The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

DISPLACED Q: When traveling to developing countries, are you conscious of how you photograph people?

On July 13, 1985, I sat down in front of the TV at noon and scarcely moved for the rest of the day. Millions of people around the world did exactly the same.

It was the day of Live Aid, of course – the brain child of Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, who organized this worldwide concert to raise money for the starving in Ethiopia.

While news reports the following day stated that around £50m had been raised (and this figure eventually turned out to be much higher), seven hours into the UK concert, reputedly only £1.2m had been raised. Bob Geldof’s reaction to this information spawned what was, for me, the second most memorable moment of that day – his impassioned, four-letter outburst on live BBC TV, in which he begged the public to send in their money.

Note that I said “second most memorable moment.” The image of Live Aid that most clearly remains with me 26 years later – apart from Queen’s rendition of “Radio Ga Ga” – is the montage of film and photographs of suffering Ethiopians, set to the song “Drive” by The Cars.

After Geldof’s outburst, it is said that donations increased to £300 per second, and after The Cars’ video, the rate increased even more. While I can’t verify those facts, I do know my own checkbook came out as the last note of “Drive” died away.

A surprising legacy

One would think this global event, born from pure and altruistic motives, could only leave a trail of good in its wake. However, a 2002 report by the British VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) called “The Live Aid Legacy” highlighted some unexpected side effects regarding the way Westerners (Britons) now saw the developing world.

Its first key finding was:

Starving children with flies around their eyes: 80% of the British public strongly associate the developing world with doom-laden images of famine, disaster and Western aid. Sixteen years on from Live Aid, these images are still top of mind and maintain a powerful grip on the British psyche.

Given my own memories of Live Aid, I can believe that.

Victims are seen as less human: Stereotypes of deprivation and poverty, together with images of Western aid, can lead to an impression that people in the developing world are helpless victims. 74% of the British public believe that these countries ‘depend on the money and knowledge of the West to progress.’

– which disturbingly leads to:

False sense of superiority and inferiority: The danger of stereotypes of this depth and magnitude is the psychological relationship they create between the developed and the developing world, which revolves around an implicit sense of superiority and inferiority.

Probably not what Bob Geldof had in mind when he wrote the first lines of “Do they know it’s Christmas?”

A picturesque plea for help, or poverty porn?

Matt Collin, author of the blog Aid Thoughts and our Random Nomad tomorrow, is in no doubt that too many photographs in the media cross the line into “poverty porn.”

In his recent post, Guardians of poverty porn, Matt takes The Guardian newspaper to task for printing a photograph which, he feels, has all the checks in boxes to qualify as Poverty Porn.

  • Very cute, if impoverished, Haitian child? Check
  • No shirt? Check
  • Other cute, impoverished children, for context? Check
  • Longing gazes upward (where you look down upon them and consider yourself gracious and merciful donor). Check
  • Hands outstretched to receive help. Check

In other words, the photo falls rather neatly under the category of stereotypical images to which the VSO report referred — nearly ten years later after the report was written.

A fuller picture – or photograph

No one is denying that humanitarian crises exist in the developing world.

Ashley Jonathan Clements, photographer of the picture above, is “a nomadic aid worker with a passion for photography.” Although he must have witnessed more devastating scenes than most of us will ever do, his photographs on his website show a more balanced picture. (Do head over to his site and take a look.)

While Ashley is not a professional photographer, his photographs show a wider perspective of humanitarian situations.

The picture of the boy with a camera, for example, was taken in Haiti, at one of Port-au-Prince’s displacement camps – as was the picture in the Guardian article.

Everyone’s responsibility

An uplifting key point from the VSO report:

More than half want the whole story: The strongest call is to media, particularly television. 55% of British people say they want to see more of the everyday life, history and culture of the developing world on television. They want to see the positives as well as the negatives, and they want context and background to a news story.

With today’s proliferation of travel blogs, it is important to remember that we are now all “media”.

So, the question is — are you conscious of how you photograph people?


STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Random Nomad, Matt Collin!

Img: A Budding Photographer in the Midst of Camp Chaos by Ashley Jonathan Clements

Related Posts:

7 extraordinary women travelers with a passion to save souls

RANDOM NOMAD: Vilma Ilie, Research Associate for Sub-Saharan Africa

All hail Sir Richard Branson, along with global nomads who delve into global misery

13 responses to “DISPLACED Q: When traveling to developing countries, are you conscious of how you photograph people?

  1. intrepidtraveller November 8, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Excellent article.
    We are learning all about this in class at the moment (I’m doing an Msc in Humanitarian Action) and it is spurring some heated debates. The images NGOs use in their fundraising campaigns are images the public has become accustomed to seeing. Images, like you mentioned above, of the starving African Child. It has, sadly, become the only image that automatically comes to mind when we think of a whole continent and is most likely doing more harm than good. The debate we are having is, “Is it ethical to use such images, even if they are been used to fundraise much needed funds?” And NGOs and the Media try to steer clear of such haunting images, what alternative is there that will be just as effective in raising awareness and money…
    Thanks for sharing this post, it’s really got me thinking.

    • ML Awanohara November 9, 2011 at 6:27 pm

      I remember having a similar debate in one of the offices where I worked in NYC, back in the days when I was doing communications for international affairs organizations. This particular outfit had a staff member who was a leading expert on the Darfur situation. As I’m sure you know, four million people in southern Sudan were displaced at least once (and often repeatedly) during that country’s civil war, and the images we used on the Web and in print to represent this expert’s work tended to be of women and children in refugee camps… Predating me, one had been used for the organization’s annual appeal — which rubbed me the wrong way, especially as the organization doesn’t do work on the ground! You are right, nowadays just about everyone is latching on to these sorts of images — to show that their work is worthy and to persuade others to support it.

  2. Spinster November 8, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    Good post; good food for thought.

    As an American who happens to be a person of color, I try my very best to refrain from taking “poverty porn” photos, specifically because I know what it’s like to be depicted in many different negative ways. With that said though, as an American (setting aside the fact that I’m a person of color), I’m not immune to falling for “poverty porn” photos and, therefore, try to check myself if it happens.

    The photo of the boy with the camera is a perfect representation of how photos SHOULD be, especially when it comes to people of color who, unfortunately, are poorer & more oppressed (in general) than my Caucasian brothers & sisters (in general).

    • ML Awanohara November 9, 2011 at 6:41 pm

      I agree, I really like the photo that Kate chose from Ashley Clements’ collection to represent her post. A black kid taking pix of forcibly displaced Haitians — it’s not something you see every day, makes you stop and think…

      That said, did you see that in my post on women missionaries of the Victorian era, one of them was an African American who went to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii)? The more I read about her — her name is Betsey Stockton — the most fascinated I became. Apparently, the Hawaiians found her fascinating, too. The king’s son wanted her to teach him English, and an African American man she met couldn’t get over meeting an African American woman (his wife was Hawaiian). She recorded her impressions in a diary — including the shock of seeing almost-naked Hawaiian men! Only too bad there were no cameras back then. 🙂

      • Spinster November 9, 2011 at 7:15 pm

        No, didn’t get to read that post yet. Definitely need to read it by the weekend. The title already intrigued me & piqued my interest, but this has been a busy week so it’s saved in my folder to read by the weekend.

  3. Katia Novet Saint-Lot November 8, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    This was a great post, asking relevant and truly important questions. It wouldn’t take that much to change such tendency, in the way that Jonathan Clements does it. My husband, who is Haitian and a UNICEF staff, was sent to Haiti after the earthquake, and he told me about the way people continued to laugh and have fun, in the tent cities, in spite of all the devastation. We tend to see only one side of the story (something Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie mentions beautifully in her TED talk) but there is always so much more to see and discover. We all need to look at the whole picture, in order to see qualities of resilience (amongst others) that the privileged can only dream of. Showing only one side, the darkest, may be good to raise money, but it is dehumanizing, absolutely. Thank you.

  4. Kate Allison November 8, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    @ Katia and intrepidtraveller – thank you, both of you, for your comments, which mean a great deal coming from people who are in touch, first hand, with humanitarian issues.

    It was interesting that this post was on my agenda this month. While I in no way liken my situation to, say, the Haitian earthquake victims’, I can nonetheless relate a little to what Katia said about having fun in the tent cities, despite everything. I live in Connecticut, and for much of last week we and the rest of our surrounding towns were without electricity or water or heat following a freak early snowstorm, so my children and I spent a lot of time in the local high school which had been set up as a shelter. At the time – having no knowledge I would be writing this post this week – I looked around the shelter, and thought, “If anyone took a photograph of the scene in here, it would look quite pitiful, with the tables of donated hot food, the cots, the people nursing coffee cups and trying to get warm after being cold all night.” And yet, of course, that wasn’t the whole picture. I met friends, my kids met their friends, we played board games, we exchanged information about which shops and businesses had reopened. It wasn’t all bad. Quite the opposite, really.

    Would I have wanted to be pitied by having pictures of the negative side of shelter life published? Absolutely not. Sympathy and practical help we can always use, all of us, wherever we are. Pity, on the other hand, is something else.

  5. Elizabeth Varadan November 8, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    This is a wonderful article. It reminds me of the fact that real people living real lives never think of themselves as statistics and therefore are not necessarily the people we perceive them to be when we see them on camera or in articles. I value the importance of calling attention to need if it can be done without freezing a culture into a stereotype in the eyes of others. It’s a great question: When does capturing the plight of a people on camera become “poverty porn”? I don’t think it’s been asked before.

    • ML Awanohara November 9, 2011 at 6:49 pm

      You make such an interesting point: “Real people living real lives never think of themselves as statistics.” Here in NYC, I cringe every time I see one of those double decker tourist buses go by, for fear they’ll all be looking at me (I am often out walking my two dogs) as a typical NYer. How much worse would I feel if I were a starving kid in Africa!!!

      What makes matters more complicated is that “poverty of porn” images are raising funds for groups who aren’t necessarily addressing Africa’s real problems — but that’s another debate!

  6. Ash November 14, 2011 at 7:15 am

    Apologies for joining the conversation late (work has been rather hectic, and we have little electricity or internet these days where I’m based). But thanks for starting such an interesting and relevant conversation, and glad my photo could compliment your post. It is certainly something that I struggle with often when taking such photos.

    Perhaps my favourite picture from my Haiti collection to balance both dignity but also show something of what the situation was can be found here:

    • Kate Allison January 27, 2012 at 9:03 am

      Hi Ash – many apologies for my late response to your comment. Thank you so much for allowing us to use your photo to illustrate the point of this piece – it shone such a different light on a situation we only see one side of. Your website and other photos are fabulous, by the way 🙂

  7. Rachel January 25, 2012 at 11:44 pm

    What a great, great article that I wish I had seen earlier. I spent three years living in Kenya, where our school run took us daily through Kibera. I was horrified to see safari tour buses driving well-heeled tourists through to ‘view the poverty’, completely failing to appreciate that it was people’s homes and lives that they were describing as substandard. Yes, people lived in difficult conditions, but they seem most shocking to those who are used to higher consumption as a way of life, and are less extreme when viewed in the local context. Even as ‘wealthy’ expats, we were used to drinking rainwater, wearing secondhand clothes sold by street vendors and having no power or telephone service when it rained – things that we now take for granted in the US. But I can’t imagine any one of us would enjoy having our life, housing or privacy invaded, let alone someone whose sole claim to superiority was greater wealth.

    • Kate Allison January 27, 2012 at 9:00 am

      Hi Rachel – yes, as I was researching this piece, my feeling of distaste for this exploitation became ever greater. But I never imagined there would actually be bus tours! The level of insensitivity you would have to possess to think up a concept like that is inconceivable. Imagine the outrage if the residents of Beverly Hills rented a bus and went touring the poorer parts of LA…unbelievable.

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