Exercise: Imaging Famine


Read the booklet ‘Imaging Famine’.

Do some research across printed and online media and find examples that either illustrate or challenge the issues highlighted in the document. Add your findings to your learning log.


In 2005 there was across the Western world a critical mass of interest in global poverty, (Band Aid 20 and Live 8; the Make Poverty History movement; the G8 Summit in the UK), sadly neglected in the decade since. The exhibition Imaging Famine looked at how famine has been photographically depicted, though it does not claim to have any answers, rather that it:

“aim[ed] to draw public attention to issues that should animate debate among the producers and consumers of disaster imagery and to encourage further reflection by all concerned.” (Imaging Famine catalogue 2005: 3)

My notes below pick up on a few key themes I took from the exhibition catalogue.

The power of photography

The catalogue sets the scene by pinpointing the watershed moment in famine reporting, the October 1984 BBC TV report from Korem in Ethiopia, filmed by Mohamed Amin and reported by Michael Buerk. An interesting point only apparent to me from doing this research is that Amin was primarily a photojournalist more than a cameraman, and he brought a photojournalist’s eye to the situation. An unnamed TV producer is quoted as saying “it was as if each clip was an award-winning still photo” (ibid: 2).

Michael Buerk and famine victim, Korem, 1984 by Mohammed Amin

It might be a controversial viewpoint but this opens up the question of whether the story would have had such global impact if it had been filmed by someone else, just pointing the video camera at the scene. The instinctive human response is that of course it was the subject matter, not the way it was shot, that made the story so moving – but then why was it this particular report that moved the whole Western world into action? Maybe it was the particular combination of Amin’s visual interpretation of the scene and Buerk’s narration that made this eight minutes of TV news cut through the noise. Buerk has had a lot of credit over the years for this report; Amin less so.

Sometimes, an image breaks through because it is visually powerful. Whether it is through composition, lighting, metaphor or any of the other tools of rhetoric available to the photographer (and whether the visual language being employed is deliberate or unconscious), a strong image can move the viewer far more than a mediocre one of the same subject.

Positive vs negative images

Negative images are used to get attention, which in turn is intended to translate into fundraising and international aid. Negative images are also, unfortunately, the most accurate and representative images in the famine situation. Artificially seeking out good news stories and positive images in the midst of a famine crisis would be neither representative nor useful. However, as discussed later, the surfeit of such images imprints a stereotype that becomes hard to shift.

Positive images have more of a place when looking at the situation over the longer term. Showing how famine-stricken communities have recovered, developed and are preventing future crises is good for promoting the longer-term ‘sustainable development’ approach. The risk is, however (and I am aware that this sounds cynical, so please note that I am not voicing my own opinion…) that there is little or no inherent interest in good news stories, and the level of engagement in a ‘happy African country’ news story is going to be considerably lower than an urgent appeal to help save lives.

Men walk along a road with cattle near turbines, northern Tigray, 2014 © AFP/Getty Images

I had to do a little research to find the kind of positive, long-term development imagery that the catalogue refers to, since as noted above it tends not to make the news. What I did find employed a different aesthetic to the urgent and negative ‘appeal’ imagery; it tended to focus more on community and infrastructure than individual people – more wide shots implying the growth of the country.

This section raises the dilemma of whether the end justifies the means: “Is an image necessarily negative if it produces a positive outcome?” (ibid: 9) – but I’m equally interested in the flipside: is an image necessarily positive (e.g. demonstrating sustainable development) if it produces a negative outcome (e.g. complacency and withdrawal of aid). So I think one needs to separate the negativity/positivity of the content from the negativity/positivity of the outcome.


The text talks about how disasters tend to be more newsworthy the closer to home they are, though correctly points out that it is more complex than simple geography and incorporates ethnicity, e.g. UK coverage of a bomb attack in Sydney will exceed equivalent coverage of a bomb attack in Beirut. Overseas disasters tend to get reported in the UK with a specific mention of how many Brits were involved, a subtle but telling indication of how we prioritise our care for fellow human beings. A disaster that only happens to ‘Others’ needs to be of a magnitude before it earns its place in the Western media.

Moving images and moral responsibility

The emotive and ethical issues around famine photography are highly problematic. The impact of an image of, say, a dying child is greater than that of a dying adult. The photojournalist makes decisions on what will tell the story best, but often needs to set aside the dignity of the subject.

This is a dilemma crudely illustrated by the following extract from a sobering blog post from photojournalist Barry Malone:

“Rows and rows of women sat on the ground cradling delicate babies. An aid worker told us we had ten minutes and so we went to work. Camera shutters clicking, pens scratching: ‘What’s her name? How far did she walk? How many of her kids are dead?'” (Malone 2011)

The dignity of the subject is mentioned only in the context of the photographer having taken it away:

“An Ethiopian girl told me last week that she cried as she watched foreign journalists interviewing a Somali woman in a Kenyan refugee camp. ‘All she had left was her dignity,’ she said. ‘And then they took that, too.'” (ibid)

The unwritten contract seems to be that the subject’s dignity – even when that is all they have left – is a fair exchange for the publicity if the image ultimately provokes positive action.

There is then the question of ‘compassion fatigue’. What happens when viewers are desensitised to images of starvation? Do we need to up the ante? More questions, no answers.

These moral dilemmas often weigh heavily on photographers. Mike Wells won a World Press Photo Award for the ‘hands’ image above, but admitted he was ashamed to have taken it, and especially ashamed that he was rewarded for doing so. Kevin Carter took a huge amount of criticism for The vulture and the little girl picture above, and three months after winning a Pulitzer Prize for the photo, he ended his own life.

Stereotypes, icons and symbols

One of the greatest arguments against continued use of traditional famine photography is that it has perpetuated stereotypes. Africa is broadly painted as a homogenous country rather than a continent, and African people are too often depicted as primitive, naked, swollen-bellied – inferior. The overuse of such imagery – justified in each individual instance, certainly – has led to this generalisation of the single, impoverished Africa.

New York Times magazine, July 2003

In 2003 the New York Times magazine printed a cover feature with 36 photos of malnourished children from various countries over five decades; it’s hard to tell which were taken in what year, such is the homogeneity.

This loops back inescapably to the ‘positive and negative images’ dilemma above. These images are used because these images work at the time. The fact that they have solidified into a cultural cliché for an entire continent is unfortunate to say the least. The catalogue text asks: “are the most powerful images necessarily those that reinforce cultural clichés as opposed to the more complex ones that attempt to convey knowledge, understanding, context and explanation?” (Imaging Famine catalogue 2005: 15) – and I think the answer is, sadly, yes.

How to change this? I think a big part of it is to use local photographers more. The standard modus operandi of dropping in Western journalists to cover famines leads to a subliminal ‘Othering’ that only sees the subject in a particular way – foreign, a victim – even if they do see them as human. An indigenous photographer should be able to see the societal context, look past the immediate scene and maybe absorb some of the wider influences on the situation.


http://www.imaging-famine.org/images/pdfs/famine_catalog.pdf (accessed 22/09/2016)

https://www.david-campbell.org/2011/08/19/imaging-famine-how-critique-can-help/ (accessed 22/09/2016)

https://www.david-campbell.org/2010/10/20/stereotypes-that-move/ (accessed 22/09/2016)

http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/2011/07/29/me-and-the-man-with-the-ipad/ (accessed 22/09/2016)

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/22/-sp-ethiopia-30-years-famine-human-rights (accessed 23/09/2016)

https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/tag/famine/ (accessed 23/09/2016)



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