The stereotype of the ‘African’ child

Images of impoverished children are regularly associated with stories about both ‘Africa’ and famine, even if the issue of famine in question is not specifically or only related to ‘Africa’.

In this recent business story (June 2010) about the relationship between the demand for biofuels and rising food prices, a naked child with distended belly represents the threat for famine. (Interestingly, the on-line version of the story was illustrated with a photograph of Somali’s protesting rising prices in 2008).

A stereotype is something preconceived or oversimplified that is constantly repeated without change. Stereotypes involve icons, which are figures that represent events or issues. Icons have a sacred history but the attention they attract as objects of our gaze can produce a range of affects depending on time and place. The photographic deployment of particular icons (children) via an established aesthetic to represent famine is a clear example of stereotypes at work.

Here is another stereotypical photo from The Guardian on 30 September 2009:


This photograph was used to illustrate a story headlined “By 2050, 25m more children will go hungry as climate change leads to food crisis.

The caption reads: “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. Photograph: Jose Cendon/AFP/Getty Images.”


  1. It’s the lack of context. I really appreciate your blog. I’m Sudanese, but living in the UK. Recently finished an MA in looking at the role of a diasporic Sudanese civil society through photography and sound. Does it exist? How? For whom etc. A tutor even commented to me the thing about your photos is that they look normal. I was a bit annoyed but understood where he was coming from, there is no “normal” or “everyday” in the Sudanese context according to the west. Some of the images included Sudanese NGOs in Khartoum carrying out workshops, organising debates, against the backdrop of election posters of Bashir. Mainly everyday images of the Sudanese CS. But those of famine, war and suffering just perpetuate the idea of the silent victim just hanging on to dear life until help arrives from the outside world. People are people, if things are so bad, what is being done by the Sudanese for example to change. Or why no change what are the restrictions? Even within the restrictions of the place they find themselves within they have agency, they manoeuvre. My parents came here for political refuge as did most of the community – many came to study and then found themselves stuck when the political situation changed. Therefore they still have vested interests in what’s going on, and maintain strong links with Sudanese organisations. Many were activists in their time. I am fed up of political situations being reduced to humanitarian, and those with their own agendas, governments, some international NGOs and those photojournalists with the loudest pictures, presenting their images to the world as “this is Africa”. Because yes those images do exist, but so do so many others. Thank you for the space to rant.

  2. Also, Bourdieu said that the international media through its showcase of horror snippets, frames the world as dangerous for that which lies beyond the grasp of ordinary individuals in which politics is for professionals. Therefore what good, do they do really?

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