Thinking Images v.20: Famine iconography as a sign of failure


The homogenisation of ‘Africa’ – the rendering of the continent into one form. The anthropomorphisation of ‘Africa’ – the representation of the continent as one person. The infantilisation of ‘Africa’ – the image of the continent as a child. The impoverishment of ‘Africa’ – the construction of the continent as a desperate, poor, passive victim.

Peter Brookes’ 5 July 2011 cartoon from The Times condenses all these attributes into one visual form. Like most editorial cartoons, it derives its symbolic force from the dominant images of the day, in this case the extensive media coverage of the current humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa. The all too familiar images of displaced people and starving children amidst a desert landscape have been common in recent days as both NGOs and the media mobilise in response to what is unquestionably a crisis of food security that demands action. From television coverage to photo galleries, we are seeing the sort of pictures we have seen many times before, be they Tyler Hicks colour photos in the New York Times, Robin Hammond’s series for the Guardian, the Save the Children Fund pictures from East Africa (also in the Guardian), or Oxfam’s Flickr gallery. While it is interesting to think about the virtues of colour versus black and white, or ask whether we can spot a difference between photos taken by professionals and NGO staff (and I can’t see much of one), I want to call attention to the larger dynamic which drives this recourse to familiar visuals.

In an excellent post on the coverage of the Horn, Peter Gill argues that “sophisticated early warning systems that foresee the onset of famine have been in place for years, but still the world waits until it is very nearly too late before taking real action – and then paying for it.” With regard to East Africa, both international agencies and NGOs have been warning for some months that a combination of factors – drought, conflict, high food and fuel prices, and funding shortfalls – were likely to produce a humanitarian crisis. But nobody found a way to picture the problem, so the story went unrecorded. When, finally, in late June, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs simplified the story into ‘the worst drought in sixty years’, Gills says “the media mountain moved, and the NGO fund-raisers marched on behind.”

We can easily lament the limitations of famine iconography, especially the way it homogenises, anthropomorphises, infantilises and impoverishes. But above all else we have to understand it is a visual sign of failure. The recourse to the stereotypes of famine is driven by the complex political circumstances photography has historically been unable to capture. This means that when we see the images of distressed people, feeding clinics and starving babies, we are seeing the end result of a collective inability to picture causes 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:

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.

We have, then, a systemic problem. While there are famine early warning systems that function quite well, the media is generally a late indicator of distress. The urgent task – in advance of the next humanitarian crisis – is to find a way to tell the story of the many and varied reasons that produce food insecurity without waiting for the visual traces that signify it’s too late.

UPDATE 27 August 2011: This post drew a critical response from @foto8 on Twitter. I have curated Jon Levy’s points, additional comments, and my response in another post, Imaging Famine: A Debate. After our OPEN-i debate, I wrote another post summarising some points from the discussion to underscore my belief in the necessity of critique.  

23 Responses to “Thinking Images v.20: Famine iconography as a sign of failure”

  1. Rasha El-Ibiary

    Hi Prof. Campbell,

    Good attempt at contextualizing events…

    Isn’t failure synonymous with helplessness.. the compassion fatigue theory which you fully reject??

    In his book, headline diplomacy, Philip Seib, criticized the media for refuting to cover more than a single famine in Africa at a time so that the audience won’t get confused.. in 1991 the US media covered the famine in Somalia and totally neglected another famine taking place in Sudan..

    It is sad to see a divided Sudan 30 years later?? and to know that the same was planned for Egypt, under the former regime !!

    Do you think neglecting Sudan at this time was instrumental so that the crisis intensifies and they get divided at the end ??!!



    • David Campbell

      Rasha, just focusing on the points raised in the post…the failure I’m speaking of is not directly related to what you call ‘helplessness’. The famine icons, in both the general news here and the charity appeals, continue to show their power. They are mobilising people to give, so compassion fatigue is once again not an issue. The failure I am talking about is a failure of representation, not a failure of response (though there are many good critiques of the limits of humanitarianism).

  2. duckrabbit

    Hi David,

    thanks for this thoughtful post.

    In news terms in the UK there isn’t really a NEWS story until people start dying, or unless there’s a significant breakthrough in taking people out of food insecurity. The complexity of food security in East Africa is a subject for current affairs and does get covered on The World Service, but probably not much elsewhere.

    Where the complex story needs to be told is not so much in our media (though that would be good), it’s in the regional media in East Africa. As you point out these are issues to do with governance, population and to a certain extent climate change. In Somalia the American administration supported the Ethiopian invasion of the country and have some limited responsibility for the mess of that country.

    Local media have the most important role to play in highlighting corruption and indeed many journalists in Somalia have played the ultimate price for doing just that. So I disagree that the pictures are the ‘end result of a collective inability to picture causes and context.’ Many journalists in East Africa are telling those stories with some skill.

    Would earlier action have made significant difference? I doubt it. Is the solution to the problem in East Africa going to be found in the UK, in Switzerland, Rome or New York? Again, I doubt it.

    But I could be completely wrong.

    • David Campbell

      Ben, exactly, your first point is one of my major themes. The failure we witness in these moments comes from the fact that both the international community and the media are always late. The tragic conundrum I identify – drawn from earlier research re Malawi 2002, linked to above – is what supports the conclusion that in these moments the international media suffers, because it is always late, from a collective failure to picture causes and contexts.

      The question of what local and regional media is doing is important, but I don’t have sufficient evidence or knowledge to comment one way or another. Hopefully they are addressing causes and context in advance of crises.

      I think earlier action would unquestionably have made a difference on the ground. Even if we think in terms of a time span of 12 months or less, earlier provision of emergency resources or the containment of price rises could have a dramatic impact. Official indifference (at the level of donor governments) is one of the major factors behind the emergence of these crises. That indifference is found mostly in western capitals so a solution has to embrace them too. Remember that for every dollar of aid that goes into African countries, something like SEVEN dollars comes out in capital transfers to service international debt and obligations. This net transfer or resources undercuts African economies to the benefit of the west.

      Finally, I don’t cite population growth as one of the causes. Clearly at some level it is a factor. But I think too often in the west we are quick to call attention to ‘their’ population growth as a way of deflecting attention from ‘our’ resource consumption. I’m not suggesting that is what you are doing, but I want to avoid that implication. Although we have fewer heads, we consume way more per head than people in this currently distressed region. And our higher per capita resource consumption is partially underwritten by inequitable capital transfers from less developed regions. It would be good to find a way to bring these issues into our stories.

  3. Matt

    Hi. I think you’re right regarding the media, but The question of what governments can do to prevent famine is a thorny one. Capping price rises? How, exactly? Subsidising food will only put more pressure on government budgets, and once introduced food subsidies are very difficult to remove, politically. Donations? Dumping free grain into a country puts local farmers out of business, increasing its dependence on foreign aid and reducing its resilience to poor harvests. Pre-positioned camps? Do the NGOs have sufficient resources to do that?

    And even when it’s a response to a crisis, developed countries can create problems if they steam in without thinking. There’s a Kenyan economist who often talks about a misguided Danish effort to donate clothes to famine-stricken Ethiopia – thereby putting local tailors out of work – to give one example.

    Ultimately – and this will echo duckrabbit – the way to prevent these things is to improve the local capacity to plan and manage resources – the package of things for which the shorthand is ‘governance’. And it’s local journalists who are most crucial holding the government to account when it screws up.

    That’s not to say that there’s nothing we can do. Debt relief, properly implemented, could be a help – although it has to be done in a way that doesn’t reward governments that are often spendthrift if not downright corrupt. But once again – that’s a thorny question, one that’s hard to address well in words let alone in pictures.

    • David Campbell

      Matt, there are many analysts more qualified than I to detail how famine can be prevented – I’m thinking of David Keen at the LSE, Alex de Waal, and the researchers at IDS Sussex for a start. One thing they show us is that famine is rarely about the absence of food altogether, and more often about access to food.

      My brief comments in response to Ben were to indicate there are plenty of things that can be done in advance of the final, fatal stages. Emergency measures to make staple food stuffs affordable for economically disadvantaged people is just one. You identify some of the problems and dangers, and they are real. But there is no single, perfect solution, even with a focus on local capacities. Making this complex issue into stories that we can get to enhance our understanding is a small but important part.

  4. Richard

    Just a short 2c, but it seems to me that whether you are considering a solution with a focus on the role of the international community in preventing/alleviating a crisis in its early days, or with a focus on the role of local media in the horn and East Africa, the same key issue of representation is common to both.

    Whoever the readers and the governments/ organised powers who should be acting to help (it should, imho, be both), it is still necessary to find a way to communicate what is happening in the early days in a way that will provoke a response. That this is difficult to do until the symptoms are, as you put it, ’embodied’, is a problem fundamental to representation in both media communities.

    Finding new ways of imaging the early stages of these disasters would have a beneficial impact in their representation in both media. The issue, for me, seems to be one of how you address that initial challenge, more than one of which geographic/political entity needs to be communicated with more. Which is not to say that there isn’t a debate there, it is just one that comes *after* the debate on how to gain attention to early pre-crisis scenarios.

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  8. Steve Forrest

    Hi David,

    People sometime need reminding that The West’s military intervention, interference and support for dictatorships within the region are often major factors in theses crisis.

    As far as photography is concerned; first we bomb, then the war photographers rush in armed with simplistic conclusions, then we send in the ‘humanitarian’ photographers who tell ‘the real story’ on the ground, then we send in the NGOs to feed both the starving and the photographers. Then they all go away and wait until global politics decides another humanitarian intervention (with or without bombs) is necessary.

    This crisis is more about us than it is about them.

    From a concerned and enlightened photographer.

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  19. Ian Bamford

    Hi David,
    Coming late to the party here. I agree completely with everything you’ve outlined here.

    By the time images of famine victims are available to the media, the crisis is already well at hand and any response will (usually) operate to limit already high mass mortality rates. Quite simply, once the signs of extreme bodily starvation are apparent in a visual form then, for many, there is nothing that can be done to save them. It’s already too late.

    But without proof of starvation, i.e. images of emaciated victims, there is little interest by the media in an emerging crisis. Without media interest there is no public interest. Without public interest there is no political interest and no aid will be forthcoming (in most cases).

    As you have said, this is a structural flaw built into the way news media presents stories, privileging the dramatic image of crisis. This style of reporting ignores complexity and the cause of famine is presented as simply lack of food or a drought. There is little or no mention of other factors which caused the crisis, such as a corrupt political system or great-power game playing. Similarly, attempts to discover why large numbers of the population may have been driven to the margins so that any small change in food supply tips them into famine are cursory at best. This has gotten worse in recent years due to changes in the news media landscape.

    The nub of it is that stories about famines prevented before they happened just do not fit into the formula for overseas news stories . Foreign news (i.e news of countries outside the developed Western world) has to be about a crisis of some sort in order to gain public interest. Therefore, stories about a potential crisis averted in a faraway land will always be less attractive to news organisations who will struggle to tell this story because it simply does not fit the formula.


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