Pictures without pity

Which image of Africa would you rather see: skeletal, abandoned child, or healthy-looking working family?

Most people would say the latter; certainly most of those in the aid sector  – some of whom were discussing this at the recent PICS festival – now consider the starving child images not only unethical, but also unhelpful. They’re “not effective”, is the general view.

Provocative without the pity

But effective for what? Fundraising appeals today still deploy the same imagery, and the same language, as they did in the 1980s, when “poverty porn” made it to the mainstream with the Ethiopian famine hitting our headlines. That’s not only an indication that we’re seeing the same problems as we did three decades ago; it means we’re also stubbornly looking at them in the same way.

And that might be because pitiful pictures are still the best (or just easiest?) way to get donations coming in. Sure, development work isn’t only about fundraising – it’s also about advocacy, campaigning, training, etc. Then again, all of that requires money. And it seems that most of the images published are directly related to cashflow: a recent study, based on a year’s worth of data on what NGOs represent and why, found that 85% was for fundraising purposes.

But though many humanitarian campaigns still depend on those heart-wrenching images (think of some of the Syria appeals), there’s a broader uneasiness with using the cute-kids-suffering theme, not to mention a real acknowledgement of the responsibility we have in choosing pictures carefully. It’s not the 1980s anymore, when TV reporters controlled the cameras: NGOs, governments, aid agencies, and citizen activists/journalists are all producing their own content.

Many organisations now have guidelines on what kinds of pictures they’ll use. At the Belgian development agency, where I worked last year, we were only to use photos portraying people being “active”, people doing things for themselves rather than being helped by the Westerner.

Some have taken it further. Oxfam has called for us to “make Africa famous for its epic landscapes, not hunger“. Comic Relief created a whole website to get us to see africa differently. Well-meaning in both cases, but something doesn’t feel quite right. Is it because these are precisely the kinds of organisations who themselves propagated the images they are now trying to subdue? Is it because it’s the same slightly patronising simplification of a story – just this time, it happens to be a positive one? Is it because the campaign itself seems a bit pointless? (They remind me of the EU’s campaign to promote the culture of south-east Europe: who actually uses this kind of website?)

Clearly, telling the positive stories isn’t easy to do, and if we are to go that way – and win donations – we’re going to have to be clever about it. The PICS event offered up some good examples too: ethical, dignified portrayals of people that also work on a campaigning level, like Cordaid’s award-winning fashion shoot (pictured above), or Plan’s Because I am a Girl campaign, below:

But if you don’t have the cash to spend on a slick creative agency (Cordaid’s fashion pictures were done with Saatchi & Saatchi), telling a positive story in a more honest way, at least, is possible. That’s where participatory video or photography can open up many more perspectives, if it’s done carefully; a fuller picture can also emerge, as the photographer Julio Etchart reminds us, by letting your subjects decide how and where they want to be photographed.

That’s what’s uneasy about the likes of the one-dimensional “Africa is beautiful” stories: they still feel like the narrator is non-African, even if that may not be entirely the case.

Quite wonderfully, though, this whole discussion about how We portray Them is already becoming less relevant, thanks to technology and tools landing in the hands of the many, and to organisations like the photo agency Majority World promoting alternative representations. That’s not to say that this more democratic right to representation will make telling Africa’s story easier. It will actually make it a whole lot more complex.

Isn’t that great?

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