Representing the Majority World: Famine, Photojournalism and the Changing Visual Economy

Posted 26 Jun 2010 — by DJ Clark
Category Context and Analysis

After eight years work that included the Imaging Famine project, my PhD thesis, which examines the visual discourse of photojournalism and explores its role in constructing the imagined geography of Africa, is now available online.

The thesis investigates how photographic illustrations of Africa play a role in constructing knowledge of the continent for mainstream UK audiences. It undertakes this in terms of the ‘Minority World’ and the ‘Majority World’ in order to challenge the assumptions of superiority and inferiority associated with traditional representations of ‘First World/Third World’ or ‘developed/underdeveloped’. Central to the discussion is the notion of a specific photographic point of view based on the author’s background as a Minority World photographer who has undertaken extensive work in the Majority World.

The thesis considers how historical photographic representations of African countries that are beyond the personal experience of UK mainstream audiences, and the formation of key compositions in a particular style to represent famine, were repeated through the last century and how these compositions relate to current public understandings of the Majority World as a particular place. Through this discussion the thesis critically analyses public consumption of such images and argues the construction of key events (disasters, famines, etc.) are central to the imaginary construction of the continent of Africa. It argues that colonial relations of power and knowledge, and the production of ‘otherness’ continue to influence contemporary images of the Majority World. Taking the 1984-5 Ethiopian famine as a key event in the formation of geographic visualisations of the African continent, the thesis both considers this event in detail and traces its influence to the formation of contemporary photographic illustrations. Through critical discourse analysis, extensive interviews with photographers, fieldwork, and surveys the thesis examines contemporary photojournalistic coverage of a single event and how it affects UK public understandings of Africa.

The photojournalistic representations of famine in Africa are then considered in terms of the rapidly changing global image economy (in which the move to digital production and distribution is transforming photographic practice), the rise of local photographers, and the influence of the visual discourses on economic stability and growth of the communities in which their subjects live. These arguments come together in the 2003 case of photographic reports from Bob Geldof’s return to Ethiopia during another purported food crisis.

The thesis asks if the changes in the image economy and recent examples of new photographic practice, especially that which follows the codes of conduct for imagery put in place after the Ethiopian famine of 1984-5, demonstrate the potential for changing the way ‘Africa’ is constructed as an imagined geography for UK publics, and, if so, how? It grounds the argument in an extended conclusion, which examines the assignment the author carried out in Mali in November 2005 in conjunction with Oxfam GB. This photographic commission demonstrated the difficulty of finding an alternative visualisation of food insecurity (famine) that meets the demands of non-government organisations’ (NGOs) ethical picture policies yet satisfies the requirements of mainstream media in the UK.

You can download the Thesis at

The stereotype of the ‘African’ child

Posted 21 Jun 2010 — by davidc_7IF
Category Conventional imagery

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.”