English and creative writing associate professor Neelika Jayawardane is bringing attention to media misrepresentation of protests in Sri Lanka, which she said represent part of a pattern of how outside organizations cover global events.

Jayawardane wrote “Sri Lanka’s ‘picturesque’ protests” for Al-Jazeera because she found that looks can be deceiving as reports took a movement that is “idealistic and focused on collective care” and presented it as being dominated by violent clashes in a misleading narrative, she said.

“Sri Lanka’s protests have been misrepresented in many of the usual ways in which news organisations from the Global North do -- referring to protestors as ‘mobs’, ‘rioters’ who ‘clashed’ with police, masked extrajudicial forces on unmarked motorcycles, and armed forces with semi-automatic weapons, wearing full body armour deploying teargas, water cannons, rubber bullets... and live ammunition,” Jayawardane wrote.

This coverage is impacted by “Orientalist” attitudes and stereotypes based in imperialism and racism over the course of centuries, Jayawardane said.

“Due to the island’s colonial past, and the fact that many Europeans – Scandinavians, Germans, Russians and Britons – regularly holiday there, other problematic attitudes that reduce the protests into one-dimensional ‘Orientalist’ fantasies – misleading narratives of the East created and propagated by people from the West – have also crept into the coverage,” Jayawardane wrote.

In a subsequent interview with Oswego Today, Jayawardane explained the concept as relayed by “Orientalism” by Edward Said as “the ways in which texts, designs and visual works -- paintings, drawings and the like -- were used to construct and represent the ‘Orient’ for European and Western audiences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

“He also showed how the stereotypes that were crucial to the project of European imperialism -- that is, through infantalising and exoticising the Oriental other (thereby making it seem as though they needed to be paternalistically looked after by European powers), or making them seem like irrational savages who need to be ‘tamed’ by European civilisation -- in previous eras are repeated to justify European/white superiority and civilised status, in opposition to the ‘restless natives,’" Jayawardane said.

Idealistic protests

These attitudes have obscured what is actually a remarkable movement drawing a wide range of support, Jayawardane said.

“Organisers at GotaGoGama, for example, set up a free food station that provides meals for protesters and the destitute, a medical aid tent and a library, where anyone can come and read books or organise a ‘People’s University’ session hosting discussions on social and political issues,” Jayawardane wrote. 

“Moreover, representatives of various religious organisations also attended the protests to bear witness to the events, and try to offer some protection to protesters from the violence of police, Sri Lankan Armed Forces and extrajudicial groups looking to harm them,” she added. “Images of Catholic nuns forming human chains to protect protestors were undeniably potent. So were those showing Catholic and Anglican priests, Muslim imams and maulanas, Hindu priests and Buddhist monks, all in their religious robes sitting together at Galle Face Beach, chatting and sharing views. Together, they have held vigil, overnight, at the main protest encampment, to stave off stealth attacks.”

However, “these powerful, meaningful images have been used by some news organisations to build reductive, Orientalist narratives about what is going on in Sri Lanka –- narratives that focus on Orientalist fantasies about the island rather than the reality on the ground,” Jayawardane explained.

In addition to miscasting an important political movement, the images contribute to ongoing stereotypes and misunderstandings about whole countries, regions and cultures. They mirror the way North American and European reporters, photographers, writers and other documentarians have sustained colonial and imperial attitudes that far outlive the Western global empires.

“That image bank has an enormous influence on people -- be they from the Global North or South,” Jayawardane said. “If you conjure up a visual image of any given country, chances are, it will draw from an image repertoire that reproduces some version of colonial tropes -- it might be of a picturesque, ‘exotic’ (alluring, cute and very different from ‘us’) or a ‘savage’ (dangerous, primitive, irrational) place.”

These problems are compounded because photographers are “parachuted” into locations where crises take place yet have little to no cultural knowledge and just frame their work and understanding within these tropes and stereotypes, she said.  

“Adding to the problem is the lack of a critical education about the history of photography and its role in racialising and othering people, as well as contemporary photographers’ and photo-editors’ uncritical adoption of colonial tropes of photography,” Jayawardane said. “A lack of critical engagement with photography's history also means that photographers continue to rely on Orientalist visual tropes (often unconsciously). And unwittingly, they continue to perpetuate racist and colonial constructs of Black and brown people.” 

Creating understanding

Jayawardane’s research and writings include the past decade of focusing on South African photographers and photography, where “I learned more about the ways photography contributed to erroneous visual representations and narratives about Africa and Africans,” she said. 

“Critical engagement became important for me, and many others -- including my research partners on Photography, Power and the Ethics of Representation, a joint project with the Visual Identities in Art and Design (VIAD) Research Centre, University of Johannesburg -- because we know that we want to educate younger generations of students to be aware, critical and to push back on erroneous representations,” Jayawardane noted.

But it also connects with media literacy, an ongoing need in a world where people get their “news” from not only these distant reports but moreover via social media from reductional memes and political pundits. 

“Media literacy is important,” Jayawardane noted. “Visual literacy is important and social geography and history -- and I mean the history certain politicians want to ban –- is important.”

The challenge is instigating needed changes for global news services, where most Western-based organizations have editorial boards and decision-makers who are overwhelmingly white and/or cater to outdated cultural views. 

“These exclusionary practices continue to reproduce the aesthetics we’ve come to associate with a ‘good photograph’ – visuals that are threaded through with imperial history (and the neo-liberal present) of photography,” Jawardane said.

Thus more inclusionary hiring and promotion practices, greater cultural awareness and understanding the history and impact of selected photography could make for a fairer representation. But the coverage of the Sri Lanka protests show this remains a long road, as the two-sided Orientalist model remains in place for so much of the narrow window the world gets to see.

“This is how protesters demanding change and being attacked by state forces became ‘mobs’, and the violence wielded by the police, armed forces and the black-clad, masked assassins on motorcycles that the Rajapaksas unleashed became ‘clashes,’” Jayawardane said. “This is also how the images of religious leaders, pretty ceremonies and even the idealism of a powerful movement – one which has now sustained itself for over a month – become part of an Oriental picturesque.”