Images, emotions, and international politics: The death of Alan Kurdi

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How are images, emotions, and international politics connected? This article develops a theoretical framework contributing to visuality and emotions research in International Relations. Correcting the understanding that images cause particular emotional responses, this article claims that emotionally laden responses to images should be seen as performed in foreign policy discourses. We theorise images as objects of interpretation and contestation, and emotions as socially constituted rather than as individual 'inner states'. Emotional bundling - the coupling of different emotions in discourse - helps constitute political subjectivities that both politicise and depoliticise. Through emotional bundling political leaders express their experiences of feelings shared by all humans, and simultaneously articulate themselves in authoritative and gendered subject positions such as 'the father'. We illustrate the value of our framework by analysing the photographs of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian-Kurdish boy who drowned in September 2015. 'Kurdi' became an instant global icon of the Syrian refugee crisis. World leaders expressed their personal grief and determination to act, but within a year, policies adopted with direct reference to Kurdi's tragic death changed from an open-door approach to attempts to stop refugees from arriving. A discursive-performative approach opens up new avenues for research on visuality, emotionality, and world politics.
Original languageEnglish
JournalReview of International Studies
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)75-95
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2020

    Research areas

  • Alan Kurdi, Discourse, Emotions, Images, Migration, Performativity, Social Media, Visuality, Digital, Refugee, immigration, EU, Icon

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