Aid workers lament rise of 'development pornography'

by Ruth Gidley
Wednesday, 14 September 2005 12:10 GMT

LONDON (AlertNet) - Starving black babies pleading silently for help.

Twenty years ago, such images thrust Ethiopia's deadly famine into the global spotlight, helping to raise billions of dollars in aid. But the pictures also sparked soul-searching among aid agencies who felt they reinforced debasing stereotypes of Africa and robbed the subjects of their dignity.

That soul-searching led to the development of voluntary standards on the use of images in charity fundraising and appeals, but now some experts say fierce competition for donations in a ballooning NGO sector has led to an alarming resurgence in shock tactics that critics call "development pornography".

"It's got worse in the last 10 years," said Nikki van der Gaag, a freelance writer and editor. "There's a whole new generation of people working in NGOs who've never had this debate before."

Critics say Western newspapers have been full of undignified images of women and children alongside articles and appeals related to Niger's 2005 food crisis.

They say such pictures are not quite as bad as images from Ethiopia in 1984 that showed matchstick-thin wrists of black babies dwarfed by white hands, but still perpetuate a colonial idea of incapable Africans waiting passively for help from their white saviours.

"The media coverage of the Ethiopian famine was a watershed for how aid agencies thought about images of disasters," wrote the organisers of a recent conference in London to commemorate the 1984 famine in Ethiopia.

"Part of the Live Aid legacy has been the equation of famine with Africa and Africa with famine, reducing a continent of 57 countries, nearly 900 million people and numerous disparate cultures to a single, impoverished place."

The "Imaging Famine" conference brought together aid workers, media representatives, photographers and academics to reignite the debate.

"You have to think: 'Would I like my picture, or my child's picture, taken like this?'" said van der Gaag, who was involved in the 1980s debate about famine pictures.

Pete Davis of Oxfam's education department said the repetition of certain types of images helped shape public assumptions.

"The idea that pervades is that Africa is a broken, dusty place without food or hope," he said. "Many children in the UK simply don't believe there are cars, cities or mobile phones in Africa."


Jenny Matthews, who has made a career photographing women in conflicts and is frequently hired by aid agencies, said that sometimes a striking picture of a suffering infant needed to be used.

"It's a truth," she said, pointing to a picture of a baby in her mother's arms being fed by tube. "I'd stand by that."

And fundraisers say the starving baby pictures tug heartstrings and bring in cash - especially at a time when NGOs are sprouting up all over Africa and competing for limited funds from a Western public that some say is experiencing "compassion fatigue".

According to Tafari Wossen, a former public relations official with the Ethiopian government, there were only seven NGOs involved in the aid response during a famine in his country in 1974.

"The number of NGOs is now uncountable," he said.

Lizzy Noone, who works for Irish agency Concern, is part of a team writing new guidelines for European agencies to help staff choose pictures that can raise money without taking away the subjects' dignity.

"The fundraising department argue that softer images don't bring in the money," she said, but added: "If all the agencies did it at once, and people were willing to take that little drop of income for the transition period, the public would get used to it very quickly."

The new guidelines for European NGOs are due to be launched in November 2006.

Noone said top executives of NGOs needed to give their backing to the code, and that signing up should be compulsory.

"It's too serious to be a voluntary code."


But many aid workers are reluctant to write hard and fast rules, instead preferring to promote good examples to ensure best practice.

Noone said a Concern appeal for Niger showing a naked, emaciated child in her mother's arms was not really a good image to use because it was a stereotype and an Irish child would not be portrayed naked in the same way.

On the other hand, she said Irish agency Trocaire had avoided stereotypes by using an appeal showing a family against a backdrop of land that had turned to desert.

"It's very illustrative of what's going on, and farmers in Ireland could relate," she said.

Pictures of famine victims are often presented without context and without the subjects' names, critics say.

Another big problem is when one person's striking image becomes an icon for a tragedy, bringing long-term and problematic consequences to the individual.

Paul Lowe, a photojournalist who has worked in famines around the world, said a man photographed in India crying over his dead daughter was then ostracised by his community for showing weakness, and was forced to move to a different place.

Oxfam's Davis said pictures from Africa were often selected using totally different standards to those that would normally apply elsewhere.

For example, he said, picture editors would usually think at least three times before publishing photographs of naked children, unless they were African famine victims.

"But naked famine's okay, it seems," Davis said.

"Using pictures of bare-breasted women in a society where the only other place we see that is…salacious tabloids is not acceptable."

NGOs say they are guided by the mainstream media agenda. Photographers say wire agencies dominate the photojournalism scene, and independent voices are all but unheard, while non-Western photographers are rarely given a chance.

"We'll know we've broken the colonial mindset when we start importing African photographers to cover stories in Europe," said Colin Hastings of Kijiji Vision, which promotes African photographers.

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