The ethics of aesthetics – Imaging Famine

Throughout the coursework the issue of compassion fatigue, people’s attitudes and responses to constant images depicting certain disasters – be that war, famine or other tragedies –  have been raised. Various organisations as well as photographers and editors gradually became aware that they had to consider a new approach to their work and how it was presented. In September 2005 the exhibition Imaging Famine ‘posed poignant questions of ethical documentary practice.’ 

 

An ethical code of documentary practice allows for the imbalance of power that often arises between filmmakers/photographers and both their subjects and their audience to be addressed. It should affirm, among other things, the principle of informed consent for subjects. However, documentary conventions do alter. Along with those alterations, judgments about what compromises trust or violates another’s humanity also change.

We need to consider the effect of using positive versus negative imagery, about images of suffering evoking a response. I have already looked in depth at the photographers involved within the Eight Ways to Change the World project.

Exercise
 
Read the booklet ‘Imaging Famine’ – from The Guardian. Do some research across printed and on-line media and find examples that either illustrate or challenge the issues highlighted in the document.

Imaging Famine

 

The catalogue sets the scene by discussing the press coverage of the Ethiopian famine disaster; pinpointing the watershed moment in October with the 1984 BBC TV report from Korem in Ethiopia, filmed by Mohamed Amin and reported by Michael Buerk. In fact, the consequences of how the crisis was perceived in Europe via such imagery was investigated by a United Nations organisation instigating new codes of practice for the use of NGO imagery.

My initial response was to not read the text but to look at the images contained within the booklet. What was my immediate response? What did I see? What did I read into them?

The opening image taken by Paul Lowe in Somalia was very telling; a starving child surrounded by 4 white photographers all hoping to get a ‘scoop’. They closely resembled the vultures from a later image; picking the bones of opportunity, survival of the fittest and seemingly more concerned about themselves than the child. That may be totally inaccurate, they may have sent funds to help the aid agencies, they may have transported struggling victims, but going on stories brought back this didn’t happen that often.

Not that I am overly criticising them, the reporters, film-makers and photographers had and have a role to play, stories need to be told if we are to help, not everything can be solved by throwing cash at it. Politics plays an important role in every event and, if images are to have an impact, those images have to be made. I can understand how some photographers felt, and feel, guilt at getting into an air-conditioned 4×4, staying in a 5 star hotel and then flying home to a very comfortable life knowing that they win awards and funding off the back of others’ suffering.

To give two examples of these moral dilemmas and the guilt photographers feel, I can cite Mike Wells who won a World Press Photo Award for the following image.

1980001
1981, World Press Photo of the Year singles, World Press Photo of the Year

 

Taken in Karamoja district, Uganda in April 1980, the contrasting hands of a starving boy and a missionary spoke louder than any world leader and any news story about the famine in Uganda. Karamoja region has the driest climate in Uganda and was prone to droughts. The 1980 famine in there where 21% of the population (and 60% of the infants) died was one of the worst in history. The worst recorded famine was the great Finn famine (1696), which killed a third of the population.The photographer Mike Wells, who would later win the World Press Photo Award for this photo, admitted that he was ashamed to take the photo. The same publication that sat on his picture for five months without publishing it entered it into a competition. He was embarrassed to win as he never entered the competition himself, and was against winning prizes with pictures of people starving to death.

Another photographer who faced a barrage of criticism was Kevin Carter, over his image of a little girl being stalked by a vulture. In March 1993 Carter was in Sudan near the village of Ayod. There he came across a girl who had stopped to rest on her way to a United Nations feeding centre; a vulture had landed nearby. Carter waited for twenty minutes until the vulture was close enough, positioned himself for the best possible image and only then chased the vulture away.

The vulture and the little girl

The photograph was sold to The New York Times where it appeared for the first time on March 26, 1993. Practically overnight hundreds of people contacted the newspaper to ask whether the child had survived, leading the newspaper to run a special editor’s note saying the girl had enough strength to walk away from the vulture, but that her ultimate fate was unknown. Because of this, Carter was bombarded with questions about why he did not help the girl, and only used her to take a photograph.“The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering, might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene”

What is never made that clear is that Carter was working in a time when photojournalists were told not to touch famine victims for fear of spreading disease, nor that her parents were close by taking food aid from a plane.

Carter won a Pulitzer for his image, but the darkness of that bright day never lifted from him. In July 1994 he took his own life, writing, “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain.”

As a separate note Kevin Carter, was the first to capture a public execution by ‘necklacing’ in South Africa in the mid-1980’s and questioned cause and effect of the media asking: ‘The question that still haunts me is ‘would those people have been necklaced, if there was no media coverage?’

These images are nothing new, history has revealed a morbid fascination of death and disaster, the oldest image in this article being published in 1876 of a famine in Madras by a Captain Hooper. Earlier images were posed and subjects arranged so that their plight was obvious yet a code of decency was adhered to; no naked flesh or obvious genitalia on display. However, it is worrying to note that some of the subjects were tied/propped up so they could be posed properly?!? Dignity does not just mean covering up or cropping out various body parts.

In 1901 an unknown photographer took a still in Allahabad of a pile of emaciated bodies, the scale of the crisis meaning that the value of human life and the level of dignity which their remains received was scant; this is still echoed in the mass graves found today in troubled spots throughout the world. These images still have a power to shock and raise sympathy and concern, even if they have become more prevalent. Whilst these stark images are created to raise awareness and financial aid for these people, is there a compromise of dignity which undermines their value? There is most certainly a moral obligation to portray the truth and they should not merely sensationalise.

We still have to ask, because they effect us on an emotional level and occasionally stir enough people to act in order to resolve issues, should some of these images be shown? Or shown in a different way?

I came across a blog post written by photojournalist Barry Malone called Me and the man with the i-pad. It is worth reading, it sums up the dilemmas and distaste he feels every time he has to cover a human disaster. He is angry that the governments and aid agencies know these things are coming, yet are either powerless to do anything, or choose to do nothing to prevent it. He questions how he acts, how he feels he should act, or does he even really know how he should act, if what he does is ultimately right? Does he treat people with the dignity they deserve?

Some journalists leaned down over the mothers to talk to them, some stuck cameras inches from their faces. I stood further away when taking the photos, I sat down in the dirt to interview people. I thought I was better, but I wasn’t. I was just more conceited.To match Feature AFRICA-FAMINE/

Part of me felt bad for publishing the photo of the man with the iPad. Because he was a good person doing his job. And because we are the same.He comes with an iPad, I come with a notebook.Both of us steal dignity and neither of us belong.

More contemporary photographs seem to depict individuals, mainly children, or parents with children, the elderly, in fact those highlighted in my earlier posts that are considered to be the weaker members of society.

Whilst Rankin’s (working name of John Rankin Waddell) images don’t follow this trend I still question the hands out holding food pose….. (totally off topic his wife is actress Kate Hardie, whose stage name is derived from those of both her parents: Jean Hart and comedian turned naturalist Bill Oddie)

Another photographer who bucked the trend was Alejandro Chaskielberg

Imagery for charity campaigns has traditionally been caught between a Rock and a Hard Place. The Rock being a lack of decent funds for a campaign which has lead to ‘shock’ imagery in search of publicity.  The Hard Place is the challenge of creating imagery that neither feeds stereotypes nor is so emotionally gutting it turns away potential givers because it makes them feel any contribution is pointless.Alejandro Chaskielberg, Sony’s 2011 World Photographer of the year, avoids both in his Photos exhibition for Oxfam opening today at Southbank’s OXO Gallery.

Or are these too artistic?

 

Then we have the cause célèbrewith famous people ready and willing to promote certain fund-raising events or charities. The cynical part of me wonders if this is done to promote themselves as much as the charity, many famous characters donate or help anonymously, why don’t all? But sadly, I realise the general public are more likely to help out too if something is endorsed by their favourite footballer, film-star, singer or comedian. The Guardian ran an article on the pros and cons of celebrity endorsement in 2011.

The catalogue has several topical sections which hopefully I have covered above or below:

What is the appeal
Positive versus negative
The nature of photojournalism
Geographies of death and disaster
Moving images
Picture, celebrities and policy
Stereotypes, icons and symbols
Visual memory
Time and place
Responsibility

Working my way through it, I shall share some of my observations…

The watershed report at the time met with mixed reaction, some thought it brilliant, so it was beamed around the world, whilst another producer had the response of ‘not more starving Africans,’ revealing the truth of not pleasing all the people all of the time and underlining the problem of compassion fatigue.

The impact of LiveAid etc created a stereotype of African nations lumping them altogether as a ‘single impoverished place.’ Charity appeals tended to rely on these images for fund-raising appeals. The type of image used does seem to depend on if the charity is responding to a sudden disaster or a long term project. Sudden disasters show the more harrowing or emotional images whereas the long-term projects portray the positive and uplifting.

Compare the Water Aid campaign to the Christian Aid Syrian Refugee Appeal and others.

I noted with interest that the same image had been used but flipped for the Christian Aid poster. All of them still showing the ‘weaker’ section of society. Don’t grown men and teens also suffer? Can charity appeal images go to far?

It always seems very sad to me, yet indicative of human behaviour that it is always the negative images that gain more attention. Although a photographer may balk at taking and showing certain photographs they are usually the most honest and representative images during a disaster. May be more needs to be done to emphasise these images are of a select area at a select time and do not represent an entire country or continent.

As with the previous articles by Houghton and Kaplan, the words that accompany the images are just as important. Journalists/editors can be as much to blame for the consequences when they use a certain rhetoric or lexical set. Even the catalogue acknowledges that an image without text or a caption is ‘arguably purely aesthetic…shot of clear meaning and not photo-journalism at all.’

Very topical at the moment is the spate of terrorist attacks in the UK. Minutes silences have been held for the victims in Manchester and London. Yet major incidents occur throughout the world all the time and we don’t seem to bat an eyelid unless a British citizen is involved. With an ever shrinking world this may be less so, but sadly I don’t think so. Do we really need to have a break down of the nationalities every time there is a plane crash or a suicide bombing? The catalogue cites Susan Moeller who stated ‘One dead fireman in Brooklyn is worth five English Bobbies, who are worth 50 Arabs, who are worth 500 Africans.’ The reporting of far-flung places may not hit the main stream, but with Facebook, twitter et al local residents and more local photographers are on the scene to show what is happening at any given moment in time across the globe.

Possibly this is the general way forward, with using more indigenous photographers who know the people, the area, the politics and would offer a more balanced viewpoint. Would the bias tip in the other direction, would they be under political constraint to be less honest? Both situations have different problems.

Examples given are photographs by Chris Keulen who although not indigenous captured The Tour du Senegal amongst other positive series of Africa, and Petterik Wiggers who hails from the Netherlands but has been photographing Africa for over 20 years.

However, since then more African photographers have come into the limelight and are being talked about and publicised. Even more well established African photographers are becoming known outside the field of photography.

Sir Bob Geldof is cited in the text as he was another influenced by the images he saw but rather than compassion he felt outrage, just as Gilles Peress was inspired to capture his images with no political agenda, just wanting to show the stark reality of what is happening and his despair that the world stood back watching.

Has anything changed from the 1992 Guardian image of a ‘stricken Somali town’
1992 Somali

to the 2011 famine?

2011-somalia-famine

Geldof is just one in a long line of celebrities to get involved in charity work, we have Comic Relief, Children in Need to name a few highly publicised events. Is it right that the many are entertained to raise funds for the suffering? The funds are much-needed, but is this just voyeurism under another name? How many viewers watch the sketches and go to make a cuppa when the taped ‘fact files’ are shown? An interesting article on philanthropy can be read here.

We recognise television as important in the respect of fund-raising whilst documentaries and news reports keep us up to date with events around the world, but what is the impact of new technology and digital techniques? Everything is so instant and disposable these days, a click or a swipe and the image is gone. We are asked: ‘If this is the future, what can be learned from advertisers who have mastered the art of triggering an emotional response through visual metaphors?’

So where lies responsibility? As covered earlier in this post some photographers feel guilt, others try to think of doing a job and moving on. Although not famine based there was some discussion over the photographs of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian refugee boy, whilst it may have impacted upon policy have we kept our word and welcomed many refugees? Have we done anything to stop the war? His father, although he thinks it was right to publish the images, does not think anything has changed.

Ultimately the question of ethics is a very important one. Who draws the lines? Who decides to cross them? Photographers don’t always have ultimate control over how their images are published and what text accompanies them, but they are responsible for pressing the shutter and their actions before, during and after. I can only strive to apply my own moral compass in the basic situations I face.

References 

http://100photos.time.com/photos/kevin-carter-starving-child-vulture [Accessed 07/06/17]

https://iconicphotos.org/tag/mike-wells/ [Accessed 07/06/17]

http://www.imaging-famine.org [Accessed 10/05/17]

http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/vulture-little-girl/ [Accessed 07/06/17]

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