Famine Photography

I used to work as a lighting designer on tour. Early on, I received some good advice from a colleague, a sound manager, who told me, “If a music fan goes to a concert and the sound is great but the lighting is terrible, they’ll leave thinking the concert was terrible. But if they go to a concert where the sound is okay and the lighting is perfect, they’ll leave thinking it was great.”

Strong words that stuck with me. And he was right – we interpret visual symbols more powerfully than we do audio. If the band is tight but my lighting cues are slightly off, the band gets the blame for seeming loose.

A similar analogy can be drawn with famine photography, which is usually presented alongside journalistic text detailing the specific disaster; it is the images that stay with us. This is true and one only need to think of any recent disaster to acknowledge it – how many of us remember the details of the earthquake in Japan? And how many of us have images of it burned into our minds? I think we can agree that more people fall into the latter category.

So the photographs used to report disasters are important, and those who make them and those who distribute them have a responsibility to ensure that they communicate fully.

Recently, David Campbell and Jon Levy (of Foto8) have been debating the practice of famine photography. Discussions can be found here and here. This culminated in a debate last Thursday, hosted by Open-i to which David Campbell followed up with a summation of the points he raised in that debate (found here).

I attended the webinar debate, and found both speakers raised important points. Campbell began by showing the the imagery of famine has barely changed in 50 years, but argued that this imagery fails to communicate the complexity of the story, leaving the viewer with an iconic image but essentially an empty one, in so far as it fails to explain the context for the suffering. He contended that no natural disasters nowadays can really be said to be “natural” – they’re usually either caused by or exacerbated by government policies (eg the Irish Potato Famine occurring despite there being a good supply of potatoes being shipped to England) or economic strategies (eg the impact of bio-fuel farming in Africa). He focussed on the role of the photographer in choosing what to photograph and how to photograph it, while acknowledging that these questions fit into a wider discussion of how these images are distributed, but urged photographers to consider other ways of communicating the depth of a disaster where, in his opinion, famine is merely an end result.

Levy felt that by discussing these meta-questions, we were missing the immediate and visceral response we ought to have when viewing these images – the compassion towards the victims of the famine, coupled with a desire to help. He also argued that what he was viewing** as Campbell’s tendency to blame the photographs for the continuation of famines to be akin to blaming Twitter for the recent riots in England – blaming the tools of communication misses the real problems in our society, and those abroad. Further, he argued that questions about the imagery of famine rightly ought to be directed primarily at the news distributors, and secondarily at the consumers of these images, for failing to promote or demand alternatives. He expanded upon this point by arguing that we are asking too much from photographers to cover the complexities of the issue, and that this could be better provided by journalists. The work of photographers needs to be understood as forming part of a wider framework of communication, and the wider framework should be criticised for failing to make the causes apparent.

This last point reminds me of that piece of advice from the sound manager I worked with. Inevitably, the images in a story will carry more weight than the words. Some wont even read the words, or may skim through to find key details, missing the depth of a well written article altogether. There is a strong sense in which many “read” newspapers at a very superficial level, to “see what’s happening in the world”, in which case, it is the job of the photographer to pull them in to reading the arguments of an article more closely at times.

While I understand and agree with Levy’s point that the wider network of communicators need to also be questioned for failing to make the causes of famine clear, it seems almost defeatist to assume that the iconic bloated-belly image is the best a photographer can hope to produce in this area of work.

I also question the validity of arguing that by engaging in these theoretical discussions we are obliged to surrender any feeling of compassion for the current events. To refer back to the England riots analogy Levy made in relation to blaming communication tools for underlying causes, I think it is wholly possible to feel both anger and sadness at the recent riots yet also seek to understand the underlying causes for them. Likewise with famine photography – I needn’t choose between feeling compassion for those currently suffering in East Africa, and questioning the robustness of the images produced. In fact, if anything, my compassion for the suffering is what causes me to question the robustness of those images; it is precisely because I want to know more, because I want to find solutions, that I look at the images and find something missing in them.

That said, I am fairly well educated, I did study and then work in politics, and I do have some prior knowledge of the political and social factor in Africa that give rise to disasters like that currently happening. I concede that many do not.

Yet, in those cases, I do wonder how much the image influences the feelings they have. Sure enough, we look at the images and we feel moved by them; it is almost impossible not to. But I wonder if the continued reliance upon similarly context-empty images encourages us to naively conclude that such natural disasters are inevitable. In which case, the imagery is arguably undermining the chance of resolving the issues, adding to a continuation of the resulting disasters. There is a sense in which the absence of wider context in the image encourages us not to ask questions.

Undoubtedly, the photographer is constrained by limited publications options, as Paul Lowe pointed out in the Open-i debate – the news outlets are looking for the iconic, impactful, single image; the exclamation mark of what needs an essay to explore.

But this assertion strikes me as being a little bit disingenuous. While it is still true that an image will receive more exposure if published in a major publication, such as the front page of the New York Times, the photography community has been collectively singing the praises of a recent revolution in technology that has enabled self-publishing, the proliferation of independent publishers, and the possibility for good work to go viral quickly and cheaply.

We therefore have to question not merely why the image of a child with a bloated belly seems to be continually promoted by major news outlets as the image of famine, but also why there seems to be an absence of other images of famine. For the number of photographers who flocked to East Africa, where are the youtube/vimeo videos? Where are the photo-essays self-published on personal or agency websites? Where is the work being published through independent print and online publishers?

In summation, it is unreasonable to expect photographers to take the full responsibility for the current state of famine photography, but there are too many holes in the argument that photographers are currently doing the best that can visually be done to convince me that the various issues surrounding this don’t need to be discussed further. It is only through interrogating the status quo that we can hope to create new options that do better justice to the unnecessary loss of life that is continually happening in the world. It is from being deeply moved by the famine photography that I have seen that I have become convinced that the best famine photography must be those photographs that contribute most strongly to the end of famine photography and the creation of a world where natural disasters don’t have the impact they currently do for those unfortunate enough to have been thrown into the world in poverty.

Updates:
** David Campbell contacted me wishing to clarify this point, which I didn’t make clear. Here are his comments regarding this point, “I just want to underscore that the point attributed to Jon (“He also argued that Campbell’s tendency to blame the photographs for the continuation of famines to be akin to blaming Twitter for the recent riots in England “) is very, very far removed from my views on both famine photography and social media. Just to be clear – I don’t regard images as the reason famines continue. I’ve not written that and certainly don’t believe that.”

A friend shared a link to this article, written by Reuters journalist Barry Malone. Titled, “Me and the man with the iPad”, it offers the viewpoint of a journalist working specifically in East Africa, reporting on famines, and he shares his thoughts on the ethical dilemma he faces in doing this job.

Open-i network have now posted the recording of the webinar debate here.

I’ve added to this post with Famine Photography Redux, which compares this debate about famine photography with the comparative absence of debate around conflict photography (despite ostensibly similar issues being present).

Tim W Glass shared these books in the comments below. I’ve added them here for easy reference:

“Compassion Fatigue” by Susan D. Moeller
“Photojournalism and Today’s News: Creating visual reality” by Loup Langton.
“Truth Needs No Ally: Inside photojournalism” by Howard Chapnick. Excerpt: “For visual journalists, perhaps the time has come to rethink the philosophical basis that determines not only how we photograph but what we photograph.”
“The Construction of Social Reality” by John Searle.

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  1. #1 by duckrabbit on August 21, 2011 - 10:56 pm

    Cracking post.

    I’m confused by this point,

    “we interpret visual symbols more powerfully than we do audio.”

    Not sure what you mean by ‘interpret’, but the sound of someone suffering can be more disturbing then a picture. Infact the pictures we create in our own minds can be the most powerful of all, and these are evoked by many things.

    Levy is right. It’s as if Campbell whilst rightly highlighting the narrowness of the context the single photograph represents, blocks out of his argument the context in which the photo often finds itself (alongside text); and which must be a mitigating factor. Photography is just one element of how the story is told, and generally I think it makes more sense to look at the elements together, which is how the audience on the whole receives them.

    In his latest post Campbell asks:

    ‘Could not some of them record audio as well as shoot photos so we can hear from the people affected?’

    But when I asked the organiser to widen out the panel ( I think it should have at least included a least an aid worker, and a Kenyan, Somali or Ethiopian working in this field) I was told,

    ‘It was Jon & David’s preference to keep the format as a two-way debate rather than involving a wider panel.’

    To me that’s disappointing. I have many friends both in Ethiopia and Kenya who would have added some deep insight into the arguments presented by Levy and by Campbell, who might have learned something too.

  2. #2 by David Campbell on August 22, 2011 - 10:25 am

    Sara, this is a good summary and I like your own additions too. I’ve only got one response to it. I just want to underscore that the point attributed to Jon (“He also argued that Campbell’s tendency to blame the photographs for the continuation of famines to be akin to blaming Twitter for the recent riots in England “) is very, very far removed from my views on both famine photography and social media. Just to be clear – I don’t regard images as the reason famines continue. I’ve not written that and certainly don’t believe that.

    Ben, for some reason you want to read my years of arguments about famine photos as being about photos only and not their context. I’m gobsmacked by that. All my arguments are about context and how it is or isn’t shown. During the debate I emphasised the inherent limits of the single image and how I was not interested in blaming photographers or images, but rather concerned with their effects over a long period of time, what we do not see via the stereotypical representation, and what elements might go into making a better story. Its a misrepresentation of my posts etc to say they are only concerned with single images, and if I have allowed that interpretation then I’ve clearly failed.

    I also want to respond to the point about the format of the debate. That was decided by OPEN-i. I was asked if I was happy to debate with Jon and said yes. I was not asked if I was for or against other participants. I did not express any preference for limiting it. I would have been happy to have had other participants and would no doubt have learned from them.

  3. #3 by st84photo on August 22, 2011 - 2:18 pm

    Ben – thanks for the compliment, the blog exists for two reasons; sharing useful info I come across, and sharing my thoughts on photography so I can get feedback and refine my views where necessary, so the discussion is cool.

    Re your point about audio – I agree, there are some instances where sound is much more immediate than visuals like, as you say, the sound of a baby crying. I didn’t make my point as clear as I could have done, but I was trying to draw an analogy between lighting/sound in concerts with images/text in an article. In both cases, I think it is easy to underestimate the importance of lighting (in concerts) or images (in articles) in the overall impression a consumer gets from the work.

    In this specific debate, I think there’s been too much emphasis on the idea that if the underlying causes aren’t being discussed or aren’t being understood, this must be a failing of the written word, rather than a failure of the photography, or a general failure all round. In the case of a newspaper article, I think there are a lot of people who have a strong emotional reaction to the image, but either don’t engage fully with the text (for whatever reasons, and no doubt there are many), or who do engage with the text, but who remember the image as the overarching point of the article. For me, if people take away the idea, “There are people dying” that isn’t as good as if they could take away the idea that, “There are people dying because of X, which needs to change”, where that is applicable.

    I think it’s imperative that photographers pursue the images that matter to them, but that it is also imperative that the same photographers give careful consideration to how their images are being used. How the images are being used determines, to some extent, how their work (and, by extension, their intentions and ideals) are being understood. The photographer owes it to himself to engage with questions like this. I don’t think we should be scared of doing that. We also shouldn’t be scared of failing to always live by the standards we set out for ourselves – we develop those higher standards in order to work towards them. Jon argued that this kind of debate can paralyse photographers from undertaking the work they do – I don’t think that has to be a necessary outcome, though. It requires the photographer to change their mindset about why these debates are happening, and also for those of us participating in the debate to be clear about why we’re doing it – and, I have to say, David did work hard to make it clear that he wasn’t attacking the specific photographers doing this work. That’s the point I was trying to make; hope I’ve made it clearer this time.

    David – also, many thanks for commenting, and I’ve rephrased that sentence and added the clarification you’ve posted here to the updates section in the main post.

    I too would have appreciated a wider panel being involved, although I can understand that Open-i perhaps wanted to explore the debate between you and Jon specifically, as you had created a fairly lengthy dialogue already, and it might have been unfair to invite other speakers to join that without having been present from the start. Personally, I’d like to hope that the Open-i debate was just another step in discussing this rather than an end outcome. Maybe another debate with a wider panel could be arranged either through Open-i or at an event at some point. Either way, I hope no idea about the method/intent/ethics ever reaches a point where we decide it is beyond questioning; that is surely a mistake.

  4. #4 by Tim W Glass on August 22, 2011 - 4:46 pm

    Two books come to mind that underscore some of the problems with reporting disasters and visual reporting: “Compassion Fatigue” by Susan D. Moeller and “Photojournalism and Today’s News: Creating visual reality” by Loup Langton. Part of the problem seems to be the news media corporate drive to profit from story telling, instead of being driven by the need to explain or to educate. Space is limited, and photo editors are forced to choose one photo to run with a story and they are encouraged to choose a photo that will make people buy the paper. The iconic photo replaces the need to choose images that tell the more complete story, or to run images without text, in an effort to increase readership which helps secure advertisers and increases revenue – all while cutting staff that could’ve been telling the story that leads up to the story. Famines don’t happen overnight. But news organizations have cut their foreign correspondents – the very people who might have been reporting the deteriorating conditions in the Horn of Africa and producing images that illustrate the story more fully over a longer duration of time. Photographers and editors begin to self-censor the content they know publishers or higher-level editors will not use. This (the iconic swollen-bellied child) is the image we’ve seen, this is the image we expect, this is the image I will make.

    Regardless, given a recession and what I see as a general apathy by Americans for all matters, Moeller points out that people will simply check out mentally from news that doesn’t effect them personally and that they cannot do much to impact. How can I – the average person might ask – do anything to impact the starvation of 300,000+ children?

    In the end, I believe that journalists have a responsibility to ignore the financial concerns of corporations. I’m an idealist, and I freely recognize the difficulty of going against the grain. As Howard Chapnick states in “Truth Needs No Ally: Inside photojournalism,” “For visual journalists, perhaps the time has come to rethink the philosophical basis that determines not only how we photograph but what we photograph.” If the photojournalist is driven by the need to tell the complete story, she’ll find a medium to publish that story. And who knows, if we rethink how we tell stories and what we tell, maybe the public will rethink why they should care.

    All three books are excellent reads, by the way, and combined with John Searle’s “The Construction of Social Reality,” really make one contemplate the role of journalists in defining “reality”.

  5. #5 by st84photo on August 23, 2011 - 5:15 pm

    Hi Tim, welcome to ST84Photo and thanks for contributing your excellent comments to the ongoing debate. I’m going to add the books you mentioned to the update section of this post, to make it clearer for anyone seeking to investigate these issues more thoroughly.

    I agree with your analysis of the systemic problems created by the news media business structure, and it undoubtedly does influence the work that is produced very heavily. I’m writing another post on this topic for tomorrow that I hope will interest you – it explores how conflict photography has broadened its scope and moved beyond the newspaper, but focusses on the fact that some of the questions raised about debating famine photography aren’t lodged equally against debating conflict photography, despite there being similarities in the process and intention.

    I’d love to investigate the economic side of things more deeply, and to get the input of some photo editors in this debate – I think that is important. Unfortunately, at this time, I don’t have their input on this. But I’d be glad to return to that once/if I do.

    While I do think that aspect of the debate does have a massive influence on what is and can be produced, I would argue that it is not a necessary constraint, and photographers ought to look at other options for developing a more thorough collective narrative of famine using alternative publication and funding models.

    Thanks again for your comments, and I hope you find this place interesting enough to stick around.

    Best,

    Sara

  6. #6 by David Hoffman on August 27, 2011 - 3:16 pm

    Sara – thanks for this. Plenty of food for thought and much of what you discuss relates not only to disaster photography but to all photographic reporting of social issues.

    There’s a small elephant in the room that I’d like to point at. Money. You write “Undoubtedly, the photographer is constrained by limited publications options”. When I began my career there were (literally) hundreds of magazines and other publication options. They existed on ad revenue and competed with each other for in depth quality work. Photographers could spend days, sometime weeks, on a story and would be paid well enough that they could pay their rent, replace their equipment and feed their families while doing so.

    That’s all gone. You can count the publishers who will support that kind of work on the fingers of one foot. Charities want simple feelgood pics for fundraising, to control what is produced and to own the resulting work. Very few photographers still get decent commissions and can do good work. Others with income from elsewhere do it as a part time hobby, pleased to see their (“good enough”) work in the public eye.

    The new media are not filling the gap left by the collapse of the old media. For them “we have no budget for photography” is the mantra. Free is more important than good and with the flood unleashed by digital even the visual language is degraded to the equivalent of a sulky teenager’s mumble.

    I don’t see that there is a way back. Print is clearly dying. No new mass media commissions serious, in depth photography. The little money that’s left in repro fees is snuffled up by the aggregators. Readers’ attention spans are now measured in seconds. Just where would a skilled, dedicated, passionate photographer find an outlet for a considered piece of work on famine? And how could they themselves avoid starvation while looking?

  7. #7 by David Hoffman on August 29, 2011 - 5:32 pm

    Sara – thanks for this. Plenty of food for thought and much of what you discuss relates not only to disaster photography but to all photographic reporting of social issues.
    There’s a small elephant in the room that I’d like to point at. Money. You write “Undoubtedly, the photographer is constrained by limited publications options”. When I began my career there were (literally) hundreds of magazines and other publication options. They existed on ad revenue and competed with each other for in depth quality work. Photographers could spend days, sometime weeks, on a story and would be paid well enough that they could pay their rent, replace their equipment and feed their families while doing so.
    That’s all gone. You can count the publishers who will support that kind of work on the fingers of one foot. Charities want simple feelgood pics for fundraising, to control what is produced and to own the resulting work. Very few photographers still get decent commissions and can do good work. Others with income from elsewhere do it as a part time hobby, pleased to see their (“good enough”) work in the public eye.
    The new media are not filling the gap left by the collapse of the old media. For them “we have no budget for photography” http://bit.ly/qEdC3o is the mantra. Free is more important than good and with the flood unleashed by digital even the visual language is degraded to the equivalent of a sulky teenager’s mumble.
    I don’t see that there is a way back. Print is clearly dying. No new mass media commissions serious, in depth photography. The little money that’s left in repro fees is snuffled up by the aggregators. Readers’ attention spans are now measured in seconds. Just where would a skilled, dedicated, passionate photographer find an outlet for a considered piece of work on famine? And how could they themselves avoid starvation while looking?
    But this assertion strikes me as being a little bit disingenuous. While it is still true that an image will receive more exposure if published in a major publication, such as the front page of the New York Times, the photography community has been collectively singing the praises of a recent revolution in technology that has enabled self-publishing, the proliferation of independent publishers, and the possibility for good work to go viral quickly and cheaply.

    I think it’s imperative that photographers pursue the images that matter to them, but that it is also imperative that the same photographers give careful consideration to how their images are being used.

  1. Famine Photography Redux « st84photo
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