photography politics

Imaging famine: A debate

Last week’s post on ‘Famine iconography as a sign of failure‘ drew a very critical response from @foto8 on Twitter. I’ve again used Storify to collect the comments and offer a response to address the issues. Be sure to click on ‘Read More’ to see the whole stream. Further comments on this debate are welcome.

Jon and I pursed this discussion in an OPEN-it debate on 18 August 2011, and I wrote a subsequent post summarising points from that debate while underlining my belief in the necessity of critique.

14 replies on “Imaging famine: A debate”

Morning David. Thanks for your response and the points you raised. One thing when I say the mainstream media ‘have to’ be this way it’s kind of saying that these outlets are owned and controlled by big business and reproduce values that promote their interests, as they have done for decades. It sounds a bit of a broad brush but it seems to me to be the overall effect and carries over into public media such as the BBC. I sound like a bit of an class warrior but that’s because I am.
As photographers we need to find or create alternative means of expressing our opinions that allow for a radical and I feel truth reflection of what’s happening in the world. It’s an ongoing debate that in the current climate of indifference seems all the more difficult to achieve.

Adam, many thanks for taking the time to offer a broad perspective on the important context.

We agree notions of “fatigue” are misplaced, certainly in this context. Certain images becomes stereotypical precisely because they manifest power and have strong effects, which is the very opposite of fatigue. That is why, I think, image makers are drawn towards the reproduction of familiar pictures – it is the shortest path to creating the humanitarian effect they want to produce. As you say, that is not an indictment of photographers but a recognition of the visual economy they are a part of.

I also agree with your assessment about the political effects of conventional representations of ‘Africa’ and their connection to colonial relations of power. I’ve written previously precisely about the role of photography in those colonial relations and the need for photography to become properly post-colonial.

The only thing I would qualify in your comments is the idea the news media “have to” be this way and have to represent things this way. Its not a matter of free choice because they are drawing on a dominant and well-established approach, but it does not have to have to be this way. Making different visualizations more common is no easy task — and I know there are many like yourself who try to do so – but its long overdue.

The debate we’ve had this week on the Imaging of Famine highlights important issues around famine photography and it’s place within
the media and the reproduction of dominate ideologies. The production and distribution of Famine imagery falls within the need for
the mainstream media to maintain certain stereotypes so as to contain debate and understanding of the issues surrounding famine and it’s cause’s
within very limited perimeters.

Famine is only allowed be understood within the confines of ‘natural disasters’, despotic African leaders who are incapable of running anything without
succumbing to corruption and self enrichment or simply the inability of Africans to look after themselves. Next to no reference can be made to the
brutal colonial history of the continent and the way post independence the African economy was locked into a western orientated global economy
to ensure their continual poverty and dependence. The black body has also come to represent the ‘other’ to the virtuous white skin.

The news media have to constantly reinforce this racist perspective to ensure that the ‘other’ remains so. Events from Africa have to be repeatedly
placed in the same context to pin down the signifier of the black body. In this photography plays a vital role as the single image works on surface
value and as it is de-contextualised from social and political meaning. It takes this slice of events and can be placed in many different contexts, it
places the emphasis on the here and now, look famine, crisis, these people need help. Each time the black body is placed within it’s box, this is
an African problem as they can not look after themselves.

I’m not denying the importance of showing the world the need for immediate action to alleviate the suffering now. This is an emergency that needs
an immediate response, no messing around with how the intellectual niceties of this or that discourse. The photographers that undertake to report
these stories do so in the hope to ‘show the world’ and get something done about it and go through enormous hardship to do so. We have to praise
them for it, they are not part of the problem. It is the dominate ideologies that have to perpetuate their stereotypes that are the problem.

We can talk about famine fatigue till the cows come home, what is needed is the contextualisation of this imagery within a political discourse that
uncovers the mask of Western Imperial domination as this continues to this day.

Peter, Guy – excellent comments, thanks. I agree too that repetition can lead to a routine response. You’ve both said something I was trying to get at, but very succinctly. The repetition of famine stereotypes routinises the response as purely humanitarian and after the fact – too late in fact. Of course we need the humanitarian, but we need the political, before the end stages of a disaster, much more.

I would agree entirely with Peter’s comments above about the repetition eliciting a routine response. The problem with this routine response is that it is creating a transactional character to giving – the donor gives in response to seeing the images, and then sees their action as completed, the response to further images being “I’ve already given to that”.

The problem this is creating is that too few of those people continue to be engaged in the long term development work that is going on and is necessary to solve issues in the long term.

This is why we need to see a sector wide shift towards positive frames in communications, to build deeper public engagement with global poverty.

Yes, there are cases when the more extreme sort of images do portray the reality and truth and should be used, but they must become the exception rather than the standard recourse.

This is something we discuss frequently at the Global Poverty Project via our blog in the Perspective on Poverty column

Thank you for your thorough and thought-provoking analysis of Sunday’s discussion.

In this you comment on my:

‘Compassion fatigue certainly occurs in individuals, & not only in response to image. Not all are good Samaritans.’

As you remarked, Twitter is an awkward arena for debate, and a short comment like this, even if carefully formulated is still quite open to interpretation, so I would like to clarify a little.

Your response was:

“If individuals don’t care about disasters its because they make an active decision to turn way or be indifferent. Its not because the repetition of images somehow drains them of emotions that would otherwise have been plentiful.”

I would agree that the decision to apathy/indifference is often conscious (I have talked about such decision making, and its relevance to both creating and viewing photographs, here).
However, I still would maintain that a repetition of circumstances calling for action is experienced differently from an isolated case. With repetition comes not perhaps fatigue as such, but a routine response, and that response may be to move on unchanged.

The truth is that in our daily lives our compassion is called upon frequently, be it directed towards family members, friends, acquaintances or strangers – and given the access to a wide range of information from many parts of the world the number of individuals that we could potentially act with compassion towards is huge. Given limited time and resources then we all choose to help a smaller number of people than are presented to us as in need of help. Compassion without action is no sort of compassion at all.

One way in which we come to learn of the plight of others is through images, and no doubt these can be very powerful – but they must be produced thoughtfully and we must choose to receive them thoughtfully also.

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