The Impact of Photojournalism on Charitable Giving

While trying to help disaster victims, charities tend to lose sight of humanity and victimise the victims even further.
Words by
© Kevin Carter | Boy with vulture on the background, Sudan 1993, a Pulitzer Winning Photograph. His image quickly became a wrenching case study in the debate over when photographers should intervene.

Photojournalism plays a vital role in charity advertising. Examples demonstrate how the value of a powerful photograph is sometimes abducted for fundraising purposes. While trying to help disaster victims, charities tend to lose sight of humanity and victimise the victims even further. As photographers win prizes by portraying human misery, charities use images of human suffering to increase funding. Are we bound to develop a syndrome called compassion fatigue? Any successful reform of our image culture must include the voices of the people in the developing world.

This article is a short version of the dissertation for the Master of Science in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, 2004

The most political decision you make Is where you direct people’s eyes. In other words, what you show people, Day in and day out, is political... And the most politically indoctrinating Thing you can do to a human being Is to show him, every day,That there can be no change. – Wim Wenders, The Act of Seeing

We live in an image-saturated information society where the visual clearly supersedes the textual. Yet, despite the emphasis on new media, photography has never lost its power. The concept of visual determinism – the idea that a picture can drive political policy and public opinion – is not new. However, the abundance of available images has led to the recognition that each photographic image may distort and frame vision, and that it may do so for a discrete set of purposes.

While a photograph is made to stand by itself, photojournalism combines images with words. In doing so, charity emergency appeals can be regarded as one form of photojournalism. In fact, charities and the media are our key sources of information from the developing world. Together they act as primary educators about disasters we can only witness through images.

Rethinking Photojournalism

Given the prolonged nature of civil wars, it is admirable that images depicting scenes of human tragedy generate a response among the public, most often in the form of donations. However, in communicating famines, aid agencies face a dilemma: how to tug at donors’ heartstrings with powerful images, without impinging upon the right of survivors to be portrayed with dignity.

Partly as a result of self-imposed rules, charity emergency appeals have come a long way since the days when European missionaries collected money with pictures of starving black babies. While the harrowing images of emaciated children have largely been wiped out, the message conveyed in emergency appeals remains unchallenged. Both words and images portray a ‘childlike’ developing world dependent on the pity of a paternalistic developed world.

As photographs in charity emergency appeals largely determine our perception of developing countries we need to think more critically about their impact. Yet, while the call for a reformed image culture is growing louder, the criticism is largely devoid of suggestions of how this reform should be facilitated. It is assessed against its potential to facilitate a more balanced world view by promoting indigenous photographers. The analysis started with a set of questions. What role do visual images have in constructing our concept of Africa? How do remote disasters gain public attention? What determines the pervasiveness of child images in charity emergency advertising? And, finally, what moves us to respond to visual images of children?

Constructing ‘Others’ in Photographs

The “idea of Europe” is predicated on historical processes that have created the ‘Other’ who does not belong to society, neither within nor outside Europe. The creation of difference is inherent in the very concept of modernity. Signs of difference informed the construction and development of others in a variety of ways, such as through photographs (Jan N. Pieterse 20024). Concepts of universality and difference are somehow both manifestations of the same history of "Western humanism" and could especially be found in the hegemonic humanistic notion of sameness and today's globalist and "liberal" notions of otherness, or its multicultural version of respecting the ‘Other’.

The postcolonial critic Edward Said (1978) demonstrates that the colonising West established its identity precisely through the creation of the fact of difference. Each society, whether Orient or Occident, creates its own identity through the continuous recreation and reinterpretation of ‘others’ and their differences to ‘us’. The creation of identity involves a process of constant reinterpretation of ‘Self’ and ‘Other’ in- and outside society which is informed by changing historical, social, intellectual, and political processes. These processes are centred on concrete socio-political issues such as the direction of foreign policy.

In sum, “the construction of others is bound up with the fluctuation of power and powerlessness” within and between societies. The construction of “Western civilisation” is linked to a “detached superiority of a handful of values and ideas” (Edward Said 1978, p. 349). Yet, these values are hollow outside the problematic history of conquest and immigration that gave Western societies like the United States, and to some extend Great Britain, their present pluralistic character.

The mid-nineteenth century expansion of colonialism coincided with the emergence of photography. Colonial photographs depicted images and scenes from colonial settings. They significantly facilitated the process of constructing the ‘Other’ outside Europe through touring photographic exhibitions and a Victorian passion for collecting photographic prints of others. The abundance of images from the African continent invited subsequent interpretation and gave birth to ethnographic studies. Applying the concept of the colonial ‘gaze’, Brent Harris (in Wolfram Hartman et al 1999) and Peter Burke (2001) analyse what Western consumers constructed with colonial images. For Brent Harris, they facilitated colonial discourse as a complement to the ‘truth’ otherwise supported by museum displays or head trophies. John Tagg (1988, p. 64) earlier observed that the camera supports complex power relations in a “local state apparatus which deploys it and guarantees the authority of the images it constructs to stand as evidence of truth”. Peter Burke notes that it allowed colonisers to gaze upon the colonial ‘Other’ and, thus, gain knowledge of her or him (2001, p. 59). However, lacking relevant technology and power, the ‘Other’ was in no position to return the gaze. It is therefore arguable that different colonial powers used photographic evidence to justify their subversion of others by portraying them as weak and vulnerable. Photography thus played an important role in the construction of colonial identities.

Peter Burke (2001, p. 125) observes that the continuous gaze “generates attitudes of which the viewer might not be aware”. Such attitudes might be expressed as prejudices, fears or desires when encountering religious, cultural and racial differences in other cultures. Colonial photographs enabled Westerners to encounter ‘African’ cultures and facilitated the emphasis on differences between ‘them’ and ‘us’.

The overpowering portrayal of “Africans” as a homogenous group resulted in the formation of mental stereotypes of the ‘Other’. Since then, the European imagination has reproduced ‘Africa’ – itself a mythical unity – “as a site of cultural, moral, and spatial difference, populated by ‘barbarians’, ‘heathens’, ‘primitives’, ‘noble savages’, and the generally underdeveloped” (David Campbell 2003, p.69). The (naked) black body particularly served as characteristic opposition to white – clothed – civilisation and culture.

Social stereotypes are cases of metonymy based on general but unnamed subcategories like that of Africa, poverty, famine. Such subcategories have gained a socially recognised status normally for the purpose of making quick judgements about a group of people. One distinct power of photojournalism is to frame meaning using words and pictures by selecting “some aspects of the perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text in such a way as to promote a particular problem” (David D. Perlmutter 1998, p. 7). Photojournalistic reporting of disaster situations frequently uses metonymy to reduce politics to interests and competition. Ascribing metonymy to an emergency photograph of emaciated children, for example, is a potentially powerful visual framing mechanism. The scene depicted sums up Africa’s problems.


Photographic frames are powerful tools able to impose meaning as well as psychological stimuli for audiences to process. In the 19th century, anthropology, colonialism, and photography converged to strengthen new knowledge and power relations, resulting in a “global visual field of often quite standardized representational practices” (Liisa Malkki, 1996, p. 386).

David Campbell (2003) critiques that emergency appeal images “portray a particular kind of helplessness that reinforces colonial relations of power. With their focus firmly on women and children, these pictures function as icons of a feminised and infantilised place. A place that is passive, pathetic, and demanding of help from those with the capacity to intervene “(ibid., p. 70). Images of mother and child or lone children have dominated both still photography and video footage of famines from Sudan and Ethiopia.

Distinguishing between the ‘Other’ in- and outside Europe, Jan N. Pieterse (2003) points out that Eurocentrism wrongly imparts that hunger and starvation, genocide and ethical cleansing are foreign to European high culture. Over the past thirty years a generation has grown up unused to seeing images of European refugees (other than as historical documents). In the 1990s, however, images of the victims of “ethnic cleansing” in Eastern Europe have temporarily supplanted those of starving and displaced refugees in Africa.

The concept of ‘otherness’ outlined in this section constitutes the framework for the subsequent discussion of our perception of disasters in Sudan. I contend that the ‘Other’ constructed through colonial photography still mirrors in stereotypical images utilised by UK charities in Press emergency appeals. In disregard of their own representational guidelines, charities have perpetuated and universalised notions of the ‘uncivilised’ and poor ‘Other’. Before a closer examination of selected images, it is important to examine why we care about the sufferings of people in faraway zones of conflict. The following chapter outlines the rules and ethical challenges of charity advertising. It provides evidence that advertising strategies operate on the subconscious of the donating nation.

Misrepresenting Sudan’s Famine

A picture is always viewed through pre-constructed prejudices. Viewers are to believe that what they see is the truth. John Berger (1988) says that, while every image represents a way of seeing, the perception or appreciation of an image largely depends upon individual ways of seeing. We interpret an event using our memory of a similar event (Rick Rohde, in Wolfram Hartman et al 2003). It follows that, as a picture is imbued with the viewer’s desire to translate its meaning, the understanding of its context largely depends on preconceived mental images in the form of stereotypes. As images are designed to communicate or to ‘tell us something’ they can be interpreted as a cultural construction and, thus, as reflecting the photographer’s choice. Viewers search the image for indications for their history and context, and the meanings of this choice. Conversely, images tell us nothing for “they are inherently mute” (Peter Burke 2001, p. 34). I argue that images speak a language that we can only understand through our own interpretation of the context as we know it, as well as through the written information provided. Thus, photojournalism is not about good or bad pictures but about whether they tell an accurate story. Yet, while a story may be accurate, it may still be interpreted wrongly.

The widespread belief that photographs do not require an explanation in the form of words but that they speak for themselves is therefore wrong. Of course, words can be misleading too. Like photographs, they are open to interpretation. We are not only cognitively but also emotionally influenced by photographs. Moreover, when looking at images, we memorise them in a way that is shaped by our cultural perception and education of what we see.

Starting with the distribution of colonial photography, European consumers have been exposed to largely negative images from different corners of Africa. The sheer abundance of pejorative images has shaped our perception of the developing world. For example, we correlate photographs of black children in emergency appeals with social stereotypes of Africa and Africans mentally stored. The associations are those of hunger and starvation – in short: of prolonged human tragedy. Arguably, as many people in the northern hemisphere see it, such tragedy has become normality on the ‘black continent’, or Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’.

The sustained stereotypization of Africans is politically motivated and serves a variety of agendas, including that of charities working in emergency situations. We are expected, and our Western mind purposefully manipulated into believing what we see (Colin Jacobson 2002). Since the outbreak of conflict in sub-Saharan Sudan in 1982 its grim history has been providing photojournalists with ethical and political challenges. In his book “Underexposed” (2002) Jacobson published an impressive collection of an extraordinary set of images showing how photographs can be made to lie. One of the most shocking images was taken by Wendy Wallace in the Red Sea Hills during the Sudanese famine of 1984. It depicts a British television crew photographing an emaciated child who had been brought out to sit in the dirt precisely for that image.

Red Sea Hills 1984. In 1984, famine was afflicting many Sudanese, including the nomads of the northeast, whose grazing lands had dried up. Nomadic Hadendowa tribes-people came out of their traditional areas to see work and food in thetowns. They set up a temporary camp by the side of the main paved road from Khartoum to Port Sudan. The camp was mainly inhabited by women, children and the elderly; the men were away looking for casual work. When a British television crew and accompanying UNICEF staff member appeared at the camp, the people brought out one of their most afflicted children for the cameras to demonstrate the hardships they faced. (Wendy Wallace)

The child in the photograph stimulates Western perceptions of well-known stereotypes of the developing world. Colin Jacobson (2002) knows that this photograph was used by UNICEF for advertising purposes, a circumstance that carries serious implications. Heavy media coverage of man-made and natural events in developing countries and the lack of positive stories and images frequently reinforce well-known Western stereotypes of the majority world. The perception of Africans as helpless victims is notoriously emphasised in images of anonymous abandoned children. A suffering and vulnerable child on its own offers “strong familiar pictures” to the Western eye while, at the same time, abasing a frail human being into a media victim (Colin Jacobson 2002, p. 92).

While many photographs owe their fame and value to their famous human subjects, ordinary people are often caught up in some important moment or some striking composition (David D. Perlmutter 1998). Nameless hungry children become generic icons that can be shot to order. These generic icons from the field are increasingly determined by an understanding of previous events. This is why charities tend to resort to download categorized images from stock photo libraries. What appears to be inside the icon is valuable as well, though almost never of profit to those children caught in a moment of extreme suffering. The making of the product may even inflict pain on the subjects as a result of irresponsible journalistic conduct (see Section 3.2). The problem is that, instead of documenting a historical event or revealing human misery, such iconic images are produced for sale in the marketplace. “The icon, however, despite being surrounded by discourse that appreciates its aesthetic, emotive, and political qualities, is at its core a thing of cash value” (ibid., p. 14).

Culturally-induced perceptions of African children might be well-intended but they do not serve a real purpose other than to act as fundraising propaganda.

Culturally-induced perceptions of African children might be well-intended but they do not serve a real purpose other than to act as fundraising propaganda. From a journalistic perspective they do not carry any news or educational value either. The above photograph offers a familiar scene of an event on the African continent as we have seen it before. We are part of a system that produces and manages such icons. Interestingly, as photojournalism permeates modern life and we share the same conventional standards, such images continue to catch our eye. (David D. Perlmutter 1998). The fact that the photograph is staged is unknown to potential consumers. Accompanying captions do not normally provide such information. Goodwill of donors has fallen victim to the self-serving marketing strategy of a charity.

This section has demonstrated that what we see in photographs is not always the truth. While a thousand words can lie, a photograph can be made to lie if it is staged and abused in the wrong context. Thus, it is true that belief and seeing are both often wrong. Intended to communicate a message an image can be reduced to fundraising propaganda. To avert such abuse, images should be complemented by a context to strengthen its impact and to give meaning (Colin Jacobson, in Ken Light 2000).

Why Ethics Matter

Communications is a profession that demands the highest standards of ethical awareness (Paul Lester 1991). It is important to show the happenings in the world without the intention to shock. Photojournalists are required by ethical standards to show reality as much as possible, but in any case prevent harm to the subjects photographed. This may be achieved by veiling the identity of those people and places being photographed. A high quality, ethical image is often the result of a relationship between the photographer and the photographed. The timely process of decision-making how to communicate a situation demands considerable thought. Time is rarely granted to newspaper photojournalists who are working to deadlines. Tom Stoddart knows that “[t]here are always photographers who will not play fair, who will be interested only in the moment of death, all this kind of extreme stuff. They don't go there with an open mind. They don't go there to learn about what they are photographing. They go there to make a reputation, to come back with award-winning photographs” (Interview with the author, London, August, 2004).

Howard Davies (2000), a freelance photojournalist who has been documenting the lives of refugees and asylum seekers for more than thirteen years, gives a grisly example of how a lack of accountability in photojournalism can lead to serious repercussions for the people photographed. While on an assignment in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan he was reminded by a UNHCR press officer of the inappropriateness of portraying young Afghan girls. Having ignored such warnings, a photojournalist had previously caused the death of a young girl. He snatched her image when she was bathing in a river. Her photograph later appeared on the cover of a large news magazine, with the name helpfully supplied in the caption. When the local Mujahideen became aware of the image they reportedly executed her for the disgrace she had caused Islam. Not a million words can undo the damage caused by such irresponsible reporting.

Visiting Sudan in 1993 on his own mission, a little known photographer took a photograph that made the world weep and reached iconic status. The photograph depicts a vulture and a small girl sitting in the savannah. It is not possible to determine the child’s gender from the picture alone. While the photographic composition of the picture is unspectacular, the juxtaposition of the girl and the vulture is striking. The image first appeared in the New York Times international section Friday, 26 March, 1993, in a story about relief in southern Sudan (David. D. Perlmutter 1998, p. 24). However, the story itself makes no mention of the little girl. She serves the sole purpose of visualisation. Carter took a photo of one starving child among thousands. Western newspaper readers saw a little girl struggling for survival. Illustrating the horror of hunger in southern Sudan, her image soon became a generic icon of starvation. The London Sunday Mail described it as “a truly iconographic image [that] captured the full horror of the famine in Sudan – a starving child crawling towards a UN feeding station” (Paul Martin 1994, p. 40).

While Carter reportedly did not intervene to save the girl, her image created political testimony and induced humanitarian action. In fact, the image was too powerful for the SCF to resist the temptation to exploit its commercial potential to generate income. Under the heading “Help stop a different kind of child abuse” the advertisement symbolically emphasised that “...this abuse is merciless. It prays on innocent, fragile lives and brutalises them with utter poverty...with constant hunger...with relentless diseases...with no hope for even a basic education” (Michael Maren 1997, p. 157). The SCF used the image in one of their advertising campaigns at a time when the organisation had no operations in Sudan Perlmutter (1998) chap. 1: ‘In search of icons of outrage’, pp. 1-34); and Arthur Kleinman and Joan Kleinman (1997).

Former relief worker Michael Maren’s exposé to “The road to hell” (New York: Free Press 1997, pp. 157-8) discusses the advertisement and the symbolic value of the image in more detail. (David D. Perlmutter 1998). In other words, Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning image proved beneficial for a charity that neither provided famine relief in Sudan, nor intervened to prevent the likely fate of the little girl. Moreover, abusing the image in a different context the SCF willingly altered the ethnicity, nationality, religion and country of origin of a suffering human being. A nameless infant girl wearing nothing but tribal jewellery became a symbol of the inclemency of Sudanese life.

Although few people had ever seen a scene like the above, the image offered a sight of more heartfelt understanding than words could or did. In fact, as a result of our cultural experiences, we are able to recognise the objects without words through the “pictures in the head” (Walter Lippmann, in David D. Perlmutter 1998, p. 24). Prompting the metonymic association of “hunger in Africa” the scene is easily imposable upon the stereotype of Sudan as a land of starvation and despair. This image, therefore, presents consumers with yet another picture to file in the mental category of scenes of ‘African famines’. Photographs, however, do not explain the context. We are not told that human agency is responsible for the girl’s plight. Instead, the viewer is left to imagine various scenarios of suffering. While the vulture embodies danger, the picture does not portray human agency as the actual source of evil. This photograph is not about mass starvation, nor is it about religious factionalism, or even civil war. In effect, the missing context distances the public from responsibility. Perlmutter (1998) concludes that the image is “a prime example of how an icon of suffering may have no more effect outside the world of discourse elites than a tourist photo of an exotic foreign land” (ibid., p. 28). Missing context, this generic icon is abused for ideological manipulations.

The suffering of others is being used as a commodity largely produced in one part of the world but sold in another.

The suffering of others is being used as a commodity largely produced in one part of the world but sold in another. Images that frame suffering are routinely manipulated for news production and fundraising but hardly spur political action. The consumption of suffering in an era of globalisation reiterates the late nineteenth-century view that our own civilisation is more developed (Arthur Kleinman and Joan Kleinman 1997). Through both colonial and postcolonial cultural representation of suffering the relationship is being replicated and subverted. Arguably, while Western democracies defend the equality of men, the lives of anonymous others outside these democracies mean little to us. Charities and the mass media frequently utilise anonymous images as a tool to generate compassion for those who suffer. A metonymic lie, Carter’s image once again cautions us to believe what we see. Like the earlier Wallace photograph, it facilitates a universalised perception of Africans as impoverished and doomed without external assistance. Arguably, Carter’s image could have been taken in 1984 as well.

The Case of Concern

In pursuit of a developmental approach, many charities today incorporate images that convey a spirit of self-help and safeguard people’s dignity and respect. Admitting that such images are not always possible in emergency situations, the SCF (1995) requires their pictorial editors and staff “to use [their] judgement to portray human crises accurately, in context and without pathos”. While emergency relief is a last resort and emergencies are sometimes inevitable, charities should avoid over-dependency on the ‘starving baby’ image when communicating emergency messages. The SCF warns that this stereotype has come to represent a whole continent, while it reflects only a small part of the story. The overuse of such images has particularly offended Africans. Bland and antiseptic images are no alternative for they are equally untrue (SCF, 1995, p. 5).

In the intensively competitive world of media, reporters may search for images of shock and awe to capture their audience’s attention. In contrast, aid agencies “dumb down” images to make them blander. Partly as a result of image guidelines, most of the children in today’s emergency appeals look less haggard. Yet, their images generate funding and fuel public perceptions of the developing world as a region of doom and gloom for they are easily linked to those burned into our memories as generic icons of starvation (see chapter 3.1 and 3.2). Furthermore, it is argued that the images are aimed to operate on the sub-conscious of potentially female donors with young children. Following the description of the situation in Western Sudan’s Darfur region as “one of the worst in the world”, the United Nation’s most senior humanitarian official in Sudan called for greater attention to the plight of civilians in the area (UN News Centre, 22 March, 2004).

Concern will be helping thousands of people, providing Shelter Kits and Survival Packs for families. Together with other agencies we will be helping to meet the needs of children and adults in desperate situations.

A lone, nameless Sudanese child plays in the sand. Nuer or Dinka? Boy or girl? Orphan? – We can only guess. Though less haggard looking and a little further from death than the children in the Wallace and Carter images and its earlier counterparts in the 1980s and 1990s, the flies in his/her face suggest decay. It is unthinkable to find a comparable image of a Western child today. Like the Carter photograph discussed in section 3.2, neither the accompanying caption nor the photo essay in which the image is embedded make any mention of the child. The image is a five-months-old courtesy of REUTERS and, therefore deprived of any sensible reasoning and the power to tell news. Thus, this photograph arguably has no educational value. It fails to imply a link to the caption as well as to Concern’s impact to alleviate the crisis. As a generic icon of starvation it could have been taken anywhere (in African) and used in any emergency context.

The management of this image conveys the impression that this is the only aspect worth knowing – that this child is a refugee in sub-Saharan Africa, unable to survive without Concern’s help and, in turn, that of the donor. The viewer can only speculate whether this child ever benefits from the work of Concern. Although we do not know the circumstances of the shooting, as emergency appeals do not provide space for such coverage, the image resembles the Wallace photograph taken twenty years earlier. Again, it depicts an unaccompanied anonymous toddler sitting in the sand. While facilitating the charity’s plea for public generosity, chances are rather dim that this child will ever share the “lucky” fate of rediscovery experienced by the anonymous young Afghan refugee girl whose uncompromising eyes once captivated the world from a National Geographic cover. Sharbat Gula was thirteen years old when, in 1985, her photograph was taken by Steve McCurry. Her image generated considerable financial revenues for a number of people, including the photographer. Seventeen years later he decided to share his profits and help his famous subject to provide an education for her children.

Concern admits that “the media plays an essential role in emergencies and Concern needs to maximise any benefits that they can from media access” (March 2002). The charity further states that “this pressure may run contrary to the need to develop at least a rudimentary understanding of the situation, and the needs of the intended beneficiaries, before establishing a response...” (ibid.). With this image, it is argued, Concern fails to "respond[s] to people in a caring and personalised manner that emphasises their human and cultural dignity”. Whilst acknowledging the negative implications of their media dependency, which includes the utilisation of free stock images, there is no signal that efforts will be made to improve such practices. While collaborating with the media to maximise the return in donations, the charity infringes upon not only its own codes of conduct but also its duty to portray human beings in dignity.

Approximately, two months after The Guardian appeal, Concern collaborated with The Independent to raise donations in support of its work alleviating the plight of Sudanese refugees. The photograph below first appeared in a three-page photo essay, titled “Abandoned, starving, desperate” (Friday, 6 August 2004, p. 2) before illustrating the Independent Darfur Appeal (Monday, 9 August, 2004, p. 2). Contrary to what the news headline suggests, the caption reveals the gender of the child and shows that it is being cared for. However, it does not tell us whether Concern works in Morni camp or even has any impact on the medical treatment of the boy. The similarities to the photograph discussed above are, however, striking. In two independent fundraising campaigns, Concern implemented (or collaborated to implement) photographs of anonymous children whose faces are covered with flies. Neither images nor accompanying texts indicate any relationship between the charity and the children. Concern meanwhile stated that the Darfur Appeal has raised 181,967 pounds (The Independent, Thursday, 26 August, 2004, p. 25).

A Sudanese boy waits to see a doctor in Morni camp in western Darfur (AP)

In contrast to the Carter and Wallace image, the photographs discussed in this section have no educational value. They are hardly worth a thousand words. They arguably fuel a belief that the developing world exists in a permanent state of doom and disaster. Creating a psychological relationship that may be well intentioned; the images have left a legacy that tarnishes the West’s relationships with the developing world. As charities try to help disaster victims they sometimes lose sight of humanity and victimise the victims even further. While photographers win prizes by portraying human misery, charities rely on human suffering as its vital source for generating funds. As we do not know the fate of the people in the pictures that are utilised by charities to make money, we blur moral boundaries. Finally, is our generosity bound to become a victim of a syndrome called donor apathy or compassion fatigue (Terefa Fufa 2004)?

Interpreting Images of Starvation

Surveying public perceptions of developing countries, ‘The Live Aid Legacy’ (VSO 2002) states why it matters how the British see development. The findings of the first post-September 11th consumer poll of this kind suggest that, despite a growing awareness of the links with other countries and cultures, people are commonly exposed to images that are sixteen years out of date and only reflect the situation of a minority of people in developing countries. The power of the 'Live Aid' images was found to fuel the belief that people in the developing world are helpless victims. Images used in charity reporting and advertising construct a psychological relationship that is often well intended but revolves around an implicit sense of superiority and inferiority. A summary of the responses reveal that the way we picture the world today is problematic.

The pervasiveness of stereotypical images, as discussed above, has shaped public attitudes of the developing world in the UK that give reasons for concern. Experts warn that misunderstanding on this level breeds arrogance, fear and inequality in our relationships with other cultures (VSO 2002). “This research proves that British people are not only ready for information more complex than the usual images of doom and disaster - but also that they will resent both development agencies and the media if we don't promote a more balanced world view”, says Mark Goldring, Chief Executive of VSO (VSO Press Release 2002). The case of Concern is an example that charity emergency appeals do not yet provide for a balanced view. Their nature confirms that, decades after the Live Aid images of starving children became known under the infamous ‘Biafra child’ label, and two years after the publication of the VSO report, there has been little improvement in the implementation of images from disaster zones in Africa. Is the viewer’s perception of reality eroded by the daily flow of agonising images from the world’s disaster zones?

However, it is argued that not only the picture per se is problematic but also the sheer abundance of appeals printed in isolation within the Press. As if to suggest a choice, aid appeals urging the reader to help save lives frequently feature next to commercial advertisements.

Evidently, photojournalism can be humanitarian without patronising.

Evidently, photojournalism can be humanitarian without patronising. A powerful photograph freezes a moment in time. A million words could not capture the joy, sadness or tragedy of life in the same way as a powerfully quality photograph. Through building a relationship of trust to the subject, responsible photojournalists are able to preserve people’s dignity and to show that, even in desperate situations, there is normality and there are moments of harmony and kindness. One of Stoddart’s images depicts two starving children. A girl holding an empty bowl in her hand cuddles a skeletal child, emaciated from hunger and dehydration. Seemingly unaware of the photographer, both children smile at each other while the girl snuggles the child’s hand touching her face in affection. Capturing a moment familiar to adults and toddlers all over the world, this image communicates the spirit of people in tragic circumstances, while facilitating our understanding and sympathy of other famine victims’ experiences.

© Tom Stoddart | A rare moment of joy betweensiblings at the Ajiep feeding centre in southern Sudan. 1998. (Courtesy Tom Stoddart)

Such a “sad but necessary” image releases energy that sparks communication, and even donations to charities. Tom Stoddart’s iWitness exhibition attracted more than 2,000 visitors a day. Their voices give testimony to the abiding power of still images like the above. They also show that our society is divided not only over the value and purpose of the portrayal of people affected by disasters, but also over the realities in some parts of the developing world. Emphasising ‘them’ and ‘us’, the language of interpretation reflects colonial notions of trusteeship over the ‘Other’. In my view, this is largely a result of the nature of media reporting and charity advertising. The Public attitudes towards development 2003 report found that, for 62 percent of respondents, donating to charities remains the most popular means of making a contribution to poverty reduction in developing countries. In contrast, only 36 percent felt that putting pressure on politicians would help reduce poverty (Fiona Dawe/DFID 2003, p. 51, see Appendix 2). I would argue that too few people recognise the impact Western politics has on the events in the developing world.

Tom Stoddart gives a recent example of how one incredible image is enough to change the course of history.

Tom Stoddart gives a recent example of how one incredible image is enough to change the course of history. “People talk about a picture being worth a thousand words. I wonder what combination of a thousand words would ever have got Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, to apologise like he did when those shots of tortured Iraqis at Abu Ghraib came out” (Tom Stoddart, in New Statesman, Monday, 26 July, 2004). Although well-intended and tremendously influential, the power of photographs is limited. While they can stimulate our thoughts and optimally drive us to action, they can also trigger our responses to solve fundamental problems such as man-made disasters and ongoing civil wars. Thus, while images of starving children might still be powerful enough to touch our hearts, too few people ask why famines are still occurring. Since the 1980s African food crisis, famines are academically understood as man-made disasters, for example in Sudan where hunger is used as a tool in warfare (David Campbell 2003).

While competing for diminishing emergency funding resources, aid agencies are increasingly experimenting with new media. The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) stated that its recent Sudan web appeal generated a record high of 1 million pounds in UK donations (BBC News online, 26 July, 2004). While heavily focusing on emaciated children, the video lacks any indication of local people helping each other. Yet, the reality paints a different picture. Few donors know that ninety percent of the people are saved by their neighbours and families, and that the external aid workers account for nearly 0.01 percent (Tony Vaux, in Ruth Gidley 2004). Moreover, Alex de Waal points out that in recent famines in Africa, international food aid accounted for “less than ten percent of the overall diet of famine-stricken people” (in Tony Vaux 2001, p. 74).

While increasing the return in donations, innovative technology is not the answer to the dilemma of ongoing conflict. Neither photograph nor video can be a substitute for political will to eliminate the root causes of man-made disasters. The biggest help would be peace. This section demonstrated that one-dimensional global image-mongering spurs little more than empathic reactions, while reinforcing a number of conventional views about developing countries. Charities demonstrate a surprising inability, and arguably unwillingness, to overcome their image dilemma in emergency appeals. While politicians, journalists and academics have been demanding a more balanced world view, the voices of both the subjects in photographs, as well as indigenous photographers have been ignored. Yet without dialogue, there can be no change in the image culture. As Colin Hastings of kijiji*Vision sees it, one reason behind the image dilemma is the dominance of Northern photographers looking through a Northern lens on disasters such as the Sudanese famines. Indigenous photographers have a different perspective which is marginalised because of the Northern monopoly of the image economy.

Envisioning a Fair Global Image Economy

Perhaps, the answer to the current image dilemma is a fairer global image economy. Powerful photographs are increasingly seen as a tradable commodity with an immense economic value. The current global image market is roughly estimated at 6.5 billion US dollars (D.J. Clark 2003, p. 1). However, the term ‘global’ is somewhat inappropriate for the images of people and events in developing countries, which are paradoxically produced by northern photographers. The current image economy, controlled by northern photographers and agents, facilitates one-dimensional processes of production, sale and purchase. What prevents photographers in the majority world from accessing the global image market?

Drik director Shahidul Alam knows that there is certainly no lack of talented indigenous photographers; rather the resources and efforts to promote such talent are insufficient (in D.J. Clark 2003). Yet, economic and technical barriers determine only one side of the problem. John Levi, Foto8 editor, remarks that the greater dilemma resides in the “compositional” nature of photographs and the political language they speak in different cultural settings. While a local photographer definitely has an edge “to put more feelings into a picture and has better local knowledge”, a British photographer has a better understanding of the language of the readership and is able to construct a clearer message (John Levi, in D.J. Clark 2003, p. 3). Shahidul Alam contests such arguments. He believes that the visual language of the “western eye” is something that can be learned like a spoken language. He further believes that it is much harder to acquire local knowledge than it is to gain knowledge of an intended publication market (in D.J. Clark 2003).

Indeed, it requires an in-depth knowledge of local and political affairs to truthfully report events such as famine and conflict. Indigenous photographers have clear advantages over their northern counterparts who often fly in and out of disasters zones without being able to develop a long-term understanding of the situation. Photojournalists are part of a media system that directs their eyes and, as a result, shapes their images. However, one of the greatest barriers to photographers in the majority world has been the lack of political influence. “Images are generally regarded secondary to text and are given little space in newsprint” (D.J. Clark 2003, p. 3). The situation is even more serious in post-war countries like Afghanistan, were photojournalists have only just started to enjoy freedom of press, be it fragile.


The young not-for-profit enterprise kijiji*Vision responds to these problems. It was born out of a vision of its founder, Colin Hastings, to create a responsible photography organisation that “gives back” as well as “takes”. The project aims to assist talented photographers in the South to overcome the barriers that currently prevent them from gaining fair access to international image markets. Its guiding principle is fair trade photography. The idea emerged from a photographic assignment Colin Hastings did for The Tanzanian Cultural Tourism Programme in September 2001. Hastings argues that, while producing images from their own countries, southern photographers are as marginalised and disadvantaged as many small-scale coffee and tea farmers. Acting as a broker between the photographers and the market, fair trade promises southern photographers a fairer market share of the premium income. With the help of kijiji*Vision, they acquire expertise to improve the quality of their products and learn how to promote their photographs on the international market.

Knowing that it is still very difficult to find talented and commercially-minded photographers in the South, Colin Hastings’ ambitious goal is the establishment of an extensive database of indigenous photographers to be utilised by businesses and agencies, thus closing a market gap. The idea behind kijiji*Vision is that, through exhibitions, projects and other media, indigenous photographers will provide positive, educational images of life in developing countries. This paper has demonstrated that northern-produced images of Africa, as an example of the developing world, fuel Western perceptions that are problematic. Media reporting and the imagery cultivated in charity emergency appeals have reinforced notions of this part of Africa as ‘uncivilised’. Out of this perception follows the view of Africans as passive subjects and of Africa as a ‘bad place for businesses’. Thus, while kijiji*Vision is a market-driven project, it has a real potential to facilitate communication and understanding between North and South. It is arguably one solution to alter our culturally preconceived ideas of people affected by disasters in countries like Sudan.

In addition to fair trade organisations, charities may constitute another promising market for fair trade photographs. While in emergency situations charities tend to utilise professional stock images, a high proportion of the photographs used in other charity advertisements is produced by field staff. Yet, lacking photographic technique (i.e. lighting), staff-produced images are often of poor, unappealing quality.UK market research could use the fair-trade campaigns of Oxfam and Christian Aid, which were developed to help people to find their own solutions to the problems. The fact that an increasing number of people in the UK believe that buying fair trade products could help reduce poverty is a promising signal.

However, kijiji*Vision is still in its infancy and extensive market research must yet prove whether charities are ready to abandon traditional practises of resorting to free news images to establish partnerships with indigenous photographers. It is not yet known whether, and how, indigenous photographers will contribute to reforming the current image culture. One might argue that indigenous photographers will cater to a ‘northern taste’ without necessarily changing it. As kijiji*Vision is a northern-born business, and its committed volunteers are also northern, Colin Hastings’ team has the challenging task to safeguard its inclusiveness (Shahidul Alam, correspondence with Colin Hastings, February 2004). The future will show whether their vision of a balanced world view can be realised.

It is hoped that charities might establish partnerships with local photographers.

However, the benefits clearly outweigh the risks. Firstly, by promoting indigenous photographers, kijiji*Vision has a real potential to contribute to a fairer, global image economy. Secondly, by providing northern audiences with an insider’s view of events, which they can otherwise only witness through images, it proves educational. Thirdly, by promoting an ‘African perspective’ it gives local people a voice through which to communicate their realities to northern audiences. In turn, these audiences can relate to personalised stories rather than react to autonomous subjects in photographs. It is hoped that charities might establish partnerships with local photographers. This would enable them to better communicate their causes to northern donors while, at the same time, increase their accountability to local partners. In the market-dominated Western society, fair trade is a choice to be more than a passive consumer. Supporting fair trade photographs may therefore contribute to a reformed image culture.


The value of a powerful photograph cannot be measured in words. Their real power resides in their capability to educate and empower people. Strong images, particularly from disaster situations, have an immense political and economic value. They may spark communication, but may also become propaganda if abducted by charities and politically self-interested organisations. Abuse of photographs can cause physical and psychological damage for the subjects. In sum, this paper has given evidence that the real value of photographs cannot be measured in terms of money for a charity or fame for a photographer. However, it can be seen in terms of facilitating understanding between cultures.

Media and charity representations predominate in determining how we see the developing world. Their work is largely fuelled by an image culture that reflects our culturally- induced understanding of large parts of the developing world. The over-abundance of photographs of children in charity emergency appeals, for example, has perpetuated a view of infanticised Africans as passive receivers of aid. Though heart-touching images in emergency appeals might be well-intended, they reflect an implicit sense of superiority and inferiority. Moreover, our world view is largely distorted as the realities of the people in the developing world are framed by northern photographers. The images exclude the view of how indigenous people see their own life and how they want others to see them. New pictorial standards must ensure that images portray people in a dignified manner by showing that, even under harsh circumstances, they are able to help themselves. Such images should depict local people helping each other, rather than emphasising international dependence and invoking pity. People must be portrayed as human beings with capacities rather than passive victims.

Charities urgently need to realise their educational role, and reform their representational practices.

Charities urgently need to realise their educational role, and reform their representational practices. A rebalanced picture of the developing world would mainstream African perspectives on development. Overcoming stereotypes would enable people in the UK, and other Western countries, to build stronger associations with individuals rather than anonymous subjects. A better informed population would be able to actively engage in global issues such as trading laws and debt relief. Moreover, the process of learning about other cultures would bring personal enrichment. Thus, rather than simply resorting to new media while perpetuating the same images organisations like the DEC should take the lead in providing moral leadership and guidance to the multitude of different players involved in humanitarian activities. The collaboration with indigenous photographers who have a better understanding of the environment of charity operations would contribute to a more balanced view of the events in the developing world. Such partnerships would give indigenous people a voice, and a choice about how they are portrayed.

In sum, what we need is a reformed image culture that challenges culturally-induced attitudes about the developing world. This reform must be initiated by both the media and charities. They can show us, every day, that there can be change. However, changing stereotypical attitudes about the majority world entails a process of re-education – first by charities and media editors, and consequently by consumers. Charities can redirect our eyes by showing true and positive images, which enables us to see the world in a different way. The goal is to minimise the ‘self’ and increase the awareness of other cultures. This reform could give rise to a new consumer generation, enlightened by a more balanced view of events in the developing world. The time-consuming but worthwhile transformation process of the consumer generation defines an exciting subject for further research.

The reformation of our image culture, however, faces two main challenges. News editors might refuse to abandon traditional portrayals of events in developing countries. Charities, on the other hand, might face a real challenge in selling positive images to consumers with preconceived ideas about the nature of images in emergency appeals. Worldwide projects like Drik and, arguably, kijiji*Vision have a real potential to provide a more balanced picture of the world. They can make sure that “the grotesque lack of reality – that the majority of the world is one block of disadvantaged, poverty-striken people – is not the legacy of our generation” (Mark Goldring, in VSO Press release 2002).

Look here for the original thesis

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