Famine coverage, from Malawi to East Africa

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.

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 http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/136/