The Politics of Global Images


By Elizabeth Colton

What are the images that come to mind when you think of the world’s places—the Arctic or the Middle East, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, North Korea or Japan or Singapore,  the Caribbean or Pakistan or Paris or Kenya or Rio de Janeiro?  How does it happen that answers are often the same worldwide?  Behind it all is “the politics of global images.”

The widespread stereotypes of places reflect a global imaging, often manipulated by the actions of power-holders both inside and outside a place and by the global media, including past books and photographs.  Or, for some places in the world, most people have no image at all as the place could never get the world’s attention. The idea is often that it’s better to have even a negative image than none at all.

What do you think the world’s view is of the United States or Iran or Latvia or Norway or Asheville or Western North Carolina or the Blue Ridge Parkway or Burma/Myanmar?  Your answers and others’ views are often nearly the same, except when it’s about your own place.  Then others’ immediate images are often quite different from your own close view.   In such cases, the person of a particular place is surprised by others’ outside views and might try to persuade the outsiders to change their views.

Stereotypes based on a widespread global image of any one place are perpetuated in the global media.  A key domain for beginning the change of an image is through the media. But then the people of a particular place seeking an image change must somehow catch the attention of the media for something different, and that’s a very difficult project.  Whatever the prevailing global image is for a country or region, the media will continue to project that until something forces a change.

The mass media of television, video, film, and photography seldom dare to display an image that is in conflict with the generally accepted view.  The same can be said of the general writing and words used about a place. Or, if the words are in conflict with the picture, studies indicate that the audience will retain the image given by the picture and not the words.

News coverage of parts of the world show scenes and their reporters in exactly the kinds of setting the media know their audiences expect to see in that place. For example, for far too long, news from Africa shows scenes of poverty or conflict.  Likewise, unfortunately, news from the Middle East is mostly about war and terrorism, showing angry, shouting people.  Images of East Asia now show places of wealth and modernity, a contrast to their global images only a few decades ago.

It is a difficult and ongoing battle for news producers/reporters to persuade their bosses in the world capitals to allow them to do stories that do not fit the stereotypical global image of the place and people.  The viewers and readers are often used as the excuse—the stated assumption usually that showing and telling them something different from what they expect of a particular country or region would only confuse them.  The global news business will continue to show, report on that place only the way the surveys indicate the audience anticipates.

Political leaders of countries and media owners and their executives have traditionally shaped these stereotypical global images.  How then can a global image of a place or people ever change if the media continue to display the old image and the political leaders continue to perpetuate the stereotypes?

Pressure on the political and media leaders can push change eventually. In both cases, these leaders are ultimately dependent for their survival to responding to the majority demands of their constituents and audiences.  Politicians and media companies will give their followers what they demand or eventually lose their positions.  And now with new social media, the constituent audience leaders have a platform for registering their expectations.

This may sound like too much idealistic thinking—that people can change the images of places that were created and perpetuated by the global power-holders.  But we can see evidence of such changes in global images from recent history.

Japan, long known after World War II, for cheaply made products, surprised the world in the late 1960s with its announcement of building good cars and other products.   Like South Korea, which also once endured global dismissal of the quality of its products, Japan slowly changed its image to become known as a business and manufacturing leader of the world.  Singapore is another example. A city-state, once considered an urban disaster full of shanty-towns as late as the 1970s, Singapore transformed its image to become one of the most modern, clean, green places to live and do business.

South America is steadily and rapidly in the process of changing from its old global images, from its fairly recent history of dictators, poverty, to being the up and coming continent. The United States  continues to try to hold up its great history of democracy and freedom against persistent images of its being the “ugly American.” South Africa stepped from its pariah apartheid status in the 1990s now to be viewed as an economic and diversity leader for the world.

Some places once had no identifying global image, and now they are known to many in the world.  There are different stories for how each became known in the world image market. In most all cases, some people and businesses of a place used diplomacy and marketing to develop an image for their spot on earth.

Some small countries in the Arabian Peninsula—Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates,  once known by images only of sand-dunes and camels and later oil, used their petrol-money to build modern trading centers with skyscrapers and other signs of modern wealth.  Another country there, Bahrain, once viewed as a little haven, has now in the past two years seen its image deeply tarnished by its rulers’ reaction to the human rights demands of the majority of citizens.

Maldives, if known at all, was a remote archipelago in the Indian Ocean.  In the early 1970s, Maldivians began developing tourism and their country became a prized place for the world’s tourists, especially from Europe.  Still Maldives was not widely known elsewhere worldwide until the concern about climate change and threats to the earth’s low-lying coastal areas brought attention to the Maldives Islands as a first victim of global warming.

Latvia, emerging in the 1990s from Soviet domination, was a country with leaders who wanted to put the country on the map in some positive way. But they had little to offer other than their people and culture, which are the best any country can offer, and they knew it would have to be in the packaging.  Their opera productions were unique and not expensive. Thus, Latvia launched its “opera diplomacy” to put their little country on the world map for opera-lovers.

And there are also some cases today of places for which the global image is now in transition. Burma/Myanmar, long known for its political repression and incarceration of its Nobel-Prize-winning leader, is now opening to the world and working to build new global images as an exotic place for tourists, but its efforts now are threatened by publicity of the government’s repression of  its minorities.  Egypt, known to the world always for its Pyramids, ancient monuments, and the Suez Canal, is now struggling to salvage its global image of welcoming tourists as the country continues in its struggle to retain the liberties gained in the so-called Arab Spring of two years ago. The Arctic countries are moving from lands of glacial ice to lands without much ice.

At various times and at universities around the world, I’ve taught courses on what I call “the politics of global images.” At the beginning of each such seminar, I ask the same kinds of questions as above—about what their images are of different countries and regions and cities. Always students are surprised by how similar their views are of other places where they have no connection and how different others’ views are of their own home-place.

In these courses on “the politics of global images,” I’ve then taken the students virtually around the world to learn how there might be other images and realities of those places. One of the goals is to have the students come away with fairer, broader views of each of the other regions.  Another main goal is to have people imagine how a place could plan and effect a positive change in the global image.

Images people have of the world’s places—countries, regions, cities, neighborhoods—are often viewed as uniform, set. And usually, if asked, the person holding a mind’s eye picture or set of images for a particular place will say the views they have are based on the reality of the place. Can these be changed? In looking at “the politics of global images,” students considered the role of global and glocal diplomacy in media and marketing by various places.

Changing global images is extremely difficult, often seemingly impossible.  Ask anyone from the Middle East or Pakistan or Iran—or the United States, about which there are strong and often negative global images that are engraved in the world’s minds.  To set about trying to change such negative stereotypes requires something either catastrophic and at the same time positive—and such is rarely possible, or, more likely, a global political-marketing effort-or diplomacy- over a long period of time. A big  step towards change is recognition that there is a “politics of global images”  with political solutions.



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