by Sonya DeLaat
The MSF campaign, pictured above, struck me as one taking a positive step in the direction away from the old-style aid-appeal. By consciously (and perhaps even courageously) employing stereotypically “Western”-looking models, the campaign is responding to the accusations of essentialism, Orentialism, and infantilism. Instead of images of emaciated, brown skinned, ghost-like figures, this campaign seems to be straying from the norm, attempting something more original.
For traditional donor campaigns that focus on specific crises or atrocities, critics have been calling for more complex historical backstories and context to be included. Homogenization, lack of nuance and insufficient detail can result in donors becoming fatigued by, what becomes, oft-repeated tales. Yet, trying to provide such detail in a photo and brief text on a billboard is just not possible. Images & texts are inherently polysemic, open to a variety of interpretations, which makes campaigns such as this so delicate. On the one hand MSF sees a need to raise awareness of atrocities all over the world, and a need to raise money to do so and to treat victims of these crises. On the other hand, MSF doesn’t want to further victimize or misrepresent people. MSF’s recent donor campaigns have been sensitive to the moral impetus to avoid exploiting suffering, to avoid commercializing a specific crisis in order to solicit funds, and to cease perpetuating a social hierarchy of the ‘West’ being better than the rest – criticisms routinely leveled at aid appeals.
With this campaign, where models are representing fictitious atrocities and crises, are they able to do so? Or is this still a campaign of, to use Wendy Hesford’s term, “spectacular rhetoric” where visual persuasion is used to present a performance of humanitarianism that veil underlying Western ideologies that perpetuate notions of Orientalism and infantilism? Did the campaign designers assume that the only way to draw donor attention is by inviting them, the majority white Europeans to whom this appeal is directed, to imagine themselves in these atrocities? Is it not cynical on their part to have such low expectations of their donors?
Let me offer some thoughts. The people in this campaign, on the whole, stare blankly; some are accusatory, with one woman appearing confrontational even. They do not display an action or context, but certainly suggest – with their looks, posture, dress – a certain amount of agency and strength. Where ‘dark skin’ in a humanitarian campaign has become a referent for infantile, incapacity to care for oneself – even if they are robust, stylish, smiling individuals – this campaign, perhaps controversially, uses white models to represent the universal potential of suffering. The images and the text suggest to the viewer that they too can become victims of disasters, atrocities and violence. That they too, if circumstances were only slightly altered, could find themselves facing similar fates experienced by people who, in normal, peaceful times, would be strong, dignified, healthy and clean. The connotation of this MSF campaign is self-reflexive recognition of some degree of solidarity, or an identification of a commonality in the face of suffering, despite our cultural, political, geographic differences. The use of white models can certainly come across as narcissistic, but such an accusation, I suggest – and perhaps I am reading too much into it – is less appropriate here, as the campaign is not employing others to speak for actual victims. These models, though certainly used to present an individual that is easily identifiable to the majority of donors in the West, are representing fictitious atrocities (though most definitely based on real tragedies). The campaign suggests that we all have the potential to become victims. Global structures of power, economic, social, or otherwise, can lead to inequalities that can result in violence and exacerbate natural disasters. This campaign suggests we are all interconnected in these structures.
Traditional donor campaigns that play on guilt and shame, such as those from the Save Darfur Coalition or Kony 2012, deny the agency and the voice of the local actors. Western saviors speak for the victims, presumably because distant spectators won’t understand the locals, or have become cynical – oversaturated with the same Third World sob story—thus ‘tuning out’ when a brown, tear-stained face comes on TV. These old-school style campaigns suggest that a simple donation is all that is needed to ‘save’ the nebulous victims, and end up providing an outlet to absolve people of their guilt, but do little to address the larger structures that make atrocities and crises possible in the first place. This is not to say that the MSF campaign, here, offers a way to address the structures of evil that plague our world, that is not their primary intent. But they do, rightly or wrongly with the use of white models, creatively—in my view—draw attention to the perpetuated/pervasive stereotyping of victims in order to encourage reflection on everyone’s collaboration in and proximity to human suffering and wellbeing.
Humanitarian action is at once a compassionate act and arguably (cynically) also a way to absolve the west of its crimes. More importantly, however, as my reading of this campaign demonstrates, humanitarian actions, even something as simple as a picture and text, can open our minds to our complex human and moral interconnections.
Sonya de Laat (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD candidate in the Media Studies program in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University in London, Canada, and a Research Coordinator for the Humanitarian Health Ethics Research Group at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Canada.