Ethiopia and the recurring famine: same story, same pictures?

The 1984 famine in Ethiopia that led to the Live Aid phenomenon was a watershed for contemporary understandings of food crises, especially in the UK. Going back through my files the periodic coverage of food crises in Ethiopia that references the 1984 pictures (directly or indirectly) is prominent.

Mohamed Amin and Michael Buerk, Korem, Ethiopia, 1984

Consider some of the more recent examples:

  • In July 2008 Oxfam warned that spiralling food prices were helping produce a food crisis, and worked with photojournalist Nick Danziger to provide visual evidence. Danziger’s photos appeared in The Guardian, were used by the Daily Mirror for its story on “A Catastrophe in the Making” (25 July 2008, p.4, which connected the story back to the 1984 famine), and were broadcast in a short ITV news report that interviewed the photographer. Oxfam used them to produce a short video setting the crisis in context, but Jim Johnson offered a careful critique of the Danziger pictures.
  • In October 2009 the BBC broadcast reports about a new food crisis in Ethiopia. Mike Wooldridge’s video report made a direct reference back to the 1984 famine, including images from that crisis. In addition, there were links on the right of the news page to two 1984 videos — including the famous Michael Buerk/Mohammed Amin TV report from October 1984 which got the Live Aid/Band Aid ball rolling.

This repetition of story and imagery must lead us to ask two questions. First, if food crises are endemic, doesn’t that mean we are dealing with the product of an economic and political system rather than failure attributable to natural circumstances? Second, how could photographic visualizations move away from the legacy of 1984 and begin to portray the endemic and systematic nature of food crises, while still recording the human devastation of these crises?

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  1. It’s true the lurch from one food crisis to another in an attempt to focus the media’s attention is really unhelpful in understanding a crisis that in reality never goes away.

    When I lived in Ethiopia the donor community ran a ‘food safety net’. Basically it fed the nine to twelve million people who couldn’t feed themselves for at least one part of each year. You can see from that that the food crisis is ongoing.

    There’s also the additional problem that the population of Ethiopia is rapidly increasing. So much so that it is likely at some point to overtake Nigeria as Africa’s second most populous country.

    Without agricultural development and better birth control the situation will only get worse.

    Without changes in policy the story will remain the same, the only thing that really changes is the faces of the reporters.

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