Aesthetics of famine – symbol of a continent

 

A blog needs to start somewhere, and I’ve chosen to kick off by pointing to an older blog post by David Campbell on “Famine iconography as a sign of failure”.  A post that has surprisingly (for me at least) sparked quite a discussion, especially on twitter.  A result of this was a stimulating webinar and a discussion between Campbell and Jon Levy of foto8.

Campbell points out that the aesthetics employed in photographic reports of famine fail to inform (or raise questions) on the complexities of a phenomenon like famine, and at the same time it contributes to the homogenisation in the representation of Africa. Interpreting a famine as a hungry child, the abundance of flies on and around his/her head, has very little value in explaining the intricate breakdown of systems that is an underlying cause of a famine.

Huffingtonpost.com 04- 8-10.

 

Without undermining the effectiveness of these photographs to shift attention to a disaster area, a noteworthy point brought up is the fact that the iconography of famine is composed of images that represent only the last stages of it. This is the time when it’s generally already too late, and all there is left to do is relief aid, while the causes remain untouched.

He recommends that more energy should be spent on finding ways to unravel the underlying causes of humanitarian disasters in a picture, rather than resorting to old stereotypical icons.

 

Great article. It also mentions an example of photograph recycling. The journey of a picture of a boy from Malawi called Luke Phiri (I suggest it’s Phiri and not Piri), from a news report on Malawi’s famine to the face of Africa’s defeat as a continent in a charity campaign. (both pictures can be seen in a PDF of a comprehensive article yet to be published, as well as in the recording of the aforementioned webinar)

Let me mention that although we can easily rail against the shortcomings of the representation of famine, we have to acknowledge the function of these images and note that not making them might not be the right solution.

 

…we have to appreciate how the recourse to stereotypes is often a function of the political context they seek to address but cannot represent. Importantly, this means ‘compassion fatigue’ is not the issue with respect to the relationship between pictures and policy. Individuals continue to respond to the humanitarian structure of feeling induced by victim portraits, as their continuing use in charity appeals confirms.

 

Having said this, the fact that the visual aesthetics of a disaster like famine is to such a degree identical to the aesthetics of the representation of a whole continent, is plenty proof of how potent and damaging an unbalanced coverage of a famine can be.  Therefore a constant scrutiny and analysis is essential.

A portrait is in my opinion one of the most deceitful practices in photographic journalism. Its effect is faultlessly emotional and individual. And as much as it provokes compassion no matter the setting, when the setting is of a greater importance, we get absolutely nothing. The individual is in this case a symbol of dependency – a child, with no context, social environment or perspective. Now, google “poverty Africa”. Then Google something stereotypically similar like “poverty Asia” and compare how many particularly singled out children will pop up.

Although a lot has been written on this theme, these practices cannot be questioned enough, simply due to the importance of the matter they represent or rather misrepresent, and the fact that neither balance nor an alternative have been established in the visual accounts of famine. This blog will be coming back to this often in the future and this should be a starting point.

Finally, it needs to be repeated and stressed what this kind of imaging does to a continent. A vision of a continent – a portrait, a child, alone, amputated of a context or a social structure surrounding it. As I said, one can find heaps of well-written descriptions of why such portrayal is morally and ethically wrong, with words like dignity and humanity being thrown around diligently (I like the Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal’s outcry on the behaviour of foreign photographic crews on-site, as I’ve seen the conduct they describe in my work in Malawi as well).

But, what about the tangible effect of this? Shouldn’t we try to create more solid experiments or descriptions of the direct effect this kind of practice has on the consumers of these images? Like the educated and supposedly informed expat aid workers in Africa flooding social networks with pictures of themselves feeding the same, nameless dark child. A delegate of a large organisation with a mandate for complex structural changes, belching comments like: “Let’s feed Africa”. Or naming a NGO something like “Raising Malawi“. Or something like this:



Here is the link to a yet to be published comprehensive article by David Campbell:

The Iconography of Famine” is forthcoming in Picturing Atrocity: Reading Photographs in Crisis, edited by Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller, Jay Prosser (London: Reaktion Books, 2011)

 

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