photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.17: The starving child as symbolic marker

Contemporary news photographs are chosen less for their descriptive function and more for their capacity to provide symbolic markers to familiar interpretations and conventional narratives. Although news images can illustrate the story they accompany, it is often the case that the photograph published with a story does not depict the specifics of that story.

This photograph – a stereotypical famine picture from Ethiopia – that appeared in the print version of Monday’s Guardian is a case in point (the online version of the story is here, but it is illustrated with a political portrait of Berlusconi and Sarkozy). The photo’s relationship to the critique of France, Germany and Italy’s aid performance by the charity One is tangential at best. It seems that that a chain of association – aid, Bono and Geldorf, the 2005 G8 pledge and sub-Saharan Africa – justifies the use of “a malnourished child in Ethiopia.” While Ethiopia is subject to ongoing food insecurity, the World Food Program reports that after two troublesome years the situation is currently improving.

What is even more remarkable about this photograph, and what demonstrates further the symbolic function of news imagery, is that it was used previously by the Guardian in September 2009. On that occasion it accompanied a story headlined “By 2050, 25m more children will go hungry as climate change leads to food crisis.” In that instance the caption read “A malnourished boy at a feeding centre in Ethiopia. Sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia will be most vulnerable to food shortages, the IFPRI report found.”

The original photograph was taken in June 2008 by Jose Cendon of AFP, and the Getty Images caption for editorial photo number 94984780 reads: “A malnourished boy is portrayed at a feeding center 10 June 2008 in Damota Pulassa village, southern Ethiopia. Ethiopia said the number of people in need of food aid had risen to 4.5 million from 2.2 million due to failed rains, as it issued a plea for international help. IFRC/AFP PHOTO/JOSE CENDON.” The key words are: “Fly, Center, Village, Horizontal, Africa, Famine, Ethiopia, Underweight, Feeding, Drought, Poverty, Child, Weather, Boys, Malnutrition, Crisis.”



15 replies on “Thinking Images v.17: The starving child as symbolic marker”

I understand you, David, yet I cannot seem to separate the two things in my mind. From the standpoint of my professional bias (public policy/politics), presenting something as news when it’s actually serving a different purpose potentially misleading in that the presentation can define the function for the viewer.

Maybe I should go out and talk to real people more often and leave the hair-splitting to someone else. At any rate, thanks for the thought provoking post.


Yes, I’m with you on this Bruno. The photographer took a news photo. The paper presents it as a news photo, but its function is actually different.

That’s the difference between us Richard, if there is a small difference…you are talking about categories of photographs and I am talking about how photographs function.

It was definitely a news photo back in 2008 when the photo was taken and when scenes like this were a reality. I think this also highlights (again) the need for a good caption, explaining the origin of the image, and date of course.

Maybe this is just a minor disagreement over semantics. I don’t think that they can reasonably be called news photographs any more. They’ve morphed into something else. I have not yet decided what.

Perhaps it’s still legitimate to call them news because the definition of news itself has changed over the years and I’m just being nostalgic.

They’re news photos in so far as they are in the newspaper and sit alongside daily stories, appearing to illustrate them. The point is that the function of news photos, or at least a good number of these news photos (not all), is changing. As Fred Ritchin has observed, photographs are often “desirents” rather than “referents” – they tell you how to feel at least as much as they actually depict something.

I think images selected “…for their capacity to provide symbolic markers to familiar interpretations and conventional narratives…” are something other than contemporary news photographs. Unless I missed something very important or am hopelessly naive, I wouldn’t call them “news” at all.

Just as a heads-up, I posted a longer version of this comment on my blog this afternoon.

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