Once again, famine plagues the headlines and swollen bellies afflict the airwaves. The Horn of Africa is hungry. Babies are dying. Statistics are swirling. And the rest of the global village, wired as it is, has pulled up a front-row seat.
Since the food crisis in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya debuted in the news last month, most of us have seen images of timid and blank-eyed starving children. Such images present a dilemma for me: Are they an accurate depiction of reality—one that evokes compassionate response—or are they invasions of dignity that turn human suffering into a numbing side show?
Susie Linfield argues that graphic images of suffering, however problematic they may be, are necessary. She is a professor at New York (N.Y.) University and a prominent commentator on photojournalism. She disagrees with the critics who say a continual stream of “atrocity photography” deadens our sensitivity to human suffering. “Far from dulling our senses, photography has been a key component in the creation of what we think of as the modern human-rights consciousness,” she wrote in the Fall 2009 issue of Geez magazine. Linfield admits that human sensitivity is still limited, but she argues that awareness of, and responsiveness to, global human need is greater now than it ever has been, and photography deserves some of the credit.
Linfield quotes a human rights activist who expresses concern that images of starving African children inappropriately put “people’s bodies, their misery, their grief and their fears on display.” Linfield does not dispute that such photos are “radically discomfiting” and imperfect, but she asks, “Is there an unproblematic way to show the destruction of a person?”
She warns of a danger greater than problematic photos: “a desire not to look at the world” at all.
I find Linfield’s argument convincing, yet I am offended by the famine photos I see. I question the intent behind them. I can’t imagine myself taking such photos. And I can’t imagine a Somali father proudly pinning up a newspaper clipping of his emaciated unnamed child.
While many mainstream news outlets do not hesitate to use “famine pornography”—as it is called—you will not find it in Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) materials. “It’s in MCC’s DNA to portray people in a respectful way,” says Rick Fast, MCC Canada’s director of communications. A basic principle of MCC’s communications policy is to “affirm dignity.”
The policy says it is healthier for donors to give out of a “sense of partnership” than to be “shamed into sharing.”
In addition to not using images they consider undignified, MCC communications staff try to print the names of people in the pictures they publish. They also share all materials with overseas partners as a way of increasing accountability to the people depicted in those materials. “It’s not cut and dried,” Fast says, as images are always open to interpretation. “We don’t always get it right.”
Without criticizing agencies that use more dramatic images, Fast says MCC does not need to. The organization is fortunate to have a constituency that responds generously without needing to first see disturbing photos. That said, he notes that most donors will see graphic images in the news even if MCC does not use them.
Are famine photos necessary or exploitive? Probably both, as we live in a messy world. Atrocities should not happen behind closed doors. We must be willing to look at the world. At the same time, the divinely granted dignity of each person must be ever guarded. Ultimately, we should not need to be shamed or shocked into caring.
Will Braun is a former MCC volunteer who lives in Winnipeg, Man. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.