Sep 28, 2009

re-enactment gone wrong

This certainly points to the dangers of thinking you can create empathy through re-enactment. This is from the Aid Watch blog, via Foreign Policy.

In the original blog post William Easterly writes:

When somebody sent me this invitation from Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, I thought at first it was a joke from the Onion. What do you think of the Davos rich and powerful going through the “Refugee Run” theme park re-enactment of life in a refugee camp?

Can Davos man empathize with refugees when he or she is not in danger and is going back to a luxury banquet and hotel room afterwards? Isn’t this just a tad different from the life of an actual refugee, at risk of all too real rape, murder, hunger, and disease?

Did the words “insensitive,” “dehumanizing,” or “disrespectful” (not to mention “ludicrous”) ever come up in discussing the plans for “Refugee Run”?

I hope such bad taste does not reflect some inability in UNHCR to see refugees as real people with their own dignity and rights.

Of course, I understand that there were good intentions here, that you really want rich people to have a consciousness of tragedies elsewhere in the world, and mobilize help for the victims. However, I think a Refugee Theme Park crosses a line that should not be crossed. Sensationalizing and dehumanizing and patronizing results in bad aid policy – if you have little respect for the dignity of individuals you are trying to help, you are not going to give THEM much say in what THEY want and need, and how you can help THEM help themselves?

Unfortunately, sensationalizing, patronizing, and dehumanizing attitudes are a real ongoing issue in foreign aid. David Rieff in his great book A Bed For the Night talks about how humanitarian agencies universally picture children in their publicity campaigns, as if the parents of these children are irrelevant. A classic Rieff quote: “There are two groups of people who like to be photographed with children: dictators and aid officials.”

Former World Bank President Wolfowitz with a few children

Alex de Waal in his equally great book Famine Crimes (and continuing writings since) writes about “disaster pornography.” He gives an example of a Western television producer in Somalia in 1992-93 who said to a local Somali doctor: “pick the children who are most severely malnourished” and bring them to be photographed.

Here’s a resolution to be proposed at Davos: we rich people hereby recognize each and every citizen of the globe as an individual with their own human dignity equal to our own, regardless of their poverty or refugee status. And Davos man: please give Refugee Run a pass.

Sep 16, 2009

another re-enactment

Another one from Osocio:

A guerilla marketing action by Group Eight was front page news in Singapore last november. Dressed-up child actors portraits victims of child abuse complete with fake bruises. Less than 20 people going on to approach the ‘abuse victims’ in the span of five hours.

The action was part of an integrated campaign for the Ministry of Community Development, Youth & Sports (MCYS) and aimed to send a message out to Singaporeans to be more sensitive and aware to the plight of abused children.

“Please. Don’t Just Stand There. Reach Out”.

MCYS: Please. Don’t Just Stand There. Reach Out

MCYS: Please. Don’t Just Stand There. Reach Out

MCYS: Please. Don’t Just Stand There. Reach Out

MCYS: Please. Don’t Just Stand There. Reach Out

Sep 7, 2009

photos of the white saviour

I am shamelessly reposting below an entire post off my favorite geography blog, from geographer David Campbell. He makes important points about 'the eye from below' not necessarily being free of structures of domination - an issue that I've been struggling with lately.

Aid images, and the solution offered by local photographers

by David Campbell

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 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.

Sep 1, 2009

Unusual solidarity

Here is an unusual example of accompaniment. Lenca first nations people are accompanying the Venezuelan embassy delegate who is resisting deportation from Honduras by the coup regime. Thirty of them are camping out in front of the main gate. Story here.

Rumor has it that 60 days later the US government might FINALLY actually declare the obvious, a coup, and cut off military aid (hello? bit slow?). You can help this along with a call to State Department at 202-647-5171 or 1-800-877-8339 and White House 202-456-1111 with the message: "Legally define the de facto regime in Honduras as a military coup and cut off all aid to Honduras until President Zelaya is unconditionally reinstated."