What’s in an Image? Contemplating New Ways to Inform the West

51otMiCDzFLThis morning I read Surrender or Starve, a book written by Michael D. Kaplan about the epic famines that devastated the Horn of Africa from 1984–87. Kaplan, a prominent journalist for the Atlantic Monthly, paints a picture of U.S. involvement in relief efforts in Ethiopia and argues that the media misdirected America’s political agenda and covered up the gross human rights violations that were the ultimate cause of the famines.

While I found the book’s organization to be quite scattered and its scale of narration overly ambitious, it made me reconsider two ideas that have emerged in other contexts of my research over the course of this fellowship: (1) the environmental politics of ascribing blame in the wake of disaster, and (2) the role of poverty porn in simplifying problems and their solutions to Western audiences.

Through the Eyes of the Media: Natural vs. Man-Made Disasters

One of Kaplan’s main objectives in writing Surrender or Starve was to complexify the argument perpetuated by the West that Ethiopia’s famines of 1984/85 were caused by drought. Drought is a natural disaster, and in labeling that as the ultimate cause, it naturalizes the tragedy, taking culpability from political leaders. Interestingly, we see the rhetoric around natural versus manmade disasters used all the time by politicians in the United States, with troubling sociopolitical consequences.

In the United States, a double standard exists for disaster culpability. Property owners and local governments of upper-income areas have never accepted the inevitability of natural disasters and instead are insistent that the blame should be placed on ill-preparedness. Yet in marginalized, low-income communities there is a tendency for local officials, the media, and property owners to naturalize the strictly human artifact of disasters, when social institutions are entirely responsible. These social responses to natural disasters perpetuate racial and socioeconomic inequality and reinforce unsustainable and unjustly distributed public expenditures on disaster relief.

Hurricane Katrina in 2007, for example, was repeatedly described as an “unavoidable natural disaster,” never-mind the links the superstorm had to anthropogenic climate change, the unequal distribution of impact on low-income communities of color, and the racist response of the local and national government. Yet in the words of the authorities and the media, it was “natural” and the poor people most affected had little voice to say otherwise.

Like the 1984/85 famine in Ethiopia (though on a much smaller scale), Katrina was a calamity of capitalist priorities and violent political agendas. Failed U.S. Army Corps engineering, the ravaging of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands by petroleum corporations and luxury estate developments, and the disrepair of New Orlean’s urban infrastructure (particularly in low-income Black neighborhoods) turned what would have been a passing storm into the most expensive disaster in America’s history. More troubling than the ill-preparedness for the storm was the racist response of the municipal and national governments. Despite countless human rights violations on the part of the government, the media downplayed the Bush administration’s failures and instead reaffirmed the tragic inevitability of the situation.

How Photographic Media (Mis)directs Aid, the Case of Ethiopia in the 1980s

Mayrah Blog Photo 1 (Times)Americans en masse are not seen by the global community as being particularly literate when it comes to news, be it national or global. I think this is a two-part problem: (1) the news that is readily available is sensationalist and oversimplified, and (2) most people have little motivation to seek out good news and understand complexity around important issues. When Americans heard about the famine in Ethiopia in 1985, media outlets and both government and private aid agencies sought ways to tell the story to the American people in a simple way that would incentivize donations.

Kaplan explains that, “Beginning in 1985, the American public was bombarded with images of people starving in an exotic land, images that gripped viewers by the throat.” (9) They were told that the cause was drought and that the solution was as simple as shipping food.

The preference for keeping the story simple covered up the real sociopolitical cause of the famine. In a recent retrospective on the famine in The Guardian, journalist Suzanne Franks explains,

“In 1984 the authoritarian Ethiopian government (the Soviet-backed “Derg” regime) was fighting a civil war against Tigrayan and Eritrean insurgents. It is no accident that these were the areas starving because, to a large extent, the government was deliberately causing the famine. It was bombing markets and trade convoys to disrupt food supply chains. Defence spending accounted for half of Ethiopia’s GDP and the Soviet-backed army was the largest in sub-Saharan Africa… The Ethiopian government also had deliberate strategies to manipulate foreign donations in pursuit of its brutal resettlement policies. Victims of famine were lured into feeding camps only to be (forcefully) transported far away from their homes.”

However, all of this went untold because in the minds of the American government and news outlets, the crimes of the Derg were so abstract, they were outside the realm of human accountability. Over the course of two years, the U.S. spent $1 billion in relief for the famine, which did more to support the Derg’s political agenda (as grain deliveries were going into the hands of corrupt Derg officials), than it did to support the starving Tigrayan and Eritrean peasants.

Kaplan criticizes the U.S. government for limiting its involvement in Ethiopia to humanitarian assistance and argues that if the media had emphasized the bloodshed and human rights violations of the Soviet-backed Derg, America may have backed the Tigrayan and Eritrean insurgents and their food aid would have had a far greater impact. I was surprised, too, that after so many anti-Communist interventions in the years leading up to the Ethiopian famine (in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nicaragua, etc.), that the Reagan Administration did not involve itself more in Ethiopian politics. Kaplan explains,

“The US policy seemed to rest on the hope that despite the $4 billion Soviet arms investment and influx of several thousand Eastern bloc advisers, the Derg could be bribed away with grain.” (78)

The fact is, the American media had already shifted its focus to more sensationalist world news: South African apartheid, the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War, etc. Ethiopia had become a lost cause and an exhausted story.

The Problem with Using Photography to Narrate and Dictate Development Today


Poverty porn of starving Somali refugees (source: whitefusemedia.com)

The 1980s were just the beginning of the trend in image-heavy news. Today, we absorb so much of the world and development issues through pictures: on social media and online news-sites. Stories told in images can be hugely influential for policy but, as the West’s response to Ethiopia’s famine in 1985 suggests, it can also have problematic outcomes.

Part of the problem is that, like everything else, photographs have been commodified and therefore stand to earn artists, reporters, and agencies lots of money. Today, photographers documenting issues in developing countries use the same techniques as those shooting for the porn industry:

Shock: the content of the photograph must be novel enough to stand out from the overload of images we are saturated with every day

Arouse: elicit a high emotional response from your audience

Leave the viewer wanting to spend more: either through the consumption of more photos/videos or through a donation for a cause related to the photo

The issue is not merely that photographs are misleading Western audiences, but that they often objectify the human subjects of the photo. There are two main ways in which human beings are being objectified through photographs today:

(1) Through the exploitation of the poor’s condition (which I will refer to as poverty porn)

(2) Through cultural romanticization and exotification (which I will refer to as culture porn)

The indigenous communities I am studying this year are victims of both forms of photographic objectification. They are depicted as fantastic specimens of “caveman” culture, with elaborate costumes, facial embellishments, and visual traditions. Concurrently, they are shown as victims of poverty, climate change, and political oppression. Why is this a problem? For a multitude of reasons:

It Simplifies the Issue

Problems like poverty and famine are caused by personal and systemic problems that are complex and difficult to explain. If these problems were any easier to understand, they would also be easier to solve. But they are neither. Furthermore, misrepresenting and oversimplifying the issue will not bring us any closer to finding solutions. In the case of poverty porn, viewers are told that material resources are both the problem and solution (like grains during Ethiopia’s famines), when in reality, they are symptoms of larger issues.

Cultural porn can also simplify the human experience, and an entire society, down to very aesthetic characteristics. While photographers may argue that the photos they take of indigenous people in costume are beautiful and honor their cultural legacies, it also simplifies very complex legacies down into one image. This will likely be the only image that Western audiences see, therefore narrowing their understanding of a very complex people and their culture.

It Perpetuates False Stereotypes

With poverty porn, images almost always portray distended bellies, rags, dirt, and helplessness. Poverty, it is important to understand, is multi-faceted and often has more psychological impacts than physical. But when audiences are only exposed to the type of poverty depicted in mainstream photographs, they lose sight of the pervasiveness of the problem across many races, cultures, and environments.

Cultural porn often over-dramatizes or even falsifies the subject’s culture and traditions. In a world where most indigenous people now wear modern clothes and use cellphones, photographing them only when they are wearing their traditional dance costume (which they may only put on once a year) is dishonest and misrepresentative. It perpetuates the notion of primacy, nonconformity, when the reality may likely be different.

It Is Done for Money

Is it right to depict the aesthetic qualities of a human being or exploit their condition of suffering for monetary gain? Especially when the subjects of those photographs will likely never see the photo of themselves or personally reap the benefits of the photo’s royalties or its campaigns funds, it doesn’t feel ethical. Many of the indigenous cultures being photographed today have also consciously chosen to shun outside technology and the capitalist system its imbued in. Some even believe that a photo taken of them captures a piece of their soul. Regardless, photographing people for money, with or without their consent, feels incredibly wrong to me.

Its Responses Do Not Generate the Structural Changes that Need to Take Place

As I explained earlier, poverty porn is aimed at alleviating material-based deficiencies, rather than addressing their systemic roots. This is one of my biggest objectives in my fellowship project: to research and depict the ways in which different material facets of livelihood insecurity, like food, housing, and transportation, interplay with larger social, political, and environmental forces.

Cultural porn can also undermine structural progress relating to the rights of indigenous people. In this project, I neither advocate for the integration of indigenous cultures into mainstream society nor for their unaltered preservation. That’s not up to me and that shouldn’t be the decision of anyone but the people, themselves. If an indigenous community resides within a larger political state, it is that government’s obligation to offer the community basic services and infrastructure, provide protection from other nations, and include them in the larger political process. Cultural porn can undermine efforts by local and international agencies to promote both the autonomy of indigenous groups and their status as citizens of a larger society.

It Reinforces Problematic Paternalistic Binaries 

Photos can establish problematic relationships, both between the photographer and the subject, and between the audience and the subject. Poverty porn, for example, tells the poor that they are helpless beneficiaries and wealthy Western donors that they are saviors. This type of photograph empowers the audience to make changes, rather than the subjects to be their own change agents. It fails to awaken Western audiences to the mutual need for transformation (see Robert Nixon’s introduction to “slow violence”).

As much as I love photography, I have generally been disappointed by the way in which photographers work in the developing world, the way in which photographs are used in the West, and the outcome photos have on development policy. We need new ways to explain the complex problems of our world that are still visually appealing and compelling to unmotivated Western audiences.

Traveling to the Omo Valley…Without a Camera

These thoughts have emerged, partly from reading Kaplan’s book and partly from my preparations for the next segment of my Ethiopian adventure. This week, I will travel down to the Omo Valley, an area in Southwestern Ethiopia that is home to eight different tribes whose populations total about 200,000 people.

Mayrah Blog Mursi Tribe Culture Porn

Mursi elder and children (source: beforethey.com)

These tribes are renowned the world over because of the photographs that have been made of them. Photo stories in magazines like National Geographic and The Wild, have generated a surge in tourism to the Omo Valley in recent years. Tourists now spend exorbitant amounts of money to be driven into tribal villages by corrupt tour operators with the express purpose of taking exotic photographs of the people. The tourism industry in the Omo Valley is booming in a very troubling way, which ecotourism expert William Jones elaborates on here, and cultural porn has a lot to do with it.

The tourism industry, several government development schemes, and a general legacy of abuse by mainstream society has produced a lot mistrust of outsiders in Omo tribal communities. Planning a trip down there outside of the mainstream tourist route has taken weeks of planning. The most challenging part is yet to come, when I actually reach the Omo Valley and must gain the trust of the village leaders, with whom I hope to stay and learn from. Not having a camera will certainly help with this. I hope that my low-technology, readily observable methods of discovery will enhance my ability to connect with the Omo Valley tribes more intimately and thus to better understand their struggles. And I hope that my drawings will serve as a better tool to educate the West about the Omo Valley than the thousands of stock photos available online.

Further Reading:

Franks, Suzanne. “Ethiopian famine: how landmark BBC report influenced modern coverage.” The Guardian (2014). Link.

Gillis and Barringer, “As Coasts Rebuild and U.S. Pays, Repeatedly, the Critics

Ask Why.” New York Times (2012). Link.

Heldman, Caroline. “The Truths of Katrina.” Coffee at Midnight (2010). Blog.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011. Link.

Reilly, Benjamin. Disaster and human history: Case studies in nature, society and catastrophe. McFarland, 2009. Link.

Roenigk, Emily. « 5 Reasons ‘Poverty Porn’ Empowers The Wrong Person». Huffington Post (2014). Link.

Steinberg, Theodore, “Do-It-Yourself Deathscape: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in South Florida” (1997). Link.

One thought on “What’s in an Image? Contemplating New Ways to Inform the West

  1. This is excellent! I really appreciate your critical approach to the famine and your call to address the structural issues. I couldn’t have said it any better. Thank you for your great research!


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