From ‘suffering others’ to ‘aspiring mothers’: the contemporary image world of global maternal health campaigns

by Margaret MacDonald

Maternal mortality was once described as the neglected tragedy of global health. Though it was estimated in the 1980s that nearly half a million women died each year from pregnancy and birth related causes – 99% of them in the global south – little attention was paid and little progress was made for many years. Recently, however, the problem of maternal mortality has become somewhat of a cause célèbre attracting the attention of world leaders, billionaire philanthropists, celebrity journalists, and filmmakers. Former supermodel Christy Turlington, for example, made a documentary film about maternal mortality in 2010 and launched her own NGO, Every Mother Counts. Melinda Gates has become a key advocate and donor, gracing the podium of most significant global meetings on the topic. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for his part, has made global maternal and child health his legacy issue, launching the Muskoka Initiatives I and II which garnered billions of dollars in funding commitments from G8 and G20 nations, and holding an international summit in Toronto in 2014.

As the global campaign to reduce maternal mortality has been scaled up, so has its ‘image world’ (Sontag 1977) in order to meet the expectations of this new era of high profile humanitarianism.  In this brief blog post I share a few insights about this image world from my anthropological research, starting with the photo below.

Schoolgirl WD foyer 2013
Photo by Margaret MacDonald

I took this photo at the Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur in May 2013. (Women Deliver is perhaps the most influential women’s health advocacy organization in the world). It is one of a series by American photographer Mark Tuschman, commissioned especially for display at the conference. This photo and the others in Tuschman’s series speak to the viewer of a social injustice overcome or medical disaster averted: the teenage girl in the photo is still in school; a nurse talks to a pregnant woman in a functioning health facility; a smiling new mother holds her healthy baby.