Famine Coverage – Can we avoid Poverty Porn?

 

 

 

Whenever there is tragedy, photojournalists swarm onto the scene trying to capture that one photo that will hopefully rally the masses to open their checkbooks (and of course make them famous, rich, and Pulitzer winners). How do photojournalists make a living in an environment that craves poverty porn, while at the same time affording some dignity to their subjects?

Rodney Rascona is a veteran advertising journalist who covered famine in Ethiopia, poverty in Haiti, and is now covering the HOA famine. In his recent article for the Women’s News Network, he writes:

I’m set to respond to what I see but I’m not exactly sure how I’ll frame what I experience this time out or how to create images with dignity when there is little dignity to be found. Debate among professionals is ongoing about the “aesthetics of famine which leaves me a bit cold to discuss such things.

I’ve found myself standing alone in the desert a long way from anywhere, dirty, tired beyond words.

It’s not about a product or a client’s creative brief. It’s about human life as the landscape blurs past your open window as the heat strakes rise over the desert. The sun burns your skin red and you drift knowing you’re supposed to be there helping to raise awareness.

Yet in the back of your mind you wonder if you’re making any difference at all.

No doubt, Rascona is afraid of portraying a “single story” in the areas he covers. Yet, his ethics are at odds with the very industry that he works in. Isn’t advertising journalism all about portraying a single story that will motivate individuals to purchase a product (whether that’s charity related wrist-bands or perfume)?

What if that one photo of the child starving in the desert will rally millions to make donations that could save thousands of lives? It’s hard to argue that poverty porn is immoral in that sense. Still, exaggeration of poverty and suffering through the camera lens perpetuates an image of the helpless, weak African that needs salvation from the West.

This image perpetuates a culture of aid, rather than investment. The long-term effects are fairly clear. Aid to Africa hasn’t made a dent in the last 50 years. Instead, it’s been used for political ends and allocated inefficiently based on the present poverty fad.

Yes – we need to show the raw images of suffering when true human suffering exists. Famine shouldn’t occur in our modern world. What are we going to do about it? So far, it seems like we are reacting the exact same way we always do. Wait until conditions are a crisis, then scramble to get as much food aid in as possible. Somalia in 2011 is not Ethiopia in the 1980s. Our efforts to reach the starving this time are likely to come up short. We are all going to suffer from diplomatic inaction.

But – we also need to demand a more balanced view of the developing world. Ethically, photojournalists and the media in general should be offering images that also portray people with the dignity that Rascona calls for. In the 24-hour, multimedia environment, we do have access to a more balanced menu of stories from the developing world. However, the casual listener/viewer is more likely to hear about the “single-story” of Somali famine and chaos rather than the complex tapestry of lives within the greater Somalia. For example – the self-declared democracy of Somaliland is not suffering from famine or political chaos. The break-away state is actually doing quite well. Somaliland has even (belatedly) offered assistance to Somalia.

So with famine coverage – can the media truly avoid making “poverty porn”? The coverage itself demands images that are likely to be disturbing and focused specifically on the suffering of individuals. But I think Rascona makes some good points in demanding that photojournalists keep in mind the dignity of their subjects. It is possible to report on human suffering without taking away the subject’s dignity. Give a name and a story to the faces of the suffering. Bring them to life on the page and make their lives more than just poverty and starvation.

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