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