Exercise: Imaging Famine

The exhibition catalogue which we are asked to read offers up more questions to the nature of famine than solutions. Most of the important points raised are still questionable/relevant today as they were in the mid 1980s. Whether it is moral to use images of suffering to raise money/create awareness of the situation? Does the end justify the means, or should we ignore the dignity of those who are suffering? What are the short term and long term effects of the impact of these photographs?

Call me a cynic, but I do have to wonder whether the charities and/or NGO’s are really there to help those who need it most, or are they simply there to further their own agendas? How much of the money that is collected for these relief funds really reach the people that need it – or does it largely go on administrative costs? What say do local communities who need the aid have in where or how it will be spent? Giving aid is big business and the industry is driven by economic indicators (no matter how much the aid agencies deny it). The Western world is prone to a distorted view of the world, according to Shahidul Alam (1994), a view of skewed perceptions and stereotyping. I clearly remember my first encounter with stereotyping when I was nine years old. I was attending the British International School in The Hague, Netherlands and a new boy had joined our class. During our break he asked me where I came from (the teacher having mentioned that I was also “from Africa”), and upon hearing my reply that I was from South Africa, he immediately retorted that I couldn’t possibly come from South Africa because I wasn’t black! I found his statement so unbelievably stupid because he was a white boy from Kenya!

The Imaging Famine catalogue (p. 11) cites Susan Moeller making a statement that the amount of coverage a news report will receive is all about location : “One dead fireman in Brooklyn is worth five English bobbies, who are worth 50 Arabs, who are worth 500 Africans.” This statement is confirmed by the Guardian’s reporter David Adam in his Crisis of communications article which compared the amount of news coverage certain world wide disasters received in the media: Hurricane Katrina (New Orleans), Hurricane Stanley (Guatemala), the earthquake in Pakistani Kashmir, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran and the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Sudan. Carma International, who initiated the study reported that western reporting is driven by “selfishness and egocentricity” (Adam, 2006). Globalisation hasn’t really broken down borders because audiences care most about those news stories with which they can identify with (their community, their country, their people). Of course Hurricane Katrina received the most coverage, mainly down to the fact that such devastation was not really expected in an advanced country such as the USA, but it is quite ‘acceptable’ or ‘taken for granted’ that a similar devastation could occur in Guatemala or other developing nation as building standards would be considered inferior.

Politics and economics are the main drivers. Coming from Africa myself, I have been all too aware of the fact that aid (in whatever form) only really goes to those countries which have something that the west wants, as in the case with the USA covertly getting involved in the South African Border War (French, 2002). The mining resources in Namibia were just too valuable to allow them to fall into the hands of the Russians and Cubans. But this proved not to be the case during the Rwandan genocide though, despite pleas for more peacekeeping aid from the Canadian troops stationed in that country, the UN Security Council voted to withdraw troops as the situation escalated. What did Rwanda really have to offer the west? After all it is mainly an agricultural economy with very limited mineral resources (Owuor Otieno, 2019).

Compassion fatigue aside, what is touched upon quite briefly, but which is a huge contributor to these situations arising, is the corrupt governments that many African countries have. Look at Zimbabwe, former Rhodesia, once dubbed the “bread basket of Africa” and how that country was mismanaged to the ground while the President lived in the lap of luxury, while the population queues for drinking water:

Sadly South Africa has joined the long list of corrupt countries in Africa (one just has to google “South Africa” and “corruption” to be presented with a list of scandals and schemes). A Corruption Index map of 2018 reveals just how bad this is across the developing world. Tom Stoddart’s photograph of a child crawling after a man who has just stolen a bag of maize from him for me represents the epitome of African governments, both on local and national levels.

(Fig. 1. A rich local man steals the maize for which a child has queued for hours 1998)

The impact of a photograph can be immediate and the addition of text or caption can greatly change our interpretation of the situation. Sometimes the text challenges our assumptions, conveys a message or advertises the aid agencies good deeds, or urges us to donate money. But also crucial to how effective that message can or will be, is who is writing that text. Is the text being written by a copy editor thousands of miles away who is putting his own slant on the situation or is it being conveyed by the photographer who is the eye witness?

The situation is not just a matter of ethics of aesthetics. It is more complex than that. Economics, politics, individual, NGO and governmental agendas are at play, as well as those of the news media and not to forget that of the advertisers. Nothing is simple and clearly the more one thinks about these issues raised in the exhibition catalogue, the more questions I am asking.


Adam, D. (2006) ‘Crisis of communications’ In: The Guardian 30/01/2006 At: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2006/jan/30/mondaymediasection.internationalaidanddevelopment (Accessed  03/01/2020).

Alam, S (1994) The Visual Representation of Developing Countries  by Developmental Agencies and the Western Media At: http://www.imaging-famine.org/papers/Photography_and_Development.pdf (Accessed 03/01/2020)

CBS News (2019) Harare, Zimbabwe sees water supply cut off today as economic crisis and drought cripple supplies. At: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/harare-zimbabwe-water-supply-cut-off-today-as-economic-crisis-and-drought-cripple-supplies-2019-09-24/ (Accessed  03/01/2020).

Corruption Perceptions Index 2018 – Transparency International (s.d.) At: https://www.transparency.org/cpi2018 (Accessed  03/01/2020).

Foot, R. (2019) Canadian Peacekeepers in Rwanda | The Canadian Encyclopedia. At: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/canadian-peacekeepers-in-rwanda (Accessed  03/01/2020).

French, H. W. (2002) ‘From Old Files, a New Story Of U.S. Role in Angolan War’ In: The New York Times 31/03/2002 At: https://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/31/world/from-old-files-a-new-story-of-us-role-in-angolan-war.html (Accessed  03/01/2020).

Owuor Otieno, S. (2019) What Are The Major Natural Resources Of Rwanda? – WorldAtlas.com. At: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-are-the-major-natural-resources-of-rwanda.html (Accessed  03/01/2020).

Robert Mugabe’s homes away from home (2017) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpf4MggqPO8 (Accessed  03/01/2020).

Shahidul Alam on the Revolutionary Power of Photography (2012) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5JOZ38sgBc (Accessed  03/01/2020).


Figure 1. Stoddart, T. (1998) A rich local man steals the maize for which a child has queued for hours. At: http://www.reportage.org/PrintEdition2/Sudan/PagesSudan/03Sudanstolenfood.html (Accessed on 3 January 2020)

One thought on “Exercise: Imaging Famine

  1. Pingback: Learning Outcomes | Lynda Kuit Photography: Documentary – Fact & Fiction

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