April 23rd, 2009
Some visual strategies are remarkably persistent, and few more persistent than those employed by humanitarian aid organizations when illustrating their appeals and campaign literature. We documented this in relation to food shortages in Africa as part of the Imaging Famine project.
You know the pictures without even seeing them – the photographs of mothers and their distressed children, or western aid workers ministering to victims who are passive, pathetic, poor and sick. Over on the duckrabbit blog – a regularly insightful source of photographic critique – there is an interesting breakdown of the Medecins Sans Frontieres photoblog that shows how these representations are alive and well even for one of the best activist organizations.
As they note, the photographs used by MSF show aid workers who are white and western even though the bulk of humanitarian assistance, even when provided in the name of European organizations, is delivered by local people. The images also suggest that dependency rather than empowerment is the best modus operandi.
Recently I have been trying to think about photography in ways that shifts our focus from representation to enactment, from the meaning of pictures to the work they do (see ‘War images at work’). From this perspective, even the most common visual representations can have important and unusual effects in certain circumstances.
This is not entirely the case with the MSF photoblog, and the problems raised by duckrabbit are significant. However, that MSF pursues these visual strategies is not all that surprising. Their purpose is to put MSF at the centre of aid work, show they are making something of a difference, and get viewers to open their pockets to fund that work. Whether we like it or not – and its part of what the social psychologists call “the identifiable victim effect” – when people like us are pictured aiding individuals who are helpless, those pockets open more frequently.
This is not to overlook the problems of the MSF photoblog as an example of the limitations of humanitarian photography. But it is not meant to offer a full pictorial account of aid, development and Africa. As such, I would put the problem this way: it less about the presence of these stereotypes and more about the absence of alternative visual stories in news from Africa, in particular. When it comes to the photographic production of ‘Africa’, it is largely disaster and humanitarian photography that we see. Sure, we get the exotic nature stories and the romantic travel accounts, but you won’t see many complexities of African culture, politics and society in those glossy narratives either.
The absence of these alternative stories is often put down to the alleged lack of local and indigenous photographers, and the duckrabbit post makes this point. But I am a bit sceptical about this as the source of the problem. Can we say categorically that local people would be better storytellers? To me that assumption has as many problems as the reliance on the international photographic elite it seeks to replace. Are “local people” a single, homogenous entity with only one voice? Surely they are as diverse, plural and conflicted as our own societies, so which local voices are going to get to tell their stories, and which local voices are we going to pay attention to?
At about this point I’m going to be misunderstood as seemingly wanting to retain the status quo. Not so. The issue of greater attention to and work for indigenous photographers is an important issue of labour justice and political economy. There are many talented non-European photographers in this world whose work deserves greater play, and initiatives like majorityworld.com are important in redressing the economic imbalances. And nobody could object to more assistance and training for locals to tell their own stories.
But the idea that their work, simply because they are non-European, offers a fundamentally different and automatically better visual account of the issues and places they cover is as sweeping a generalization as that offered by the stereotypical images that dominate our media. It may be true in some instances, but, for example, having viewed the work of many talented Asian photographers at this years Chobi Mela festival in Bangladesh, I was struck by how familiar were both their subjects and their aesthetic style.
It is also getting to hard to clear divide from “the local” from “the international”. The Palestinian photojournalists who produced impressive pictures to cover the war in January were in many cases already employed by the big news agencies like AP and Reuters – that’s how they could get their work out so quickly. Are they local, or are they part of the global image economy? They are obviously local to the war zone, but in their professional practice they have to conform to the codes of their global media employer, and these norms condition the pictures that are taken and published.
We must get to see more work from local photographers in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. But we also need better work from European photographers covering those areas. If both local and international photojournalists take the time to engage with the issues rather than just parachute in and out we will all be better off. In the end, though, we should judge them, not on their birthplace or nationality, but on their ability to employ visual strategies in the service of a complex and compelling story.