Save our Syrians

Three years of war in Syria, and we bystanders are hardened to images of destruction and displacement – while the job of those trying to keep the issue in the spotlight just gets harder.

Save the Children got a bit creative, producing a campaign video about Syria that shows nothing of Syria. It’s had 26 million views within 10 days, and counting.

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Take the risk (and the picture)

JumaLearning photography means getting used to being told off – usually, for taking pictures. Sometimes, though, you get in trouble for not taking them.

Working at an aid agency in Dar es Salaam, I was responsible for documenting our fieldwork (and the one with the decent camera). When the heart-sinkingly inevitable time came to attend a funeral – the gardener/groundsman at our head office died after a sudden case of malaria – my colleagues told me: take photos.

Off we went, on a typically humid morning, to Juma’s home. A few hundred people had gathered under the awning. The women sat on the floor and wailed; the men stood or sat on wooden chairs wiping sweat from their brows. Continue reading “Take the risk (and the picture)”

And now, something a little different…

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Hogarth makes the cut

It’s not quite world-changing stuff, but you have to start somewhere, I guess.

I started with pugs. And learned a lot of unexpected, and probably not very useful, stuff along the way, like the fact that the crease on a pug’s forehead is supposed to be the Chinese character for “prince”, and that the pet cemetery at Hyde Park has three monkeys buried in it.

The LCC summer course in documentary photography, led by the endlessly energetic Anders Birger, gets you out shooting and putting together a photo story within two weeks. Sounds like plenty of time, but the hours just seem to evaporate. Before you know it you’re cramming in bits of text and agonising over which last image will make the cut. In a way, that’s the crucial bit. Which photos – and they might not be the most beautiful or the most technically perfect – tell the story you want to tell? And is it a story people can relate to? Will they care? Still mulling those things over – in the meantime, here’s my pug-inspired picture parade. Continue reading “And now, something a little different…”

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.

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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.

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A mountain of clichés

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Not to mention the cheese

First, there’s a billboard featuring a blue-eyed, blonde girl with plaits sitting on a fence, welcoming you to the country. Then, a soundtrack of yodelling and cowbells plays softly as the monorail sweeps you off to the baggage terminal, where the only products being advertised are Swiss-made watches. As you exit, posters catch your eye: a landscape of mountains and rolling hills. Is Switzerland the one country that happily feeds off its own stereotypes?

The ad agency behind Swiss, the national airline, certainly think so: they run adverts with taglines referring self-deprecatingly – yet with a confident superiority – to the “cliché” of offering Swiss chocolate on board. Continue reading “A mountain of clichés”