Ethics of aesthetics – WeAreOCA blog post – The ethics of aesthetics

Having read Imaging Famine and  completed research into the shifting trends of visual styles, I still am not convinced of either the sensationalist shock value, or the pretty, pretty approach. I hate to admit that I am one of those people who sees yet another appeal image and turns the page without donating or acting to resolve issues in any way, but I am. I have my opinions that something should be done, but on the whole tend to think the answer lies with the politicians and policy makers. Armed with the knowledge that there is a problem I can lobby the correct people to ensure action is taken, therefore I do think images and appropriate information needs to be disseminated.




Read the WeAreOCA blog post , The ethics of aesthetics                                                      including all of the replies to it , and write a comment both on the blog page and in your blog. Make sure that you visit all of the links on the blog post.

This post was originally created in 2012 by Jose, and now has 52 comments…I may be a while…

The topic of the article was the worst drought in the Horn of Africa in 60 years, which showed no signs of abating, and how it was photographically represented…famine rears its ugly head even now.

In Nigeria, due to the rise of Boko Haram and the displacement of much of the population, agricultural production has stalled, sadly after eight years of conflict virtually no one is planting. Instead, families eat their remaining seedlings in order to survive. In September last year (2016) the UN assistant secretary-general, Toby Lanzer, warned that Nigeria faced ‘a famine unlike any we have ever seen anywhere’.
Doing a quick bit of research I found these current links and up-to-date charity campaigns.


The first was interesting as it had both positive and negative images. The current Oxfam page shows women with toddlers on their laps, so much for a different approach several years ago…


The Hunger Project makes no bones about using women. The tag line on the front page reads, ‘Start with women, mobilise everyone, engage government.’

Even Aljazeera, who are definitely not ‘Western,’ uses similar images to the Western press, featuring a mother with an emaciated child on her lap.


Or a female listlessly staring out from her bed.


We have to ask, do these photographs work? A recent article in The Guardian about the UN response to famine had this highlighted quote:

A photo of one actually starving child can be worth more than 8.5 million children at risk of starvation.

The international community does not seem to respond until there are emaciated and dying children on their TV screens.

Currently in 2017, 4 African nations are near a famine crisis.

Back in 2012 Jose explored several bodies of photographic work focusing on the humanitarian emergency , including those I have already, briefly touched upon, such as the portfolio of images taken by Alejandro Chaskielberg for Oxfam.

The photographs had been taken in the moonlight with added artificial lighting, giving them ‘an almost tactile, three-dimensional quality’ and Jose also points out ‘the colours are intense and the scenes and people depicted have a mysterious aura to them.’

Exploring the boundaries between reality and fiction by using this set up has become a sign of Chaskielberg’s authorship, his visual style. But I question, is this fictional quality suitable or apt for the subject matter? A different approach is needed sometimes but is this a step too far? Like Jose, I too ‘ fail to connect what I see in the photographs with the plea of the people in them.’ It would appear that even people who work for Oxfam had mixed views.

The other body of work discussed is that of Rankin , whose images from the same region, and also taken for Oxfam, reveal a completely different style. Although I agree that the series of people holding a day’s worth of food is beautiful photography and puts across a totally honest picture, I found as a series they became repetitive. I guess they would work used as standalone images on an aid poster, therefore the dignity of the person photographed remains intact, but I found them a bit too posed, obvious and also reminded me of a person holding out their hands in a begging posture, which is a bit of a contrast to keeping their dignity. The other images I liked, as they portrayed all generations and both sexes, not pandering to the typical ‘it has to be a woman, elderly or a child crying’ theme.


The above image by Tom Stoddard, although falling into that expected theme, does however, allow the subject to keep her dignity. Her face is not shown her stride seems purposeful, even if weak, yet it sums up the situation perfectly, a very haunting image.

It is interesting to note Chaskielberg and Rankin’s use of colour opposed to Stoddard’s traditional B&W. I wonder if his images would have the same impact in colour?

On reading the comments, quite a few echoed each other and the last few are in response to the documentary coursework rather than initial responses to the post. Coming late to the party is always difficult and I have found thinking of something original to say quite tricky. When I had some ideas I carried on reading to discover that someone else said the same 2 years ago! But here goes…

The first response to the article came from Lloyd Spencer who believes we have become used to images of suffering, and fresh ideas should be looked at with an open mind. I think he is right, they are an all too familiar sight, how we ‘image famine’ should be reviewed and looked at from many angles, maybe Chaskielberg didn’t get it right in our view but at least he got us talking about the issues and not just page turning out of boredom or horror. A quote within the responses from Gareth was apt: ‘…are we desensitised to the images we see or have we just stopped looking?’ He mentioned a book by Susie Linfield –The Cruel Radience – which could be worth investigating.

Gareth also summed up how most of us seem to feel, that images don’t have to be stereotypical, but the body of work by Chaskielberg felt ‘unsettling’ and like a fashion shoot due to the creative treatment. He later commented on the emphasis on the role of women and mothers, that Oxfam wanted to raise their status to increase their rights, especially over their own bodies and the birth rate. Although this may have been their aim, it could be viewed that they were also falling into the trap of portraying the weaker sections of society?

Armano also felt an unease, but liked the progression from previous images that ‘merely portray starving people.’ Anned was another student who echoed these thoughts and felt the intention of the photographer was unclear, or is that just because we are not used to these type of portrayal? It is definitely a fine line to tread.

There was some side discussion with regards to the root causes of these issues, why after all the investment of the past were famines etc still unfolding? Interesting as they were, and valid, I won’t mention them in detail as I want to concentrate on the photographic arguments not the sociological or political.

Jose then raised a really interesting point about perception, that of the host countries, the target audience and the recipients of aid. How can we, or the charities judge whether or not a campaign has been successful?

For example, I recently saw a report by a Canadian international development charity which deemed that their well-building programme had been a failure because a very high percentage of well and pumps went out of order within months of being built.

That’s a Western view of success and failure. That sort of non-success doesn’t go down well with donors!

Now think about a particular village whose Canadian-built pump is still working properly. For people in that village, for the woman whose job is to bring 25 or 40 litres of clean water a day to her family compound, for someone called Aguira Zague perhaps (a real person btw) the programme has been a total success.

Stephanie picked up on something else Jose had to say and wrote:

If, as Jose says, “the photographer’s cultural background, beliefs, intentions and preconceptions affect the outcome of their work”, might not a carefully edited juxtaposition of photographers’ visions have an impact for a commission given by an organisation such as Oxfam? If the message is more important than the artist then this must be considered.

All three photographers mentioned have their own visual styles and reflexive practices, so this is also a very valid point, and Marmalade expanded on this, why use a famous photographer other than to be noticed (?) by mentioning the cost of publicity:

Advertising space is exorbitant….if a certain image performs better in terms of donations made, they will respond to this. There is no doubt that these images will ‘stand-out’ on a page but whether such images make us delve in to our pockets more than those of Rankin or Stoddard or others I guess remains to be seen…

It was great to have a response from an Oxfam representative and media officer for the famine response, Jo Harrison:


Media work plays a huge part in not only telling stories of the people who are effected by the drought, but also in terms of fundraising. Our advertising value equivalent in July alone for east Africa coverage was over £13million. And the money raised from the appeal has raised a record breaking amount, helping the lives of over 3 million people in the HORN region

We decided to work with Alejandro towards the end of last year. A majority of coverage of the crisis came in July when parts of Somalia were declared famine zones. This is where 4 out of every 10,000 people are dying each day.

The public respond when a crisis is in the news but unfortunately the stories, as they always do in emergency situations, drop off the news agenda. Alejandro’s work for us, depicted a new and very relevant way to tell the story of the people in the HORN and a starting point for discussing the future.

I would agree with some of the points raised that we as a society have become desensitised to images. You may be interested to know that Oxfam runs a strict photographic policy where our images must depict hope, dignity and a realisation that change can happen. We are not about flies in the eyes of small children. I am glad that you noticed a sense of dignity within these images. These are remarkably resilient people.

Getting people out of poverty in a dignified and self-fulfilling way is at the heart of Oxfam’s work. For example, wherever possible we do not give out food donations- except in extreme circumstances where food is not available. Instead, we give temporary cash grants. This prevents the local economy from collapse, gives people freedom of choice and in some cases promotes enterprise. In another example, in Senegal, we operate a clothing enterprise. Clothes that are deemed unsuitable for Oxfam shops in the UK (usually light summerware and bras) are sold to Senegalese market traders at a reasonable rate. This provides jobs to the local community and generates further income for projects in West Africa.

It may also be worth noting that these images are not the end or indeed the beginning of the story. There are a number of images by other photographers shedding light on the emergency operation at work. As with all narratives sometimes you have to set the scene as well as show the potential ending (the solutions)

I hope that Alejandros pictures have shed light on the difficulty of the situation that the people in Turkana face, but I also hope along with that, that their reliance will also inspire and promote discussion on how poverty can be overcome. It is of course, a huge debate, and one that Oxfam is working on tirelessly.

Below are other links posted within the thread:

In 2008 and 2009, Oxfam worked with celebrity photographer Rankin on a photo project in the war-torn eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The result is a book of images, “We are Congo,” that ‘reveals the humanity of people caught in a brutal war and the devastating disease and malnutrition it has spawned.’ Within his book he used two sets of images the first he took, the second he allowed the locals to shoot their own.

I wanted my portraits to do something different. The West has been anesthetized to traditional pictures of disaster zones. My style of portraiture is always about bringing people out of themselves, getting them to share something. I chose to photograph the people against a stark white background instead of in their physical environment. The expressions in their eyes and on their faces—their humanity—was what I wanted people to notice and relate to.

It didn’t seem morally or politically right to just go and take pictures. So I decided to put on a show in the refugee camp, and give the people prints of their portraits. Give them something back. It was incredible. One guy said to me, ‘This photograph is amazing. I wanted to let you know that I will use it on my coffin when I die.’ No-one has ever said anything so moving to me.

I was inspired to return to the DRC in October 2009. I didn’t want to do the same thing as I had done the year before and, as on my first trip, I felt that it was important and right to give something back. So this time I held photographic workshops. I gave out cameras so that the people could have authorship over their own images—show us what was important in their lives. The collection of shots from my second trip builds on those from the first one, but focuses on the relationships that bind people to each other—a mother’s love for her child, a husband’s love for his wife, two friends. The basic, beautiful business of life.

I hope that these photographs can aid understanding. They are neither ugly images of brutality, nor sentimental images of suffering. The world needs a more sustainable form of imagery that, instead of encouraging pity and powerlessness, promotes understanding, connection, and ultimately action. It’s about making people accessible to each other.

It was good to see that local people were given the chance to represent themselves, although I found it difficult to track down further information on this. This project raised £1 million for Oxfam.

to be read and digested…

also to be read and digested…

Zarina Bhimji

Zarina Bhimji is of Indian descent, and left Uganda at the age of 11 in 1974 due to the policies, and subsequent expulsions of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin. Bhimji uses her experiences of her families deportation in her work.

The Tate wrote about her work:

Bhimji’s photographs capture human traces in landscape and architecture. Walls are a recurring motif, attracting her through their absorption of history as they become a record of those who built, lived within and ultimately abandoned them. Despite a conspicuous absence of the body, the photographs emit a human presence. Reference to it is sometimes explicit – a row of guns awaiting use in Illegal Sleep, yet sometimes only implied – the hanging, disconnected and electrical wires in my Burnt my heart …
Bhimji captures her sites with relentless formal concerns intended to convey qualities of universal human emotion and existence – grief, longing, love and hope. Concrete places become abstract sentiments as the physical rhythms of landscape and architecture become psychological

and she herself has said:

I have big questions about what happened in Uganda – the exterminations and erasures – as well as in places like Rwanda and Kosovo. But history is a complex and ambiguous process, and I think that it would narrow the meaning of my work to put it solely in that context. Instead, I like viewers to decide for themselves.

… a photograph cannot give you concrete information, which is why I’m more interested in tone and composition.

Although not directly linked to the topic of famine, it was interesting to see how she represented a narrative, so much about people and history, without including figures within her images, and she believes in the limited truths of a photograph, ‘the author is dead’ principle and prefers her audience to tell their own narratives.

touched on in a previous post….

A blog post posing some very similar questions and raising similar concerns as the OCA thread.

An article by Eric Reeves who has been writing about Sudan for many years, it includes many typical and harrowing images of skeletal people in dire need, he was offering to raise funds for the cause through purchases from his Etsy store or provided links to charities if people wished to donate directly. He obviously believed these ‘negative’ images were more likely to prompt a response.

It seems flippant for me to make academic comments, or argue the toss about how these people should be represented when so many are in danger of starving to death at this very moment due to climate change or war.

I also agree whole-heartedly with Leonie who stated:

what is miss in this discussion is a connection with the West. In order to not be stifled by the images, or be able to make a significant change that goes beyond making a donation, I think photography and maybe campaigns that are targeted at people in the West should focus much more on how all our lives are intertwined through climate change, capitalism and over-consumption in the West. Instead of only focusing on how people in development countries live and suffer, these campaigns should activate the viewers in the West to not only donate money, but take responsibility for the way they live themselves.

Following on from this, and to end my post I’ll finish with Edith Jungslager who picked up on the message both the photographers and the charities should be attempting to illustrate; that these people ‘are not helpless people, but they need help at this moment.’


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