2.9 A sense of us and them

The purpose of this exercise

Key words from the brief:

  • Source a range of images in which illustrators have created a sense of us and them or ‘otherness’.
  • Read the images and identify how you think they have they done this.
  • Think about how they could have represented the subject differently, to avoid creating such a distance between them and the subject.

What is meant by ‘us and them’

Using visual representations to sell or influence is a core part of the culture we live in . Persuasion is an area of activity within illustration that includes advertising and corporate branding that is dedicated to that purpose. The objective of this type of work is to create positive messages that further the causes of a particular product or brand.

This can be either positive or negative depending on the beliefs, views, culture, class, status, age, race or gender of the viewer.

Colgate toothpaste advert 1932
Fig 1 – Colgate toothpaste advert, 1932

A poster advertising a toothpaste maybe fairly benign whereas fake Facebook adverts subversively pushing a specific political agenda to further the interests a a political party could be seen as manipulative.

Both of these examples rely on creating a feeling of ‘us and them’.

For the consumer looking at the toothpaste advert, the desire to buy the product is driven by the desire to want to be ‘like them’ in some way; shiny white teeth, a wide happy smile etc.

For the Facebook user, the advert in the form of fake news generates a feeling of ‘us and them’ through reinforcing identity with a group by playing on the fears of otherness. The almost black and white divide between those people that want Brexit and those that want to remain within the European Union is a clear contemporary example.

Persuasive illustration involves the conscious use of ‘us and them’ to sell an idea or particular point of view.

Otherness in reportage illustration

The question about ‘otherness’ in reportage is more about unconscious bias.

An article published by the Guardian (2017) entitled ‘What’s the difference between explorers, anthropologists and tourists’ considers a contemporary example related to British explorer Benedict Allen who had to be rescued in Papua New Guinea whilst travelling to a remote community. It makes the point that many of the early anthropologists and explorers had an Imperialist agenda that was a result of the dominant European world view of that period.

An article entitled ‘Motives for imperialism’ on the Modern History website lists out some of the Imperialist motives:

  • There were huge economic benefits to any country able to access cheap labour and natural resources.
  • Sometimes Imperialist expansion was motivated through a belief that the cultural values and beliefs of the aggressor were superior than those of the peoples, countries or cultures of the objects of conquest. This racist belief was particularly prevalent in the European expansion during the 19th Century.
  • Another motive was religious; the desire of Christian missionaries to convert ‘natives’ to Christianity.

So whilst the purpose of contemporary travel illustration is to persuade, the question in this exercise is asking us to consider how illustrators, particularly Victorian travellers and explorers, applied an unconscious bias that reflected the dominant views of the period.

Image analysis

Each of the following images can be interpreted through the lens of one or more of these imperialist objectives.

David Livingstone reading Bible
Fig 2 – Livingstone reading the Bible to natives

As well as being a medical doctor and explorer, Dr Livingstone was also a Christian missionary who became a popular British hero during the latter stages of the Victorian era.

This image depicts Dr Livingstone reading the bible to three tribeman leaning up against the wall of a hut. The three men are listening intently, presumably being moved by the words from the Christian holy book.

The narrative in the picture supports the idea of a dominant European Christian tradition spreading ‘truth’ in the form of Christianity to African natives.

Fig 3 – Distribution of relief to the sufferers

The second image was published in the London Illustrated News in May 1877. It shows food being distributed by British Army officers to grateful villagers during a famine in the Madras province of Southern India.

The generosity of the well nourished Europeans contrasted against the poor undernourished Indian villagers provides readers of the London Illustrated News with a perspective that reinforces the dominant belief that British culture and values were somehow superior than that of the local Indian population.

Manifest their delight
Fig 4 – Kamrasi’s men manifest their delight

The next image shows a Victorian couple dressed in middle class dress as if they were in London juxtaposed against the clothing and attire of the local tribes men and women. The scantily dressed tribesman are laughing and pointing at the overdressed white European couple. The portrayal of the indigenous tribesmen is patronising and they are made to appear simple or foolish.

A European audience would read this as the sophisticated and ‘cultured’ white couple interacting with the local unsophisticated and uncultured natives. Like the previous image, the message is racist based on an idea of European cultural superiority.

Dr Hayes
Fig 4 – Dr. Hayes entertaining his savage visitors

The final picture shows indigenous tribes people sitting on the floor of a tent or makeshift shelter. Dr Hayes and his men are sitting on boxes or barrels. The atmosphere is relaxed and jolly. The caption provides the key to how the viewer should read the image. The visitors are described as savages which, like the previous two examples positions the indigenous people as less sophisticated and educated than their European hosts.

What the illustrator might have done to remove the sense of otherness

In order to make an illustration that removes a sense of us and them, the artist needed to have empathy with the subject and understand the overarching imperialist narrative that is the lens through which the images are framed.

Removing this would have enabled the artist to see without preconception or bias.

The composition of the images could have been structured to be much less confrontational and the interactions between the people could have been portrayed as being equal rather than subservient or patronising.


Newspaper articles (online)

Guardian (2017) What’s the difference between explorers, anthropologists and tourists At: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/nov/23/explorers-anthropologists-tourists-benedict-allen (Accessed 12.08.19)

Journal articles (online)

Cleary, Vern  Motives for Imperialism In: Modern World History [Online] At: http://webs.bcp.org/sites/vcleary/ModernWorldHistoryTextbook/Imperialism/section_2/motives.html (Accessed on 12.08.19)

Illustrations or images: obtained online

Figure 1 – Colgate Toothpaste Advert (1932) At: http://www.retrocards.co.uk/prodshow/AP1971H___Colgate_Toothpaste_Advert_1932__30x40cm_Art_Print_/colgate_toothpaste_advert_1932.html (Accessed 12.08.19)

Figure 2 – David Livingstone – his labours and his legacy (1894) https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14595110917/ (Accessed: 12.08.19)

Figure 3 – Distribution of famine relief in the Madras Presidency (1877) In: Illustrated London News (May 26,1877)

Figure 4 – Kamrasi’s men manifest their delight (1884) [Wood engraving] At: https://www.periodpaper.com/collections/nude/products/1884-wood-engraving-african-tribe-victorian-travel-indigenous-explorer-shield-185390-xgzc7-022 (Accessed on 12.08.19)

Figure 5 – Dr. Hayes entertaining his savage visitors (1884) [Print] At: (https://www.periodpaper.com/collections/nude/products/1884-print-dr-isaac-israel-hayes-arctic-expedition-native-ethnic-nude-explorer-185374-xgzc7-006 (Accessed on 12.08.19)

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