Famine photographs and the need for careful critique

The photographic reporting of famine, especially in ‘Africa’, continues to replicate stereotypes. Malnourished children, either pictured alone in passive poses or with their mothers at hand, continue to be the obvious subjects of our gaze. What should drive our concern about this persistent portrayal? This morning I came across an example that demonstrates how criticism needs to be careful before it can make its point effectively.

As it happens, this week I am writing an essay on the photography of famine for a new book. The essay draws on the collaborative Imaging Famine project that started in 2005, and incorporates the points I made in a presentation for the Photography and Atrocity conference in New York that same year. I’m taking some time away from that essay to do this post because of my concern with the basis for claims fuelling a controversy in the blogosphere about famine photographs.

On checking my Twitter stream today I followed @PhotoPhilan’s link to a short post by Andrew Sullivan on “Stereotype porn.”  Sullivan was noting William Easterly’s post at Aid Watch on a story out of Sudan last week, and juxtaposed it with Alex de Waal and Rakiya Omaar’s 1993 op-ed on “disaster pornography in Somalia” (which, in another serendipitous moment, I had been reading yesterday as part of my research on the problematic use of “pornography” to categorise famine photographs – but more on that another time).

Easterly’s post claimed that:

The UN takes the photographer to the “hungriest place on earth”, Akobo, South Sudan (HT Wronging Rights). Then

The aid groups Save the Children and Medair have canvassed the Akobo community over the last week, searching for the hungriest children.

And surprise: you get the most horrific images possible of starving children, to be featured prominently on the Huffington Post, which reinforces the Western stereotype of “famine Africa.”

An equivalent procedure would represent New Yorkers by the most horrific images possible of the homeless. But we don’t do that because we don’t have the stereotype that typical New Yorkers are homeless…

Easterly is spot on with his criticism of how selective images produce stereotypes that represent an entire place in terms of a single dimension we would never accept if the shoe were on the other foot. But, I wondered, was this a conscious act of photographic manipulation, the crude pursuit of certain pictures regardless of context? So I followed the links to try and find out.

Easterly gives a ‘hat tip’ to Wronging Rights, which posted this last Friday as part of its “WTF Friday” roundup:

“Let’s not be sensational, guys. Let’s just go to the statistically hungriest place in the world and take pictures of emaciated babies. Because as Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal say, ‘Photogenic starving children are hard to find,’ but this has got to increase our odds.”

This certainly grabbed my attention because it seems to show crude intention on the part of a photographer or aid agency to deliberately find and construct certain pictures. There is no doubt that has happened in the past – a point made by their link to the de Waal and Omaar 1993 op-ed, which could have been the source for Sullivan’s citation of that same story – but was this Sudan story another case? Was this quote evidence of a new instance?

No, it wasn’t. The quote is the voice of the Wronging Rights blog reading an article on The Huffington Post. The quote is made up, and does not appear in any form, direct or indirect, in The Huffington Post article. That story is in fact an Associated Press report from Akobo in Sudan and makes no mention of the role of any photographer (see the version The Huffington Post used in full here, with a longer version here). The AP story reports on the food insecurity of a region where 46% of children are classified as malnourished with 15% being the threshold for classifying a situation as an emergency.

How was The Huffington Post/AP story read as evidence of photographic manipulation? With no direct reference to Jerome Delay, the photographer who seems to have accompanied reporter Jason Straziuso, the likely connection comes from the following paragraph:

The aid groups Save the Children and Medair have canvassed the Akobo community over the last week, searching for the hungriest children. They found 253 that they have classified as severely malnourished, meaning that they will die without immediate intervention. The children are now enrolled in a feeding program that relies primarily on fortified peanut butter.

It seems that the transmission of this story from Wronging Rights to William Easterly and on to Andrew Sullivan – accompanied at each turn by de Waal and Omaar’s 1993 op-ed – has created a view that the aid groups’ “searching for the hungriest children” was something done primarily for photojournalistic rather than public health reasons. But as the first comment on Easterly’s post suggests:

When you have a project trying to cure children with severe acute malnutrition (SAM), of course you are going to canvas the community to find the SAM cases. That’s what case finding and public health is about. They didn’t canvas the community so that a photographer could come in and take a picture.

You can blame the photographer and the publication, but I don’t think you can blame the agencies for trying to find and cure malnourished children using a standard public health strategy.

I think William Easterly is technically right to say the UN took a photographer to Akobo. I’ve done research in southern Sudan in the past and know how the logistics work. I imagine that the AP reporter and photographer travelled with a UN agency and/or NGO, and that while those agencies were carrying out their humanitarian and public health tasks, they took the journalists to feeding centres at which it was possible to produce photographs of malnourished children. I have no doubt that the UN and the NGOs would have wanted the publicity the AP provided, but I do not think there is evidence from the stories cited to argue that this operation was a callous search for photogenic victims above all else. For the critique of famine photographs to be effective we have to be careful in what is claimed.

That said, there are questions to ask about the representation of this particular case. There is, as William Easterly argues, no let up in the production of famine stereotypes. For me what stands out is the way the AP report canvasses a range of possible causes for the food insecurity of Akobo – the continuing violence, failed rains, tribal clashes, and “a budget crunch on the government of southern Sudan because of the financial crisis means fewer available resources.” Yet the photography persists in reproducing the stereotype of largely isolated children, with eleven of the twelve images in the AP gallery showing these passive victims.

To be fair to the photographer, in these circumstances we have to accept that in large part he has accurately portrayed the people in the feeding centre. But is the feeding centre the real locus of famine? Can a photograph represent the many causes of this emergency? And what is the effect of these stereotypes once again marking Sudan as the “hungriest place on earth”?

One of my refrains for how we should understand photographs in these situations is that the problem lies with the absence of alternatives as much as it does with the presence of the stereotypes. Which means I should conclude with a double-page spread published by The Guardian this morning on the Sudanese elections. Clearly any place that is home to both food insecurity and a practicing democracy cannot be simply represented.

Election observers taking notes at a polling station. Voting in Sudan’s elections has been extended by two days to ensure technical problems do not prevent voter participation. Photographer: Pete Muller/AP


Featured picture: Odong Obong, barely 3 days old, is tended to by his mother, as he lays under a mosquito net with his twin brothers Opiew and Ochan, in a hospital ward in Akobo, Southern Sudan, Thursday April 8, 2010. AP Photo/Jerome Delay.

22 replies on “Famine photographs and the need for careful critique”


Porn is considered degrading and exploitive. i am less concerned about using the word than I am how these photo opportunities are staged and the increasing digital manipulation of images which I am seeing more and more of.

By the way, this is like the over use of the word Nazi.

Great web site.

This is from the point of view of a random reader, being neither a photographer nor journalist, but having read all comments. I think that a layman’s answer to David’s question, “but what form would and should the depiction take?”, can be answered by the stating “any and all.” By that I mean that in addition to battling the divided time of the average western reader journalism and supporting photography must include as complete a picture or foreign circumstance as possible for specific plights to be put into context that the reader can relate. Those of you who have been to regions of the world that scarcely resemble, lets say New York, in all observable aspects might state that there are no grounds upon which non-participants can truly relate. I would counter that this is the arduous task of journalism both in writing and recording of images. It is the choice of the media makers to decide that certain regional issues deserve greater importance and need to make a specific impact to prod distracted mind of readers into becoming involved or worse, buying media. The conceit that the thrust of journalistic education encourages pursuing the “hard angles” implies a biased filter whose purpose is to gather stories and images that have visceral impact but leave little in the way of building a complete picture. What seems lacking is any interest from media companies in building broad and accurate views over years of related subject matter. This would be something for a reader such as my self to develop sympathetic reactions to. For a westerner to have that reaction there must be more context to humanize the subjects and show that they are more like the reader than the reader has previously been led to believe. If the brave aid workers and journalists often accompanying them have any interest in engaging more passive counterparts in developed nations they need to understand that stating the bad without the good or neutral and foisting tightly cropped images of the worst sufferers to the forefront is not an effective tactic for anything other than selling copy. For me these images seem, however unintentionally, designed to invoke shame in the viewer and that unfortunately seems like a surefire way to file the related content to the short-term memory bank. You’ve got to show the reader/viewer in every way possible how their situation is similar to those suffering and how it’s not impossible for them to find themselves in equal need. The only way I see to do this is to show the humanity and truth of life rather than otherness. Once you show the like aspects alongside the unlike aspects the needs will show true contrast to something relative to their own experience.

Tobie — an excellent contrast that makes an effective point. It leaves another question unanswered though – the statistics indicate the urgency of depiction, but what form would and should the depiction take?

“An equivalent procedure would represent New Yorkers by the most horrific images possible of the homeless. But we don’t do that because we don’t have the stereotype that typical New Yorkers are homeless…”

“The AP story reports on the food insecurity of a region where 46% of children are classified as malnourished with 15% being the threshold for classifying a situation as an emergency.”

I think that if 46% of New Yorkers were homeless, we would expect a preponderance of photojournalism depicting that, and would dismiss as irrelevant any essay that purported to be about New York but which failed to address that aspect.

Thanks to Aric and J.B Russell for the comments.

Like Aric, and contrary to J.B’s statement about what is/isn’t the issue, I believe one of the larger questions is how photography can portray systems and contexts rather than just individuals and victims. A recent post (“When Things Speak Louder Than Faces”) at the excellent No Caption Needed blog by Robert Hariman discussed this too — see

I’m not quite sure who or what is the object of J.B’s critique about closing one’s eyes or “navel-gazing about semantics and stereotypes,” but if its the sort of analysis I try to undertake here than I think that is both unfortunate and misplaced. That’s because the sort of critical questions I (and many others) want to ask about common approaches to visualization is whether the familiar images can actually encourage and foster the very question’s the J.B. thinks are necessary. For sure, those questions are necessary. Before they can be posed we need to ask: does the established iconography of famine prompt more than a pitying, charitable response? Does it allow us to be confronted with the issues about “Why is Akobo the hungriest place on earth? What is the context? What is the history of the place? What is the cause? What is being done? Not just emergency relief, but for the long term. Who is responsible? What can we do?”.

I don’t think it does. At the same time, we have to be cognizant of the challenges a photographer like Delay faces when in a particular situation like the feeding centres of Akobo.

Finally, while I agree with the general thrust of J.B’s critique of the mainstream media, I think — for all the reasons I’ve given in previous posts last year about “revolutions in the media economy” — we are now in a period where “long-term, in-depth, issue based reporting” is being creatively achieved by people largely operating outside the mainstream media. Like Ed Kashi, I think that means we are actually in the midst of a golden age of photojournalism; its just that the forms of presentation and modes of distribution are radically different to what has come before. That doesn’t make it easy, but it makes it possible to reach and create engaged publics globally. And there are plenty of engaged people with substantial attention spans who want to see such work.

And do these pictures inspire anyone to have an opinion or ask questions about the situation in Sudan? Of course photojournalists focus on subjects that are difficult and at times upsetting to see. It is their job to document issues and events and to inform the public about our world and about problems that need resolution: to be the messenger, a voice for those who don’t have one. They are not there to create some conceptual symbol that represents an entire community or region or country or population or continent or issue. No more than an image of a homeless person or drug addict represents all of New York or an obese youth with a ball cap on backwards eating a Big Mac represents all of America or any number of meaningless generalities that can be attached to an image. Although there are many positive stories about Africa, it is true that we have seen far too many images of violence and starving children. While they don’t represent the entire continent, we continue to see them because these problems persist in places, often as a result of foreign as well as local policies. Instead of being horrified by the images, closing our eyes, cynically denouncing them as pornographic sensationalism, conducting navel-gazing debate about semantics and stereotypes, we should be angered by these images. Angered because these people are not isolated, passive victims. They are very real children and real people who are suffering in a very real way. The symbolism that I see in Jerome Delay’s image is not a hopeless representation of Africa or of famine, but the hands of a mother or father, like any parent anywhere, tenderly attempting to comfort and protect a fragile and endangered child. The subject depicted is unacceptable by any standard and we all bear a certain responsibility, regardless of how many times we have seen similar images. Any photograph or article will only describe a piece of the puzzle, but that piece should incite us to demand to know more. Why is Akobo the hungriest place on earth? What is the context? What is the history of the place? What is the cause? What is being done? Not just emergency relief, but for the long term. Who is responsible? What can we do?

The situation in South Sudan is complex and fragile. The uncertain future of the region will have significant consequences for all of East Africa and for the international community. The issue is not “the inherent limitations of photography in terms of tracing the visible.” There are many in-depth bodies of photographic work on South Sudan and infinite ways to photograph complex situations that are both informative and creative. I myself was in South Sudan a few months ago to produced a reportage on the issues facing the region: drought, inter-ethnic violence, the traditional ways of life, how the remnants of the long civil war (landmines, unexploded ordinance, etc.) continue to maim and kill people, prevent refugees from returning, farmers from cultivating food, infrastructure from being rebuilt, education, health, economic development and so forth. While there are logistical and budget concerns, the problem today is how the mass media functions as a whole. We are saturated with images and information. The public’s attention span (and interest span) is measured in nano-seconds. Gone are the days of long-term, in-depth, issue based reporting and multi-page photo spreads, because they are expensive to produce and they don’t sell copy, attract clicks on websites or bring in advertising revenue. The press is no longer about journalism, about informing the public or documenting our contemporary history. It’s about attracting readers and viewers for large media groups. It’s about offering stories on everything under the sun from celebrities to the latest diet to lifestyle to culture to travel to scandal to politics and reducing everything to the lowest common denominator in order to attract the largest audience possible and hence be as profitable as possible. As a result, a subject as complex, interesting and important as the first multi-party elections in Sudan in nearly a quarter century with an incumbent president indicted on war crime charges, a boycott by opposition parties, the humanitarian situation in the South after decades of civil war and the implications for the referendum on independence next year that could see the birth of a new nation or a return to conflict are all reduced to two easily comprehensible themes, as so aptly represented by the images above: Problems (starving children) and Election (polling monitors). Nevertheless, alternatives are out there, they’re just not in the traditional mainstream media. And one has to have enough interest to go looking for them.

[…] April 13, 2010 Famine photographs and the need for careful critique […]

Excellent post. I look forward to reading your thoughts on the use of the word pornography in the context of disaster, suffering, catastrophe, etc. It is a term that may have a very specific application but with overuse and careless application is greatly bringing down the quality of the conversation.

Specifically regarding the photographs of malnurished children that you refer to above, I think that there is an issue of framing and outcome at work as well. Frequently within journalism on crises in Africa, the hope is to tell the story of a crisis that needs to be addressed. For a photographer working alongside a relief effort, this can create a framing problem with limited options (as you rightly point out).

A starving child laying on a bed, isolated in the frame, can be seen (hopefully) as a representative figure for the broader problem of starvation that exists outside the immediate influence of the relief effort, which is a story about an unresolved medical and nutritional emergency. A wider shot of the same child within the context of a feeding center or medical program can be seen as an image of a child who has been saved, which is story of success and resolution.

Each proposes a very different argument and neither addresses the problem of the starvation itself. Since a relief effort produces small successes… individuals saved… the immediate visual evidence can be at odds with the greater story which is arguably about a lack of resolution. Or at least that lack of resolution is more of what is expected in seeing work on this subject.

The great limitation here is that (as you also point out) starvation is not a problem that is limited to a child’s body but is a systemic problem for which the starving child is a symptom. Systems are hard to depict because they are far flung and frequently invisible, resisting easy interrogation.

@duckrabbit – thanks for the comments Benjamin, I think they provide good context. Yes, “pornography” – I’m doing some work on why that is a problematic and over-used term for critique of this sort of imagery. Its a complex argument (via Carolyn Dean’s research) and I will post on that in the weeks ahead with luck. I am struck how it has become something of a lazy metaphor for critique, hence the way the (very good) de Waal and Omaar op-ed circulated in this case.

@Robert G – many thanks for your comment. I’m glad you picked up the point about the range of causes, because for me that, allied with the inherent limitations of photography in terms of tracing the visible, is at the heart of the issue. This is why I am less interested in framing criticism in terms of positive/negative, good/bad, and more in terms of the function and effect of images.

“… what stands out is the way the AP report canvasses a range of possible causes for the food insecurity of Akobo – the continuing violence, failed rains, tribal clashes, and “a budget crunch on the government of southern Sudan because of the financial crisis means fewer available resources.” Yet the photography persists in reproducing the stereotype of largely isolated children, with eleven of the twelve images in the AP gallery showing these passive victims.”

I think this is the heart of the problem and is often out of the photojouranalist’s hands to deal with. On the ground the reporter can report what they cannot actually see – the photographer cannot. Thus the reporter can touch on all, or at least, some of the issues affecting hunger but the photographer would need many more days and many more travel dollars. Combine this with the “desks” view that photos are not journalism but illustrative come-ons to bring eyeballs to the “page” and you have a receipt for stereotypes. And this happens even when the photographer is a journalist – with the current trend towards “image maker” there comes an increasing interest to produce impact before and over content – starving babies, telegenic politicians, beautiful women in small bathing suits, all have more “come-on” value than reporting on the “nuts and bolts” of poll watching or documenting an issue rather the a politician speaking about an issue. End.

One extra point. I’d be interested to hear what you think David, but I detest the use of the word ‘porn’. I thinks its highly inappropriate and damaging to the debate. I also think its a further humiliation of those in the photos.

Interesting post.

Having seen some of these things in Ethiopia I doubt very much that an aid agency would be seeking out the most severely malnourished for the sake of a photographer. Your reading of events is far more plausible.

Also people working in the field are not robots. Its distressing to see malnourished children. VERY. That said there can be a feeling or urgency in getting a message out that may lead to press officers pushing angles that normally they wouldn’t feel comfortable. There is also a sense that if exaggeration brings relief aid then its worth exaggerating. The greater good and all that.

Putting all that aside its normal journalistic practise to seek out the hardest angle to a story. That’s what journalists are trained to do. I also disagree that photographers would act any differently in New York. Generally they go for the hardest angle wherever they are. They take those photos, its just that editors don’t publish them.

The difference is not that we haven’t seen a million and one stories about homelessness and drug addiction in New York, just that they’ve been balanced by other stories. And that I think is what you’re trying to point out David.

(can we re-publish this on adevelopingstory. Its an important post and I have a follow up in regards to a photo essay on witchcraft)

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