photography politics

Stereotypes that move: The iconography of famine

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

photography politics

The new visual stories of ‘Africa’

What is the visual story that needs to be told about Africa? Is there a pictorial strategy that can account for one billion people, living in 53 countries that occupy 12 million square miles, speaking two thousand languages, embodying multiple cultures and numerous ethnicities, with manifold intersections with our globalised world?

Would we even ask that question of the Americas, Asia or Europe? It is unlikely. Others are represented in ways designed to shore up the self and  ‘Africa’ is central to the formation of European and North American identity. This process embodies colonial relations of power that distill a complex, hybrid place into visual stereotypes that cast people and their place as superior/inferior, civilized/barbaric, modern/traditional, developed/underdeveloped and so on.

These stereotypes construct both conventional wisdom and its possible alternatives. Others can be reviled for their barbarity or exalted for the closeness to nature, but these options are no more than two sides of the same coin, and each distances ‘us’ from ‘them’. Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical account of how (not) to represent Africa captures this dual operation, and news coverage often sees ‘Africa’ as a place of either human misery or natural exoticism. ‘Africa’ is therefore a mythic space, the quotation marks signifying its production.

The visual story that needs to be told about ‘Africa’ is not a single story. It is a series of stories assembled to end the idea of a singular ‘Africa’. We need accounts of complexity, contrasts, and diversity that are drawn from the everyday as much as the exceptional. We need reports that are aware of their own construction and understand how they either affirm or challenge stereotypes.

There is plenty of photographic work that does that. It is too much to ask of each individual project that it ticks all the boxes, but what projects like African Lens can do is aggregate and curate the rich material being produced so that we can see how, in combination, these images enable stories that complicate the simplistic and deepen the superficial.

How this project is framed will go a long way to determining its success. If we do not go beyond the limits of either/or options we will be stuck replicating colonial dualisms. This means that:

  • we need to interpret photographs in terms of the work that they do in relation to stereotypes rather than via an outmoded commitment to ‘objectivity’ and its spouse, ‘subjectivity’. When it comes to reportage we should demand accuracy, but photographs are inescapably representations and never simply mirrors or windows;
  • we need to exceed the idea that optimism versus pessimism, and especially “Afro-romanticism” versus “Afro-pessimism,” defines the options for stories;
  • we need to support new developments in the multimedia practice of photography that can literally give subjects a voice for their own stories.

Government speaker at a political get together, Abidjan. Photo: Joan Bardeletti.

There are many recent photographic projects contributing to this re-visualization of ‘Africa’. Consider Joan Bardeletti’s work on the middle class in Africa alongside Finbarr O’Reilly’s story on white poverty in South Africa. Think of Andrew Esiebo’s portfolio of Lagos nightlife and Ed Kashi’s Niger Delta project, Michael Tsegaye’s pictures of working girls in Addis Ababa, Andrew Tshabangu’s documentation of Johannesburg and Marcus Bleasdale’s presentation of the Kimbangist Symphony Orchestra in Kinshasa to name just a few.

The problem with stereotypes, as Chimamanda Adichie says, is “not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete.” Because of this, the new visual stories of ‘Africa’ cannot ignore the issues of famine, injustice, poverty and war. While we can sympathies with Paul Melcher’s cry for no more “dying Africans,” we must have visual accounts of atrocities when they occur. However, they have to go beyond the stereotypes, as with the Condition Critical project on the Congo war or the coverage of human rights issues in Burundi and Malawi.

These are exciting times for visual storytellers, with the power of the web facilitating the global production and circulation of new photographic projects. There are many challenges involved in getting better stories to the right people, but the gatekeepers of the mainstream media no longer have total control over what we can or cannot see. If we appreciate how stereotypes have been produced and can be contested, we can, over time,  achieve the re-visualization of ‘Africa’.

The need to re-visualize ‘Africa’ is a major concern of mine, and with my colleagues DJ Clark and Kate Manzo, we established the Imaging Famine blog last month as a way of continuing our Imaging Famine project by aggregating and curating work that both confirms and challenges stereotypes.

Many people are contributing to the production and circulation of new photographic portrayals of ‘Africa’ , and to support the recent launch of African Lens I wrote an editorial that summarises what I see as the issues involved in this important effort. This post reproduces that editorial.

Featured photo: Media circus photographing an American Marine with a malnourished boy during Operation Restore Hope, Somalia, 1991. Paul Lowe/Panos.