The Effects of Dehumanizing Visual Portrayals of Refugees

Refugees are human beings.jpg

By Andrew Quist

Recent psychology and communications studies demonstrate that the way refugees are portrayed in the news media affects the way people view refugees and ultimately the policies that countries adopt on asylum and immigration issues. Specifically, photographs of refugees in newspapers and online media can either humanize them and create an emotional connection between the refugees and the viewer or they can dehumanize refugees and make them appear alien—as “others.”

Unfortunately, recent studies demonstrate that newspaper photographs of refugees tend to dehumanize them in various ways. For example, a 2017 study by the scholar Annabelle Cathryn Wilmott analyzed photographs of Syrian refugees in three U.K. online newspapers published in September 2015. Wilmott found that in all three media outlets, a majority of the photographs depicted refugees in medium and large groups, as opposed to depicting them in individual shots or in small groups. This is significant because psychological research has shown that people most empathize with the suffering of strangers when they are shown a photograph of a single identified individual—called the identifiable victim effect. By contrast, pictures of large groups of victims has a numbing effect that dehumanizes the subjects of the photographs—the more who suffer, the less we care.

Wilmott’s study also found the newspapers usually depicted refugees in long-distance shots, which creates a sense of separation between “us” and “them,” especially compared to close-up shots where the viewer can see the facial expression of the refugee in the photo. Wilmott also found that the photographs often depicted refugees interacting with the military, police or coast guard, and very rarely depicted refugees interacting with members of the local public. These depictions emphasize refugees’ out-group status and portray the refugee crisis as one of security rather than a humanitarian problem demanding compassion.

Wilmott also found that men were depicted more often than women, even though according to UNHRC statistics, more adult refugees traveling to Europe from Syria and Iraq were female (25.5%) than male (22.7%). Because large groups of men appear threatening, by choosing to publish photographs of mostly men in large groups, U.K. newspapers dehumanized refugees and categorized the refugee crisis as a security problem.

Wilmott’s findings are in accord with other content analysis studies of newspaper photographs of refugees or immigrants. A study of newspaper photographs of asylum seekers in Australia by Roland Bleiker and colleagues published in 2013 found that two prominent newspapers in Australia typically depicted asylum seekers in large groups and from a long distance that made the asylum seekers’ facial features unrecognizable. Similarly, a study of how immigrants are portrayed in newspaper photographs in Spain and Greece by Athanasia Batziou published in 2011 also found that newspapers predominately displayed immigrants in groups and from a medium or long distance, and almost never interacting with the local population—portrayals that dehumanize immigrants and categorize them as “other.”

These findings are significant because the visual portrayal of refugees has a real impact on how people view refugees, what asylum policies people support, and even the qualities people like to see in an elected leader. A group of researchers in the U.K. and France recently showed participants of a study award-winning journalistic photographs of small and large groups of refugees. They found that compared to the participants who viewed the small groups of refugees, those who viewed photos of large groups of refugees were more likely to see the refugees as dehumanized, were less likely to sign a pro-refugee pledge at the conclusion of the experiment, and were more likely to support an authoritarian leader.

We don’t have to portray refugees this way. Researchers Xu Zhang and Lea Hellmueller analyzed how CNN International and Der Spiegel portrayed refugees in 2015 during the European refugee crisis. While Der Spiegel displayed refugees with the same dehumanizing visual framing as the newspapers analyzed in the studies discussed above, CNN International was much more likely to use close-up shots, depict refugees as individuals or with their families, and to clearly show the refugees displaying facial expressions. These visual framings create an emotional connection between the viewer and the refugees depicted in the photographs. In this way, Zhang and Hellmueller write, the CNN International’s depictions of refugees comport with global journalism ethics by humanizing the suffering of refugees, rather than portraying them as a threatening anonymous mass.


Azevedo, R. T., De Beukelaer, S., Jones, I., Safra, L., & Tsakiris, M. (2019). When the lens is too wide: The visual dehumanization of refugees and its political consequences. Available at

Batziou, A. (2011). Framing “otherness” in press photographs: The case of immigrants in Greece and Spain. Journal of Media Practice, 12, 41–60. doi:10.1386/jmpr.12.1.41_1

Bleiker, R., Campbell, D., Hutchinson, E., & Nicholson, X. (2013). The visual dehumanization of refugees. Australian Journal of Political Science, 48, 398–416. doi:10.1080/10361146.2013.840769

Wilmott, A. C. (2017). The politics of photography: Visual depictions of Syrian Refugees in U.K. online media. Visual Communication Quarterly, 24, 67–82. doi:10.1080/15551393.2017.1307113

Zhang, X., & Hellmueller, L. (2017). Visual framing of the European refugee crisis in Der Spiegel and CNN International: Global journalism in news photographs. The International Communication Gazette, 79, 483–510. doi:10.1177/1748048516688134

Photograph by Haeferl 2013, CC BY-SA 3.0