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Imaging Famine

email1Imaging Famine is a research project that examines how famine has been historically pictured in the media, from the nineteenth century to the present day.

The project began as a photographic exhibition at the Guardian and Observer Newsroom and Archive in London in August/September 2005 to mark the twentieth anniversary of ‘Band Aid’ and ‘Live Aid’ as well as the ‘Live 8’ event of that summer. It was summarised in a 24 page catalogue, and accompanied by public lectures and a major conference.

The project deals with the persistence of a famine iconography regardless of time and place. It traces the emergence of those images historically – considering the relationship between anthropology and photography, and the way photography has been a technology of colonialism – to pose the question of photography’s political effects.

The project seeks to move debate of these issues beyond the unhelpful distinction of positive versus negative imagery, and confront the morally complex political question: what if the stereotypical images of starving children remain the images most capable of mobilising a response?

The project continued through the Imaging Famine blog (May 2010-2013) which aggregated and curated material on the imaging of famine and the revisualization of ‘Africa’ and the majority world.

11 replies on “Imaging Famine”

[…] The project deals with the persistence of a famine iconography regardless of time and place. It traces the emergence of those images historically – considering the relationship between anthropology and photography, and the way photography has been a technology of colonialism – to pose the question of photography’s political effects. https://www.david-campbell.org/photography/imaging-famine/ […]

Thanks for the feedback. All comments have to be taken in the context they are made. Our argument about the framing of negative vs positive images being unhelpful is made in the realm of development images and representations of distant ‘others’ generally. That is because ‘positive images’ of smiling, happy aid recipients perpetuate colonial relations of power — that ‘they’ are grateful for our charity. What is not challenged via such imagery is precisely the broader political context you raise as important.

Would an argument in terms of positive vs negative imagery be insightful in terms of the representations of black people in Britain? Possibly, at least in the first instance. But if we want to get to broader questions about the production of certain imagery and its political effects we have to go beyond seeing one aesthetic style as a solution. The answer is more likely to lie beyond the frame.

Wow, I take my hat off to you this is an amazing resource and such an important debate. Congratulations.

The aid world is an industry fighting for cash and often, but not always, the message they fall back on is

‘they are fucked, give us your money.’

There is a classic example of this on the front page of Save The Children’s website. Go and have a look.

Having lived in Ethiopia though I question your belittling of the ‘the unhelpful distinction of positive versus negative imagery.’

Would you have written this if you were talking about repeated negative images of black people in Britain? Is that a shallow debate?

Journalistically there is a ‘glamour’ in famine which means whilst we are presented with the suffering, little time is spent engaging with the solutions.

Isn’t in interesting how charities spend so much time and money photographing the ‘they’re fucked’ side of things, but so little actually visually demonstrating impact?

I will linking to this important work.

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