Famine coverage, from Malawi to East Africa

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Posted 01 Sep 2011 — by davidc_7IF
Category Context and Analysis

In recent months I’ve written a series of posts on famine coverage in ‘Africa’. If you missed these posts at my personal blog, here are some excerpts and links:

  • Stereotypes that Move: in a forthcoming essay on the iconography of famine (which prompted my earlier post on famine photographs and the need for careful critique, and is attached to this post on stereotypes) 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?
  • The Photography of Suffering as ‘Pornography’? What does it mean to use this term so frequently in relation to so many different situations? What are the conditions supposedly signified by ‘pornography’? Might this singular term obscure more than it reveals?
  • The Starving Child as a Symbolic Marker: Contemporary news photographs are chosen less for their descriptive function and more for their capacity to provide symbolic markers to familiar interpretations and conventional narratives, as one image of a malnourished child shows.
  • Famine Iconography as a Sign of Failure: Prompted by the East African crisis, this post argues we can easily lament the limitations of famine iconography, especially the way it homogenises, anthropomorphises, infantilises and impoverishes. But above all else we have to understand it is a visual sign of failure. The recourse to the stereotypes of famine is driven by the complex political circumstances photography has historically been unable to capture. This means that when we see the images of distressed people, feeding clinics and starving babies, we are seeing the end result of a collective inability to picture causes and context. This argument prompted a considerable debate, which I discussed here and here.

In contrast to the reiteration of stereotypes – even though they can be politically necessary in certain contexts – its important to consider what the new visuals of ‘Africa’ might be, something I broached in a post of that name last June.

How photography can construct poverty

Posted 23 Jun 2010 — by davidc_7IF
Category Alternative visuals, Conventional imagery

Duncan McNicholl, a member of Engineers Without Borders Canada  – as African Programs Staff on the Water and Sanitation (WatSan) team, based in Malawi — has started an interesting project that highlights how photography constructs poverty.

He explains the context:

We’ve all seen it: the photo of a teary-eyed African child, dressed in rags, smothered in flies, with a look of desperation that the caption all too readily points out.  Some organization has made a poster that tells you about the realities of poverty, what they are doing about it, and how your donation will change things.

I reacted very strongly to these kinds of photos when I returned from Africa in 2008.  I compared these photos to my own memories of Malawian friends and felt lied to.  How had these photos failed so spectacularly to capture the intelligence, the laughter, the resilience, and the capabilities of so many incredible people?

And he outlines his approach:

I am taking two photos of the same person; one photo with the typical symbols of poverty (dejected look, ripped clothes, etc.), and another of this person looking their very finest, to show how an image can be carefully constructed to present the same person in very different ways.  I want to bring to light some of the different assumptions we make about a person, especially when we see an image of “poverty” from rural Africa.  So far, I have finished two sets in the series and I want to share them with you to get reactions and hopefully generate some discussion around this in the early stages of this project.

As one of the commenters on McNichol’s blog noted, we have to recognise that both the images of poverty and relative prosperity in this project are ‘staged’. We might also want to ask whether this contrast is simply replicating the simple negative vs. positive frame for understanding images that in the end doesn’t escape the power of stereotypes. However, the contrast between the two constructions is still something worth thinking about.