Selling normality – racialized healthcare in visual culture

all together smokes layered blog

A cursory reading of the Give Up Smokes for Good awareness campaign by South Australian Drug and Alcohol Services shows strong, successful, overtly Aboriginal sporting and acting celebrities, confronting Indigenous youth about the futility of smoking. This paper, however, is an attempt to invoke a less docile reading. Elements such as framing, context and casting, facial characteristics, design, and the presentation and subtext of type layers, will be analyzed in relation to the terms ‘normalization’ and ‘the gaze’. The creators of this campaign have applied a visual strategy traditionally associated with marketing and consumption, to an awareness campaign designed to change behaviour. The following analysis supports the theory that the participants’ gaze, while an attempt at ‘cut-through’ via “subject-to-subject recognition” (Kaplan in Hawthorn 2004, 139), is complicated by the forces of global, normative culture.


Foucault’s use of them term ‘the gaze’ describes the power relationship between the viewer and the subject (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 442). For women as subjects in film, the male gaze would infer objectification of a female subject (Hawthorn 2004, 138); surveillance cameras denote a controlling gaze (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 108); ethnic typological photography exerts a colonial gaze (Pugliese 2012, 6). Schirato and Webb explain that “while the notion of the scientific gaze refers to a set of operations that help produce the visual world, the concept of normalization extends this operation to take into account how the effects of that gaze are manifested socially, culturally and politically” (Schirato and Webb 2004, 140). An initial reading of the Give Up Smokes for Good campaign suggests an authorial intent to establish a mutual gaze, however further investigation reveals oppositional elements (hooks in Hawthorn 2004, 139).


Rejecting the passivity of the colonial gaze (Pugliese 2012, 8), the subject confronts the viewer from within the image, interpellating their young, Indigenous intended-audience. However, the campaign creators have asked subjects to ‘oppositionally gaze-on-demand’. In contemporary artist Tracey Moffatt’s Nice Coloured Girls, the gaze is directed onto lewd, white Australian males hoping to indulge in some Indigenous exoticism (Moffatt 1987). But while Moffatt creates a self-authored representational corrective of female Indigeneity, the creators of this campaign do not hail from a culture equipped to enable Indigenous self-management of the gaze. The portraits are compositionally reminiscent of iconic images of oppression, like the film rendition of George Orwell’s Big Brother and Shepard Fairey’s OBEY street posters featuring Andre the Giant. The omnipotence of their eye contact surveils the viewer. The effect, however, is that the normalising authorial intent undermines the potency of the gaze, mostly empowering institutions with vested interests in normalization.

Schirato and Webb explain normalisation as “the ways in which discourses, ideas and practices associated mostly with the government and other sites of power . . . establish norms against which people are measured (and measure themselves) to determine whether they are ‘normal’. (2004, 196). This concept is linked closely with what Foucault called biopower. Foucault believed that administering health care, the labour market, and the military, were all more controllable if people managed their own health and behaviour (in Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 109-110). People outside ‘norms’ pose control issues, are potentially unproductive and costly; Self-surveillance is an extremely economical way for societies and the powers which control them to manage bodies. Not only is the notion of a racialized healthcare campaign in and of itself normalising, the visual analysis of this campaign reflects the roots of normalization in science, and provides clues about the ways in which biopower is catalysed by contemporary aspirational culture.


The full face close-up portraits of “hand-picked” (Campaign Brief 2012) subjects suggest an authorial intent to establish a kind of confrontational intimacy with the intended audience: young Indigenous smokers. The photographs, with their high level of detail and lack of context, have “evidentiary status”, providing ‘scientific’ proof of the good health of the subjects (Pugliese 2012, 3). The cropping of contextual elements and the stylised design also create the effect of stripping the subjects of individual identity and diversity. Skin tones are suspiciously homogenous (as a result of post-production or careful casting, the viewer cannot be sure), and the set appears to be lit to darken already-serious eyes. Pores and hair are visible, suggesting ‘authenticity’, however these details give the images an equally ethnographic quality, reminiscent of American frontier photographer Edward S. Curtis’ cataloguing of ‘Indian-ness’ (Vizenor 2000). The ethnographic documentary recording of the subject has a dehumanising effect, further eroding the intended power of the gaze.

Celebrity plays an overt and covert role in normalization (Schirato and Webb 2004, 147): celebrities play a crucial role in capitalist hegemony when they are paid to endorse products, but in this example, they have been co-opted to encourage self-surveillance. As such, these subjects are complicit in marketing ‘normality’ to their cultural group. The advertisements use ‘aspirational’ subjects, with campaign credits placed at the bottom of a ‘hero’ image; The layout is suggestive of film poster design, creating an intertextual link between the campaign’s message and stardom. The messages inherently associate being smoke-free with super-normal success, with the text of the messages inseparable (graphically and symbolically) from the subjects: The subjects live through the message. It is interesting to note the lighter coloured skin of the message’s transparent text layer – a Derrida devotee might read the skin as being symbolically ‘purified’ by the text, light (as binarily opposed to dark) being morally the privileged tone.

Kriger posits that Indigenous health inequalities are actually “biological expressions of race relations” (in Patychuk 2011, 8). Diane Patychuk’s report on (American) Indigenous health equality places much emphasis on recognising diversity in the creation and implementation of racialized health promotion programs (Patychuk 2011). She cites racism, poverty and food security as just some of the factors at the core of health inequality for Indigenous people (Patychuk 2011, 6). As such, celebrity-surveillance and the simplistic conflation of fame, success and good health seem like dangerously wasted time and resources. Analysis of these images, with their omnipotent gaze following the intended subject, hail an Indigenous panopticon, employing Aboriginal eyes in the hope of recruiting yet more “docile bodies” (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 110).


Campaign Brief. 2012. ‘Drug & Alcohol Services SA targets indigenous youth in anti-smoking campaign via Jamshop’. Campaign Brief. Accessed December 14.

Hawthorn, Jeremy. 2004. A Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory. London: Arnold.

Moffatt, Tracey. 1987. Nice Coloured Girls. Accessed December 14.

Patychuk, Diane. 2011. ‘Health Equity and Racialized Groups: A Literature Review.’ Health Nexus. Accessed December 14.

Pugliese, Joseph. 2012. ‘Week 3 Scientific Visuality and the other’. CLT120 Vision, Visuality and Everyday Life. Macquarie University Lecture. Accessed December 14.

Schirato, Tony, and Jen Webb. 2004. Reading the Visual. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

Sturken, Marita  and Lisa Cartwright. 2009. Practices of Looking. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vizenor, Gerald. 2000. ‘Edward Curtis: Pictorialist and Ethnographic Adventurist’. Accessed December 14.


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