Imaging Famine: A Debate
- @foto8 - presumably Jon Levy, but it could be someone else running the organisation's account - took strong exception to my post about the current media and photographic coverage of the East African humanitarian crisis.
- To call it 'shabby' is strong stuff, given the OED defines shabby as meaning "contemptibly mean, ungenerous, or dishonourable." There's also the suggestion that "to intellectualise" is part of the problem. I will defend the need for critical thought to the hilt. Anyone can take on those critical thoughts and contest them, but no subject should be off limits to critical thinking.
- I was very surprised, though, to be criticised by foto8 - "the home of photojournalism" - for engaging in the critical analysis of how images represent politics. I have no problem with them or anyone debunking particular points I've tried to make, but I struggled to think why this particular post was deemed illegitimate.
- Twitter, as others remarked later, is a poor forum for debate, so I did not respond immediately to foto8's specific points (though later in the afternoon I chipped in with a couple of comments). I also wanted to digest the criticism and respond later with regard to the issues. This annotated and curated Storify is my attempt to do that. It includes many of the tweets Victor Acquah put in his Storify, presented in an effort to replicate the conversations.
- It took me a while to catch up with foto8's first three comments because they weren't linked to my Twitter name (and must have come as a surprise to the Canadian recruiting executive who has @DavidCampbell!). My first thought was the need to move beyond the accusation to the argument - meaning making a case and debating it.
- So there's little if any relation between something and the picture a photographer makes of it? While the relation may not be clear or easy, wouldn't the purpose of visual storytelling be to establish some connection? If so, isn't that a major problem?
- No.1 - My principal approach is to think about how pictures function, how the work, and the effect they have. That might be understood very generally in terms of "what the pictures mean" but I'm not interested in divining some meaning from within the frame of the photograph. Nonetheless, for so many people - perhaps most of us as 'citizen-viewers' - tragedies come to us through visual accounts. How can we not talk about events, issues and tragedies, at least in part, in terms of how they are visually presented and structured? What other ways do we come to know about such things when we don't have direct experience (which most of us do not have)? And why is it that few people take exception to textual representation of tragedies etc? Has anyone ever written this sentence: "let's not talk about a present day tragedy in terms of what the words mean"? No.2 - If the issue of over-familiar disaster imagery of 'Africa' was just a random, personal opinion, then it could be dismissed easily. But it isn't. While there will be many people encountering these disaster images for the first time, that doesn't invalidate the well-established view that there is a dominant pictorial depiction of 'Africa', that its been in place since at least the 19th century, that its associated with disaster, and that it continues to be reinforced and repeated. I'll give you two sources to support this. The first comes from the 2005 'Imaging Famine' project I co-curated. Run through the 20 pages of that site and look at the historical news image to see what is common. In particular look, at the NYT Magazine cover from 2003 (number 12) with its 36 portraits of starving children from dozens of different countries over fifty or more years. We should be appalled by the persistence of famine, and we should ask how is it, that despite all the different contexts, we see the same picture? The second support I will offer is an historical review I co-authored with my former Durham colleague Marcus Power, called "The Scopic Regime of Africa". Anyone can get the PDF via this Back Catalogue post. We draw on well-known literary and historical scholarship to show how museums, exhibitions, literature, photography, cinema, video games and other visual forms have enacted a negative view of the continent. When I saw the 5 July 2011 Times editorial cartoon that opens the contentious post, I saw another moment in the scopic regime.
- I find it hard to believe that anyone well-versed in the practice of photography would draw a tight distinction between 'reporting' and 'the language of photography', as though reporting did not involve a visual language or rhetoric. Consciously or not, photographers (and TV journalists) working in East Africa are engaged in a process of construction and interpretation. That does not they are making things up. It does mean they are not simply offering a transparent, objective, mirror on the world. Then comes the personal charge - what am I doing (presumably as opposed to those who have gone to the field to report)? Like foto8, I'm not in the field. What I am trying to do is to press home questions of context and effect so that practitioners can think about how they report. Then I am looking ways to produce different stories, to move into creative practice itself. And I am working with a local charity in the UK to address issues of food poverty at home. It's not on the scale of extreme disasters like East Africa, but it involves injustice and inequity all the same. Perhaps, then, I can bounce the question back to foto8 - what are you doing? Are you planning a program of activities around these issues? Might you not think about a public debate on these issues?
- Mary-Jane Maybury joined the fray with a good observation:
- She points to the fact that the visual economy in which certain images come to the fore involves decisions at various levels, and we cannot draw easy conclusions about the photographers' intentions from what gets published. But, as John Edwin Mason pointed out, my post was not about the photographers. It deals with what I call a systemic problem that leaves the media in a tragic conundrum when it comes to reporting food emergencies:
- After a while foto8 came back online and responded to my statement that the debate needed an argument to be made against the post:
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