Not through women's eyes: Photo-essays and the construction of a gendered tsunami disaster

Merilyn Childs*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose - This paper aims to critically appraise the representation of women through photo-essays used immediately following the December 26, 2004 tsunami disaster. Through analysis of photo-essay images published online, the author argues that women were largely represented in the samples as helpless victims who are passive, prone and inhabiting domestic or quasi-domestic settings. The paper argues that a "disaster genre" has emerged, and that disaster images matter. The disaster community needs to care about the "ethics of seeing", so that the viewer can "see" women, not simply as domesticated, vulnerable, passive and prone but in their diverse and complex lives and roles. Design/methodology/approach - This paper utilizes methodology developed within the emerging discipline of visual sociology, as applied to a sample of photo-essays published online by international aid agencies in the weeks following the tsunami disaster. Data sorting of the four visual essays was done in response to three interpretative questions. In total, 65 images were interpreted across four visual essays. Findings - A total of 26 images included women, and in these "the look" of the women suggested passivity, distress, and being in a state of being "cared for". Relationally, women were represented in terms of domestic or quasi-domestic locales. About 60 percent of the images included men, whereas 35.5 percent included women. There were no images in the 65 surveyed showing women actively involved in the physical labor of disaster response. In comparison, 35 percent of the images showed men involved in physical labor associated with disaster recovery. Practical implications - The participation of women in pre- and post-disaster planning and recovery is complex, and this complexity should not be made invisible by the visual representation of their lived experience. Agencies should actively develop policies and practices to ensure that women's diverse participation in disaster recovery is reflected in their choice of photographic materials published online. Originality/value - High originality. The gendered nature of visual representation following a disaster is explored through the interpretation of four photo-essays published online. An argument is put that disaster images matter, and that aid agencies have a responsibility to ensure that the complexity and diversity of women's disaster experiences are represented.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)202-212
Number of pages11
JournalDisaster Prevention and Management
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Disasters
  • Gender
  • Tidal waves
  • Women


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