Stereotypes that move: The iconography of famine

October 20, 2010 · by David Campbell · photography, politics

Luke Piri Malawi 2002 Stereotypes that move: The iconography of famine

As appropriations of suffering, photographs of famine victims are affective rather than simply illustrative. They are designed to appeal emotionally to viewers and connect them with subjects in a particular way rather than just offer a description of some person or place. The message is that someone is suffering, and that we should be sympathetic to his or her plight and moved to do something. However, the lack of contextual support means that viewers are most likely to regard action to alleviate suffering as coming from outside. Indigenous social structures are absent and local actors are erased from these images. There is a void of agency and history with the victim arrayed passively before the lens so their suffering can be appropriated. This structuring of the isolated victim awaiting external assistance is what invests such imagery with colonial relations of power.

In a forthcoming essay on the iconography of famine (which prompted my earlier post on famine photographs and the need for careful critique) I have examined the portraits of atrocity that represented the 2002 Malawi famine and which later circulated in charity appeals and the 2005 Live 8 campaign, especially the photographs of a young boy called Luke Piri taken by The Daily Mirror‘s staff photographer Mike Moore. The easy conclusion of this analysis is that famine iconography should be roundly condemned as simplistic, reductionist, colonial and even racist. But before we are satisfied with this comprehensive rebuke we have to ask three difficult questions. First, would we be better off without these photographs altogether? Second, if we want to dispense with the negative, what is the alternative that should take its place if, as I’ve argued earlier, we don’t want to fall into the trap of prompting an equally simplistic ‘positive’ image? And third, what happens if the iconography of famine is politically necessary in certain contexts? It is the last I want to reflect on briefly here.

We can understand famine iconography as being produced by the complex political circumstances it generally fails to capture. This can be demonstrated by a return to the case of the Malawi famine of 2002. There was advance warning of food shortages in Malawi, but because of their strained relations with the government international donors ‘were not well disposed to reports of food shortages.’ The Malawian government was also resistant to stories of food crises from local NGOs. It was, in part, the production and circulation of famine iconography that broke this indifference. As one commentator observed, “only after the media started reporting starvation deaths in Malawi did the donors [international agencies and governments] reverse their hardline stance and offer food aid unconditionally.”

The same dynamic has been repeated in other crises, such as the 2005 Niger famine, where the World Food Program (WFP) began reporting a looming crisis in October 2004 and called for donor assistance, but international assistance was minimal until the media got involved in July 2005. Anthea Webb, WFP’s senior public affairs officer noted afterwards:

All information is available. The problem is to turn information into providing food to people in need. In Niger we had practically nothing until we got footage on video of people dying of malnutrition to the BBC. But it is much better to help people before it is too late. In Niger we had made a very clear plea. The problem is getting the message across.

Although a free press has been regarded by many as part of a famine early warning system, this record indicates the media is caught in a tragic conundrum. Governments and international institutions are not moved by information alone, and without official activity the media lacks a hook for a story. A story becomes possible when there is visual evidence of disaster, but in the case of famine that evidence cannot be easily visualized (at least in terms familiar to the media) until people start showing an embodied trace of the food crisis (with distended stomachs and prominent ribs) or start dying. By that time, however, because of the indifference of governments, the final stages of a food crisis have begun, the possibility for preventative action has long passed, and the only course of action is humanitarian and remedial.

This dynamic means that we should see the media as a late indicator of distress, not an early warning agency. While we can and should criticise the continuing reproduction of famine iconography, 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. The problem is official indifference and the media’s entrapment in that indifference until it is too late.

The ultimate challenge for photography as a technology of visualization is to find compelling ways of narrating the story so that the political context of famine can be portrayed in a timely manner, before malnourished bodies can be appropriated by the lens. Sometimes there are visual stories that achieve this, as in The New York Times photo report detailing how a later Malawian government rejected neo-liberal policies, reinstated fertilizer subsidies, and oversaw increased food production and reduced famine. Equally, the MSF/VII “Starved for Attention” project warrants a closer examination. Of course, photographers and journalists don’t bear the primary responsibility for preventing famine but they need a better understanding of global malnourishment – of which famine is just an acute and more visible part – in order to represent the issue before it is too late.

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).

Featured Photo: Luke Piri, Malawi, 2002. Mike Moore/Mirrorpix

11 Responses to “Stereotypes that move: The iconography of famine”

  1. As one of the originating partners of the Starved For Attention project (along with MSF and subsequently LG), I should point out that the project is not a study of famine but of childhood malnutrition. The difference might appear to be nuanced, but is actually profound. Malnutrition has a number of attributes that make it a different study from famine, most notably that it is very often unrecognized even by those suffering let alone those viewing the problem, and to add to the complexity of the study, the causes and consequences are many and varied. Working with MSF, VII photographers chose to analyse the issue in chapters looking at different aspects of the condition, including its successful prevention (Mexico and USA) and also critiquing well-intentioned but ineffective intervention (USA), along with some practical and psychological barriers to treatment (India, Congo), etc. The individual chapters can be critiqued but the complete mosaic attempts a more nuanced understanding of the issue. More to the point, as a true transmedia project, the integration of photography, multimedia and other information into the dynamic communication process offered by social media, web, exhibition and print allows viewers to share, contribute and otherwise participate in much richer ways than simply spectating. At the end of the day, what use is information or even knowledge if it isn’t applied? This is not about photography or aesthetics but about harnessing our individual responsibility to contribute to a problem that can actually be solved. The burden of making images effective doesn’t end with the photographer nor the publisher, but with the viewer.

  2. I’m not really sure what you are arguing about re the post Stephen. I appreciate that SFA is about malnutrition and that is something larger than famine per se. That’s exactly why the project is mentioned briefly as worth attention in the conclusion – I think it is potentially an interesting example of how to address the political complexity of this broad issue. If you read the full paper from which the post comes you will see that Malawi 2002 is equally more than just a famine story, so we are very much on the same page. I agree too that the work images do is central and more important than aesthetics per se, even if all images are inherently aesthetic – that is one of the points I return to most often on this site. I don’t think we can say that “the burden” of making images effective ends with the viewer alone, because I think meaning and effectiveness is a product of the network of relationships that surround the image maker, the publisher/broadcaster, and those that receive such images. It doesn’t reside in a single place, but, again, that is same point as the one made in my conclusion.

  3. Agreed on all points and thanks for including Starved For Attention in the discussion. My comments are not intended to be argumentative, but rather to expand and illustrate your points in the context of malnutrition, addressing how photography can contribute to understanding issues and inspiring action. I agree that the responsibility to understand doesn’t rest solely with the viewer, it is indeed shared by all participants in the process, as is the appreciation of the aesthetic elements that are intrinsic to the medium.

  4. Hi David,

    I was wondering whether your article
    “The Iconography of Famine” in Picturing Atrocity: Reading Photographs in Crisis, edited by Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller, Jay Prosser (London: Reaktion Books, 2011)

    is still forthcoming or published already?

    I’d like to mention it and put a link to it, just wanted to know whether its out yet or not.

    I’m setting up a blog and will mention your engaging posts on this theme in the first writing.

    Thanks,
    Dusan

  1. [...] Stereotypes that Move: The iconography of famine [...]

  2. [...] and context. # Is it because photographers lack imagination? I don’t think so. As I’ve written before on this topic, it is more a product of the fact that the media generally is caught in a tragic conundrum: # [...]

  3. [...] # In the OPEN-i debate Jon argued that these photographs “show you what’s going on.” I think that the stereotypes are politically necessary in certain contexts, and it’s possible to make a case for their use, as Tyler Hicks and Bill Keller of the New [...]

  4. [...] Stereotypes that Move: in a forthcoming essay on the iconography of famine (which prompted my earlier post on famine photographs and the need for careful critique, and is attached to this post on stereotypes) I have examined the portraits of atrocity that represented the 2002 Malawi famine and which later circulated in charity appeals and the 2005 Live 8 campaign, especially the photographs of a young boy called Luke Piri taken by The Daily Mirror‘s staff photographer Mike Moore. The easy conclusion of this analysis is that famine iconography should be roundly condemned as simplistic, reductionist, colonial and even racist. But before we are satisfied with this comprehensive rebuke we have to ask three difficult questions. First, would we be better off without these photographs altogether? Second, if we want to dispense with the negative, what is the alternative that should take its place if, as I’ve argued earlier, we don’t want to fall into the trap of prompting an equally simplistic ‘positive’ image? And third, what happens if the iconography of famine is politically necessary in certain contexts? [...]

  5. [...] among many other problems, has to be addressed (see my earlier posts on famine icons here and here for how this argument can proceed). It’s just that labelling these concerns ‘pornography’ [...]

  6. [...] the OPEN-i debate Jon argued that these photographs “show you what’s going on.” I think that the stereotypes are politically necessary in certain contexts, and it’s possible to make a case for their use, as Tyler Hicks and Bill Keller of the New [...]

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