Famine photographs and the need for careful critique

Posted 04 May 2010 — by davidc_7IF
Category Context and Analysis, Conventional imagery

The photographic reporting of famine, especially in ‘Africa’, continues to replicate stereotypes. Malnourished children, either pictured alone in passive poses or with their mothers at hand, continue to be the obvious subjects of our gaze. What should drive our concern about this persistent portrayal? Recently I came across an example that demonstrates how criticism needs to be careful before it can make its point effectively.

Odong Obong, barely 3 days old, is tended to by his mother, as he lays under a mosquito net with his twin brothers Opiew and Ochan, in a hospital ward in Akobo, Southern Sudan, Thursday April 8, 2010. AP Photo/Jerome Delay.

As it happens, I am writing an essay on the photography of famine for a new book. The essay draws on the collaborative Imaging Famine project that started in 2005, and incorporates the points I made in a presentation for the Photography and Atrocity conference in New York that same year. I’m taking some time away from that essay to do this post because of my concern with the basis for claims fuelling a controversy in the blogosphere about famine photographs.

On checking my Twitter stream the other week I followed @PhotoPhilan’s link to a short post by Andrew Sullivan on “Stereotype porn.”  Sullivan was noting William Easterly’s post at Aid Watch on a story out of Sudan last week, and juxtaposed it with Alex de Waal and Rakiya Omaar’s 1993 op-ed on “disaster pornography in Somalia” (which, in another serendipitous moment, I had been reading yesterday as part of my research on the problematic use of “pornography” to categorise famine photographs – but more on that another time).

Easterly’s post claimed that:

The UN takes the photographer to the “hungriest place on earth”, Akobo, South Sudan (HT Wronging Rights). Then

The aid groups Save the Children and Medair have canvassed the Akobo community over the last week, searching for the hungriest children.

And surprise: you get the most horrific images possible of starving children, to be featured prominently on the Huffington Post, which reinforces the Western stereotype of “famine Africa.”

An equivalent procedure would represent New Yorkers by the most horrific images possible of the homeless. But we don’t do that because we don’t have the stereotype that typical New Yorkers are homeless…

Easterly is spot on with his criticism of how selective images produce stereotypes that represent an entire place in terms of a single dimension we would never accept if the shoe were on the other foot. But, I wondered, was this a conscious act of photographic manipulation, the crude pursuit of certain pictures regardless of context? So I followed the links to try and find out.

Easterly gives a ‘hat tip’ to Wronging Rights, which posted this last Friday as part of its “WTF Friday” roundup:

“Let’s not be sensational, guys. Let’s just go to the statistically hungriest place in the world and take pictures of emaciated babies. Because as Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal say, ‘Photogenic starving children are hard to find,’ but this has got to increase our odds.”

This certainly grabbed my attention because it seems to show crude intention on the part of a photographer or aid agency to deliberately find and construct certain pictures. There is no doubt that has happened in the past – a point made by their link to the de Waal and Omaar 1993 op-ed, which could have been the source for Sullivan’s citation of that same story – but was this Sudan story another case? Was this quote evidence of a new instance?

No, it wasn’t. The quote is the voice of the Wronging Rights blog reading an article on The Huffington Post. The quote is made up, and does not appear in any form, direct or indirect, in The Huffington Post article. That story is in fact an Associated Press report from Akobo in Sudan and makes no mention of the role of any photographer (see the version The Huffington Post used in full here, with a longer version here). The AP story reports on the food insecurity of a region where 46% of children are classified as malnourished with 15% being the threshold for classifying a situation as an emergency.

How was The Huffington Post/AP story read as evidence of photographic manipulation? With no direct reference to Jerome Delay, the photographer who seems to have accompanied reporter Jason Straziuso, the likely connection comes from the following paragraph:

The aid groups Save the Children and Medair have canvassed the Akobo community over the last week, searching for the hungriest children. They found 253 that they have classified as severely malnourished, meaning that they will die without immediate intervention. The children are now enrolled in a feeding program that relies primarily on fortified peanut butter.

It seems that the transmission of this story from Wronging Rights to William Easterly and on to Andrew Sullivan – accompanied at each turn by de Waal and Omaar’s 1993 op-ed – has created a view that the aid groups’ “searching for the hungriest children” was something done primarily for photojournalistic rather than public health reasons. But as the first comment on Easterly’s post suggests:

When you have a project trying to cure children with severe acute malnutrition (SAM), of course you are going to canvas the community to find the SAM cases. That’s what case finding and public health is about. They didn’t canvas the community so that a photographer could come in and take a picture.

You can blame the photographer and the publication, but I don’t think you can blame the agencies for trying to find and cure malnourished children using a standard public health strategy.

I think William Easterly is technically right to say the UN took a photographer to Akobo. I’ve done research in southern Sudan in the past and know how the logistics work. I imagine that the AP reporter and photographer travelled with a UN agency and/or NGO, and that while those agencies were carrying out their humanitarian and public health tasks, they took the journalists to feeding centres at which it was possible to produce photographs of malnourished children. I have no doubt that the UN and the NGOs would have wanted the publicity the AP provided, but I do not think there is evidence from the stories cited to argue that this operation was a callous search for photogenic victims above all else. For the critique of famine photographs to be effective we have to be careful in what is claimed.

That said, there are questions to ask about the representation of this particular case. There is, as William Easterly argues, no let up in the production of famine stereotypes. For me what stands out is the way the AP report canvasses a range of possible causes for the food insecurity of Akobo – the continuing violence, failed rains, tribal clashes, and “a budget crunch on the government of southern Sudan because of the financial crisis means fewer available resources.” Yet the photography persists in reproducing the stereotype of largely isolated children, with eleven of the twelve images in the AP gallery showing these passive victims.

To be fair to the photographer, in these circumstances we have to accept that in large part he has accurately portrayed the people in the feeding centre. But is the feeding centre the real locus of famine? Can a photograph represent the many causes of this emergency? And what is the effect of these stereotypes once again marking Sudan as the “hungriest place on earth”?

One of my refrains for how we should understand photographs in these situations is that the problem lies with the absence of alternatives as much as it does with the presence of the stereotypes. Which means I should conclude with a double-page spread published by The Guardian this morning on the Sudanese elections. Clearly any place that is home to both food insecurity and a practicing democracy cannot be simply represented.

Election observers taking notes at a polling station. Voting in Sudan’s elections has been extended by two days to ensure technical problems do not prevent voter participation. Photographer: Pete Muller/AP

[This post originally appeared on 13 April 2010 at www.david-campbell.org/blog]