Children have walked for weeks across the desert to get to Dadaab, and many perish on the way. Others have died shortly after arrival. On the edge of the camp, a young girl stands amid the freshly made graves of 70 children, many of whom died of malnutrition. Photo: Andy Hall/Oxfam. From: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oxfam_East_Africa_-_A_mass_grave_for_children_in_Dadaab.jpg
Susan Sontag, in explaining the way a single photograph can be used to support any number of points of view, stated that “all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions” (2003: 10). Photographs are ambiguous. This might seem counterintuitive because of the realism represented by pictures made with a camera. But photography does not provide meaning, it provides data. The surfeit of information that photographs contain require narratives to assign meaning, to develop understanding. More often that not, these narratives come in the short text called captions.
When a photograph is believed to be able to speak for itself, the captions are often limited to information on the time and place when then image was made. In this case, meaning comes through the narrative surrounding the use of the picture: articles, presentations, juxtaposed images. The ambiguity of a photograph allows it to be repurposed for many different ends. The ambiguity of a photograph also means that it has mutable relevance and force across space and time.
The affective elements of the photograph selected for the Summer 2016 edition of Reflections (Vol.4 No.2)—a lone child standing in an arid landscape, in front of numerous fresh-looking graves—draws viewers in. If used in other instances, that emotional grab might be taken advantage of and used to manipulate a donation out of people (Berger 2013). The photograph would have a different meaning had it been on an aid agency donor-solicitation pamphlet, and different again between rights-based or religious-based aid agencies. In our case, the picture quickly turns to an educational moment because of the caption, which was the caption provided for this photograph in its original source location on the Wikipedia page about the 2011 East Africa drought. Given the wider context of the focus of this edition of Reflections on palliative care in humanitarian crises, the meaning becomes much more specific about the reality of death in certain crisis situations, thus supporting the recognition of the moral and practical imperative for humanitarian organizations to support palliative care.
Andy Hall/Oxfam; source, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oxfam_East_Africa_-_A_mass_grave_for_children_in_Dadaab.jpg
Sontag, S. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador
Miserable images of the ravages of Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa (thankfully, on a downward trajectory by that point) were at the forefront of the humanitarian visual landscape of 2015. These pictures were swiftly overtaken in the spring (and for the bulk of the year) with heart wrenching images of the perilous journeys taken by (im)migrants en route to Europe. The vast majority of these images are undoubtedly shocking. Photographs such as Samuel Aranda’s picture for the New York Times of a four-year-old girl lying on the urine soaked floor of a Sierra Leone health facility, and Nilufer Demir’s photograph of the tiny, lifeless body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach in Bodrum, Turkey and countless others contributed to the ongoing debates about the ethics of showing pain and suffering. Such debates are longstanding, reaching back to the early days of the medium, and have focused on: what is acceptable to display under what circumstances or in what forms or forums; when is the circulation or display exploitation, appropriation or commodification; at what point does the representation of suffering render the phenomenon a spectacle?
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.
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.
For 35 years now, there has been a raging debate within international NGO circles around the use of images of starving black children in fundraising materials. One seminal piece by Jorgen Lissner in the New Internationalist accused aid agencies of ‘social pornography’ in stripping individual children of their dignity and presenting them to the Western viewer as helpless objects isolated from any social or historical context, and called for an end to the racist distortion that this perpetuated in people’s conception of the majority world.
Thank you for sharing these very interesting reflections on the use of images in this MSF campaign. As is underlined by de Laat in her piece, this campaign in 2005 was a creative attempt to find ways out of traditional campaigns based on images from abroad. This attempt raised, however, other concerns related to the use of individual portraits in humanitarian campaigns. I was at the time the director of the Services for health promotion and protection for children and youth in the canton of Geneva. This is how I have been involved in the management of unanticipated effects of the campaign.
A landscape is not on the verge of collapse, unless a vanishing landscape is a collapsing one. I came to this realization during my fieldwork in Palestine (2012), when I spent a year travelling between different cities and landscapes. I was trying to capture the visual presence and absence of the separation wall in Palestine and how The Wall’s presence and absence was mirrored in Israeli national discourse. I interviewed several Palestinian and Israeli photographers and artists, but was particularly struck by the photographic work of Palestinian artist Yazan Khalili. In Landscape of Darkness (2010) and On Love and Other Landscapes (2011) we see reflections on love, memory, pain and vanishing landscapes, which bring to the surface Khalili’s hesitation of capturing The Wall in photographic frames. His hesitation is coming from a place of resisting The Wall through shifting Palestinians’ gaze onward towards themselves, in a way that removes the catastrophe from their self-representation.
Giving Tuesday launched in countries across the globe on December 3rd this year. Following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday asks consumers to make meaningful gifts. As the Red Cross stated: “We’re inviting you to take part in Canada’s first national day dedicated to giving and thinking about others in need.”
It is the key phrase of the Canadian Red Cross Campaign that grabs me before my second cup of coffee on December 3rd as I sift through my InBox: Choose what moves you.
I took this picture about 21 months after the 2010 Haiti earthquake that caused so many deaths and so much destruction. A study I co-authored (Kolbe et al. 2010) estimated that in the capital, Port-au-Prince, the excess mortality due to the quake was about 156,000, with thousands more dying elsewhere in the country. We also found that a quarter of homes were completely destroyed, and a further 40% had some damage, leaving only a third with no visible damage.
I felt many things when I took this photo of human remains housed temporarily in a shed while the mass grave is reconstructed. Each time I raised my camera, I felt intrusive—intruding on people’s personal grief, something that ought to be respected, away from inquisitive/prying eyes. I also felt protected—reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s perception about picture-taking: it’s ability to relieve anxiety.
She was referring in particular to tourists who are outside of their comfort zone, disoriented; the camera is a place to hide. I felt protected from having to feel the space. This is a great negative of taking photos; not experiencing the sites as such. I was outside, looking in on affect instead. I also felt privileged. The feeling came mainly from the fact that we, the people I travelled with, were all included on our instructor’s permission form allowing us to take pictures, unlike other visitors. The sensation of privilege also stemmed from the knowledge that I would be able to take the images back with me, not only in my mind, but also in my camera allowing me more opportunities to reflect, critique and consider the memorial spaces and my own aesthetic choices at a later time. Though we had official consent from the ‘powers that be’ ethically it may still be questionable whether or not to take any photo. In this circumstance, the guides, survivors themselves, apparently had no issue with us taking photos. My impression was that they were more than willing to share knowledge about the genocide, including visual knowledge. Any ethical dilemmas I had were solely my own.
Sonya de Laat (email@example.com) 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.
A wide variety of health problems are attributed to nemagón also called DBCP or debromochloropropane. This pesticide, banned in the U.S. in the 1960s but used throughout many parts of the Global South into the 1980s, is associated with sterility in men, menstrual disruptions and miscarriages in women, discoloration of the skin, various cancers, and renal failure.
All agricultural workers I met in Nicaragua who had been exposed to nemagón over the course of years working on banana plantations complained of chronic bone and muscle pains, sensations of burning, migraines, sleeplessness and loss of motor control. These Nicaraguans, camped in protest across from the National Assembly in downtown Managua from 2000-2010, deployed their naked flesh as mirrors of the violent indifference with which they were treated by Dow chemical and the banana business that allowed their exposure to the dangerous nemagón. Many have lifted shirts and leg pants, or in the case of men even stripped down to nothing to expose their dying flesh in protests, to the government, the media, various courts, and other Nicaraguans. I took this and other close-up photos of protesters’ bodies, with the nemagoneros’ explicit encouragement and consent, as a way of bearing witness to their situation but also wanting to document these Nicaraguans’ tragic but politically powerful use of their dying/diseased bodies as rhetorical and political weapons.
Alberto Guevara (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Associate Professor of Performance Studies in the Department of Theatre at York University, Toronto, Canada. Photo location: Managua, Nicaragua