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.
** 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.