How photographs make Darfur mean something

July 10, 2009 · by David Campbell · photography

The relationship between photographs and text in the construction of political understanding is often complex and frequently unclear. Although news photographs regularly present themselves as windows illustrating the world, the articles, captions and headlines with which they are associated can bind them into meanings at odds with both their pictorial content and the accompanying textual themes.

SSRC Sudan Guardian 5March2009 pp4 5 How photographs make Darfur mean something

Odd conjunctions of this sort are common in the visualization of Darfur. Back in March 2009, when the liberal UK newspaper The Guardian wanted an image to accompany the print story of the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against President Omar al-Bashir, a photograph by French photojournalist Frederic Noy was chosen (in contrast to the web version, which has a portrait of Bashir). Showing a distressed baby boy – identified in the caption as malnourished – being vaccinated by partially obscured adults, it was taken at Koubigou refugee camp in eastern Chad. Noy would have had no control over the use of his image by a British newspaper, but the newspaper’s choice of this picture says much about how ‘Darfur’ has been made visually available to us.

As my earlier research on this topic has demonstrated (see my “Geopolitics and Visuality: Sighting the Darfur Conflict [2007]) photojournalism visually enacts the field it claims merely to document. In the case of Darfur, that visual performance has drawn on the established iconography of disaster in ‘Africa’ in which the political is rendered in terms of the humanitarian, and the humanitarian is signified by the bodies and faces of refugees.

Indeed, the vast majority of Darfur photographs have come not from the province but the camps in Chad, a product of the way photojournalists rely on international aid organizations to provide access to the edges of the conflict zone. My review of all the pictures used by The Guardian and The Observer in their coverage of Darfur from 2003 to 2005 showed that 43 of the 48 published photographs foregrounded individuals as symbols of the conflict, with two-thirds of these pictures focusing on refugees. And as Lynsey Addario’s March 2009 visual essay of the Otash camp in southern Darfur demonstrates (these being the most recent set of photographs used by the New York Times) the emphasis on the face of the individual remains the most common pictorial form for a political story, even one about the Sudanese government’s expulsion of humanitarian organizations from Darfur.

SSRC Lynsey Addario NYT 22March2009 How photographs make Darfur mean something

In fixing meaning, either photographs or text can have the upper hand, depending on their particular context. As Alex de Waal demonstrated in his review of the Darfur essay in David Elliot Cohen’s What Matters, the ambiguities of Marcus Bleasdale’s photographs were expunged by the force of the accompanying text written by Samantha Power and John Prendergast, which ensured the reading of the conflict as genocidal prevailed. However, in the case of the news photographs of Darfur circulating in European and North America, I would argue that the pictures have trumped the words. By constantly reproducing the stereotypes of the refugee as passive victim, these images have made a humanitarian account of the conflict dominant over all others. In turn, these photographs have distilled identities to a fixed essence such that the conflict can be easily mapped in terms of a tribal war or genocide that pits “Arab” against “African”.

Regardless of whether photographs or text are triumphant in directing the political meaning of a conflict like Darfur, what is missing from both is an appreciation for the wider context, abundant complexities, and many contingencies through which the fate of millions is determined. Although no single media holds the answer, the challenge for visual journalists is to find new ways to tell the story of Darfur so that this lack of certainty can be cogently represented.

Photo credits: Frederic Noy, Lynsey Addario

This is a cross-posting with the SSRC ‘Making Sense of Darfur’ blog

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