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.

Two Tweets, Two Different Takes on People

by Sonya de Laat

The Tweets:

UN Refugee Agency @Refugees Refugees. Ordinary people living through extraordinary times. Share Tahir’s story this #‎WRD trib.al/AaBPuqW pic.twitter.com/aOFOjAFPPc

Maptia @Maptia The Dani still wear penis sheaths, but they also keep their savings in banks: http://bit.ly/1e62clk by @Vlad_Sokhin

On June 11, two tweets came through my feed in close succession. Initially, both struck me as encouraging: they appeared to be moving toward more nuanced representations and away from flat, one-dimensional stereotypes. Upon closer inspection, the UN Refugee post about an “Architect. Husband. Builder.” is indeed about rendering refugees less hopeless and different. The photos of the Dani, on the other hand, continue the tradition in many photographic practices of exaggerating exoticism. The photographs by Vald Sokhin, a photographer represented by Panos, an agency dedicated to photography for social justice, are carefully composed portraits of individual Dani in traditional dress along with a prop of contemporary globalized life, e.g., can of pop or bank machine.