’ of aid workers, journalists, visiting politicians and celebrities. Fricker explores how children were framed by the media according to established narratives that shifted in focus from the children’s propensity to violence and vengeance to their urgent need for education and protection. This chapter argues that NGOs have an ethical duty to intervene in media narratives, and to shape the media’s decision-making process during a crisis, and ultimately to amplify rather than silence the voices of children. The section concludes with chapter 9, ‘Selling the Lottery to Earn Salvation: Journalism Practice, Risk and Humanitarian Communication’, in which Jairo Lugo-Ocando and Gabriel Andrade explore the tensions between journalism and humanitarianism as social practices, and examine the potential for representations of suffering to address the structural problems responsible for suffering rather than simply promote palliative measures. The authors argue for the strategic embrace by news journalists of the notion of shared risk (collective, everyday uncertainty) in order to produce a political solidarity in their readers, one more likely to result in active and effective responses to the problem of vulnerability. Lugo-Ocando and Andrade argue that by advancing a new humanitarian narrative, which privileges a solidarity that promotes equal relations and communicates a ‘shared risk’, a shared view of society can be created.
Part IV, ‘Capitalism, Consumption and Charity’, concludes the collection with case studies that acknowledge the paradoxes that can occur when corporate actors communicate humanitarianism. Chapter 10, ‘Consumption, Global Humanitarianism and Childhood’, asks whether political consumerism can create a space for humanitarian care and justice. Using an analysis of online discussions of children’s toys as her central case study, Laura Suski illustrates how notions of care for ‘our’ children and a humanitarian impulse to protect ‘other’ more distant children are interwoven in consumption practices. In doing so, this chapter considers the tensions that exist when consumption practices enact notions of care, responsibility and identity. Rachel Tavernor, in chapter 11, ‘Liking Visuals and Visually Liking on Facebook: From Starving Children to Satirical Saviours’, explores how the architecture of Facebook, which privileges positive sentiments, changes visual representations of humanitarianism. This chapter draws upon an analysis of Facebook and interviews with young people, to investigate the spaces and ways in which people are invited to engage in humanitarianism. Tavernor argues that the commercial ideology of Facebook contributes to shaping and promoting humanitarian action as quick, immediate and measurable. The final chapter is based on original fieldwork at a music festival in Denmark. In ‘The Corporate Karma Carnival: Offline and Online Games, Branding and Humanitarianism at Roskilde Festival’, Lene Bull Christiansen and Mette Fog Olwig discuss the progressive and problematic aspects of popularising humanitarianism. Christiansen and Olwig illustrate the influence of corporate actors in producing humanitarian imaginaries that endorse their own branding strategies, and identify the hierarchies and social norms challenged during the festival. In doing so, the authors consider the complex relations that are negotiated when humanitarian causes are partnered with corporate companies.
We argue that media have become integral to humanitarianism and the changing relationships between organisations, institutions, governments, individual actors and entire sectors. Central to this book are analyses of the explicit, and implicit, power relations, and the structural global injustices, that shape the relationships created when communicating the suffering associated with famines, disasters and wars. We edited this collection during a period reported across the media as a ‘crisis’. The mass movement of people seeking refuge in the UK, and across the world, has made visible how public opinion is fractured. The humanitarian responsibilities of governments, communities and individuals continue to be debated, negotiated and redefined. Popular discourses concerned with borders, control and hospitality, alongside a resurgence of far right nationalist rhetoric in Northern America and Western Europe, have contributed to the changing political terrain. During a period when geographical borders and nationality are emphasised, we felt it was important to craft an international collection that crosses disciplinary borders. While the focus in this book is on distinct campaigns, festivals, films, television and reporting, we hope that our discussions of the interweaving of humanitarianism and media culture may speak to contemporary, and future, contexts.
Research in the field has often focused on representations of suffering. Critical readings of humanitarian imagery have shown how people living in poverty are homogenously represented as ‘children’, are ‘dehumanised’, or ‘imperially’ imagined, and ‘marketed’, ‘branded’ and ‘commoditised’. When it came to selecting an image for the front cover of this book, we were both sure about the kind of representation that we did not want to use. The photograph we chose is a self-portrait produced by Toni Frissell. In various ways it reflects several of the themes of this collection. Frissell was a pioneering fashion photographer in the 1930s, who, like several women photographers, subsequently became a war correspondent. Frissell volunteered her photography services to the Red Cross, the Women’s Army Corps and the Eighth Army Air Force. Frissell’s images were used in posters to promote the work of the Red Cross, as well as to popularise the wider humanitarian project. The images she produced during her assignments across Europe captured the devastation of war, particularly in her photographs of orphaned children, but also the human face of humanitarian intervention, represented by her portraits of nurses and military personnel. The original negative of our cover photograph is archived at the Library of Congress and titled as ‘Toni Frissell, sitting, holding camera on her lap, with several children standing around her, somewhere in Europe’. The photograph captures a relationship between Frissell and the children, the latter expressing both intrigue and delight as she shows them the camera with which she will mediate their suffering to others. Frissell’s photograph thus foregrounds the interaction between the producer and the subjects of humanitarian media by depicting their different relationships with the technological basis of humanitarian media itself. Our book unpacks and explores the historical, cultural and political contexts that have shaped the mediation of humanitarian relationships. Together, the chapters illustrate the continuities and connections, as well as the differences, which have characterised the mediatisation of both states of emergency and acts of amelioration. The collection considers the ways in which media texts, technologies and practices reflect and shape the shifting moral, political, ethical, rhetorical, ideological and material dimensions of international humanitarian emergency and intervention. It is important, we argue, that the histories of humanitarian media culture inform contemporary debates.
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