Famine Aid Imagery: Silencing and Commodifying the African

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Famine Aid Imagery: Silencing and Commodifying the African

straight connector 2

Hillary Palmer

Online American news distributors published photo slideshows in response to the 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa under the pretense of generating aid and awareness. This paper examines the ways in which this type of photojournalism silences and commodifies the African through graphic re-presentation of their bodies. I argue that not only does this re-presentation create an international aid situation in which the African is displayed in a continual state of need, but that these photos perpetuate an aid discourse in which the voice of the African is absent and replaced by the voice of the American consumer. This type of aid movement is therefore fundamentally flawed.
Keywords: Aid; Commodification; Famine; Photojournalism; Voice
The increasingly visual nature of not only the American media but of present day American life has led rhetorical scholars to increasingly turn to the visual and “the rhetoric of the image” (Lucaites & Hariman, 2001, p.37). Rhetorical scholars Lucaites and Hariman devote special attention to the visual rhetoric of photojournalism because they argue it “operates as a political aesthetic that provides crucial social, emotional, and mnemonic resources for animating the collective identity and action necessary to a liberal-democratic politics” (Lucaites & Hariman, 2001, p.38; also see Hariman & Lucaites, 2007). In addition to being of central importance to cultural understanding, the photojournalism of aid discourses is unique in that it operates contrary to personal use photography—while for personal use, people photograph that which they don’t want to forget, for aid purposes news photographers capture that which the public hopes to expunge from its collective memory (Clark, 2004, p.695).

This type of photographic representation in the American media is problematic for a variety of reasons. The repetitive, negative nature of the American media’s coverage of international affairs causes a cyclical chain of events in which Americans expect the worse, and then the photographs that are published just reinforce the (American) audience’s predispositions (Moeller, 1999, p.35). Additionally, because the majority of the American audience has no direct experience with Africa, they have to an inability to contextualize the photographs, which leads to the conclusion that Africa is chaotic, destitute, and in many ways ‘beyond help’ (Clark, 2004), furthering the self-fulfilling prophecy of Africa as a charity case.

The problematic nature of photojournalistic coverage of African crises has also been critiqued because of the supposed pornographic nature of the photos (Manzo, 2006). This critique was particularly prevalent in the 1990s and brought the question of whether or not this type of aid-generating mechanism could produce long-term solutions to the forefront of international debate among nongovernmental aid organizations (NGOs) like Save the Children, Oxfam, Christian Aid and World Vision (Manzo, 2006), p.9). While efforts have been made to replace ‘negative’ imagery with more ‘positive’ imagery that embodied “reality, dignity, and empowerment” (Manzo, 2006, p.9), such as the 1989 General Assembly of European NGOs’ Code of Conduct: Images and Messages relating to the Third World, the American media’s response to the 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa has explicitly demonstrated that the iconic1 starving baby photos have not gone anywhere.

Before delving further into these photos and the crisis in the Horn, a brief overview of the region is necessary to contextualize the recurring famine imagery. The Horn of Africa is the northeastern portion of the African continent comprised of Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Sudan, and Kenya. Vast portions of this region have not only been conflict stricken for decades, but the people of this region have struggled with numerous droughts (Ki-moon, 2011; ONE.org, 2011).2 The culmination of the tenuous political states of countries in the Horn, conflict and subsequent displacement, high food prices, and drought in 2011 created a humanitarian crisis for millions of Africans (Ki-moon, 2011). While the United Nations has only declared a state of famine in Somalia as of October 2011, more regions are expected to be included as the crisis spreads (ONE.org, 2011).

The American mass media generated a strikingly visual response to this famine, which is typified by online photo slideshows that, as mentioned, rely on the all too familiar theme of malnourished children while re-presenting the African family as neglectful and incapable. This paper will argue that these mass-mediated images of famine silence and commodify the African through the graphic re-presentation of their bodies. Additionally, I will argue that these images are part of a larger American aid movement that silences the African voice through commodification, replacing it with the voice of the American consumer. Therefore, the flawed nature of the American movement for African aid will be demonstrated.

More specifically, this critique will look at online photo slideshows from Yahoo! News and the Washington Post during the late summer of 2011, when American Internet coverage of the crisis has been most prominent. These two American media outlets were chosen for the large volume of photos they displayed during the same time period.3 After examining their silencing and commodifying functions, the way in which these photos fit into the larger American movement for African aid alongside contemporary commodifying organizations like ONE and Project (RED) ™ will be discussed. Lastly, the perpetual cycle of need that these images create will be addressed. I do not argue that graphic famine imagery should be completely abandoned by the American media due to a supposed ‘pornographic nature,’ but the way in which the African body is re-presented should be framed by the media such that (1) it is more reflective of a multifaceted reality and (2) foregrounds the African voice(s). These visuals need to be critically addressed because not only does photojournalism provide insights into the underpinnings of liberal-democratic public culture (Lucaites & Hariman, 2001), but also the way in which the American media re-presents Africans is doing a disservice to aid efforts by perpetuating a fundamentally flawed movement.

Graphic Re-Presentation: Silencing the African Voice

Due to the fact that at the time of writing this paper, the U.N. had only declared a state of famine in Somalia, the country most catastrophically impacted thus far, the American news media’s photojournalistic coverage of the Horn centers around images of southern Somalis. Because the refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia are increasingly being taxed beyond their resources by both their own citizens and by fleeing Somalis (Ki-moon, 2011), it can be expected that the photojournalistic coverage of these refugee camps and the crisis will shift from Somalia/Somalis to the Horn of Africa/Africans. Some of this shift can already be seen in the Los Angeles Times where photos published in the beginning of July 2011 were entitled Famine in Somalia and those published in August 2011 were entitled Famine in Africa (see www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/africa/).

Of the online media sources this paper examines—Yahoo! News and the Washington Post—Yahoo! News displays the largest volume of photographs. The largest photo slideshow on Yahoo! News was entitled Somalia famine: East Africa’s drought is battering Somali children, with hundreds left for dead on the journey to the world’s largest refugee camp and was a compilation of 501 photos from the Associated Press (AP) and Reuters (Abdi Warsameh et al., 2011). Of these 501 photos, there were over 100 photos of malnourished children with a clear lack of familial presence. The photos of these children are most often cropped very close to the face, highlighting their emotional and physical pain through the depth of their sunken cheeks and dry, gapping mouths. Children in the most severe stages of starvation receive full body photographs with only the most minimal of clothing to illustrate the visibility of their entire skeletal structure. The only descriptive factor that distinguishes between the children is, instead of a name (which is virtually never printed amongst the Yahoo! News images), the branding of “malnourished child” or “severely malnourished child.”

Aside from Yahoo! News’ photos of starving children there are numerous images of women and children crouched together in front of barren landscapes. The women in these photos do not appear to be enacting the role of ‘mother’ in the way an American audience typically understands motherhood (such as feeding, coddling, or warmly gazing upon their children). Instead there is a perceived emotional distance in addition to their lack of physical proximity. The women of these photos are almost always closemouthed and with a hand on their forehead or under their chin in quiet contemplation—a portrait of silence.

The Washington Post adopts a similar format for its photo slideshow Deepening Humanitarian Crisis in Somalia and utilizes photos from many of the same photographers as the Yahoo! News piece, such as Abdi Warsameh, Mukoya, and van Zuydam (Abdi et al., 2011). This slideshow consists of 103 photos, which are predominately of the same aforementioned themes—starving children and repressed women. What is different about the Washington Post slideshow is that although it often frames children and women in much of the same way as the Yahoo! News piece, it does include over 15 photos where mothers are physically involved with their children. While visually reunited with their children in this kind of re-presentation, these women appear even more repressed than those of the Yahoo! News slideshow because their children are often in the worst of physical states, and they appear to have no ability to effect change; their agency is reduced to cradling their frail child’s body or sitting beside them on a makeshift bed in a medical tent as if waiting for impending death.

These images literally embody silence. The only open mouths are those of children who are writhing in pain. There is no visible gesturing; bodies are huddled on the ground, arms across the chest, under vibrant cloths that appear in stark contrast to the somberness of those they cloak. Most group photos are devoid of depictions of dialogue and also demonstrate silence—people watching and waiting, gathered in lines for aid. The rare exception to these silent photos are ones in which action is taken to the opposite end of the spectrum and depicted as raucous and violent. In these ‘loud’ photos, of which there were less than five among the over 600 combined photos from Yahoo! News and the Washington Post (Abdi Warsameh, 2011; Abdi, 2011), ‘unruly’ people are being beaten back by guards as they await food aid packages. Even amidst this action there is more ‘noise’ in the representation than there is ‘voice.’

Aside from the visual portrayal of silence, another one of the ways in which these photos serve a silencing function is through what Lucaites and Hariman (2001) refer to as the “individuated aggregate.” The individuated aggregate is “a trope whereby the population as a whole is represented solely by specific individuals” (Lucaites & Hariman, 2001, p.38). Instead of a plurality of voices being represented in the photojournalistic coverage, a one-dimensional and flat portrayal is presented. Not only does this trope facilitate the reduction of entire populations, such as Somalis or Ethiopians, to a single starving child, but it also reduces their extremely diversified ethnic identities to just that of ‘African.’ As stated by Moeller (1999), “Images, by design, cannot help but simplify the world” (p.43). This simplification is facilitating a flawed and superficial understanding where one voice speaks for all.

Repackaging the Silent African as Commodity: Further Steps in the Wrong Direction

The silencing of Africans elicits two detriments to a successful aid movement. The first detriment is that the silent re-presentation of the African packages the African identity as a commodity as opposed to the representation of autonomous individuals. This re-presentation removes voice from the Africans and therefore disassociates a fundamental human trait from the subject, blurring the line between person and product. Once silenced, these images can package pain in a way that it can be parceled out by the American media among all the other headlines of the day. Human suffering is given no precedence over the latest celebrity break-up or Nike sneaker as far as digital news space. For example, when accessing the Washington Post slideshow Deepening Humanitarian Crisis in Somalia (2011), the viewer must first sit through a brief ad that could range from a British Petroleum sponsored Gulf vacation ad to a Chevron Oil community engagement ad (see Abdi et al., 2011). While the irony of prefacing a slideshow of starving children with ads from oil companies worth billions of dollars is more depressing than humorous, it illustrates that these images are just another mediated commodity. As stated by Moeller (1999), “suffering becomes infotainment—just another commodity” (p.35).

Secondly, the image of the suffering African has been commodified to such an extent that we no longer even need it for much of our charity-based aid.4 The voice of the African is being altogether replaced by that of the American consumer through this commodification process. While commodification is nothing new in regards to African aid, the explicit shift in voice and emphasis on the American consumer is increasingly receiving scholarly attention (see Bell, 2011; Ponte, Richey, & Baab, 2009; Richey & Ponte, 2008; and Richey & Ponte, 2011).

While much of the aforementioned scholarship looks at commodification and AIDS in organizations like Project (RED) ™, famine aid is headed down the same path. This trend is illustrated by putting the work and critiques of Project (RED) ™ in conversation with the organization ONE. According to ONE’s website, it is “a grassroots advocacy and campaigning organization that fights extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa, by raising public awareness and pressuring political leaders…We also support greater democracy, accountability, and transparency,” (ONE, 2011). While ONE is does not portray itself as the typical “give us your money, save a baby” aid organization, there is a clear Western agenda behind their efforts, such as the propagation of democracy, and there is still explicit and implicit commodification involved through components like the ONE store.

Project (RED) ™ can be thought of in many ways as a brother campaign to ONE—both have strong connections to U2’s front man and celebrity activist Bono, emerged in the mid-2000s (2006 and 2004 respectively), and are focused on some incarnation of African aid (see www.one.org/us/ & www.joinred.com/red). Project (RED) ™ takes commodification of the African to a new level in that it generates monetary aid through partnerships with companies such as American Express, Microsoft, and Hallmark that offer (RED) ™ branded products to affluent American consumers (Bell, 2011; Richey & Ponte, 2008). This “aid movement” is fueled by celebrity endorsement and the replacement of Africans with trendy, socially conscious consumers. As described by Richey and Ponte (2008), this type of aid restores “a social hierarchy where cool, rich, white men save poor voiceless African women and children” (p.721, italicization my own).

Just as the images of famine seemed to be fading from the online news pages, ONE released a celebrity filled PSA. This PSA is entitled “The F Word: Famine is the Real Obscenity” and ends with the words “We’re not asking for your money. We’re asking for your voice.” (TheONECampaign, 2011). Not only does this PSA not contain a single person who has experienced famine (the majority of the celebrities are White male actors, such as Clive Owen, Ewan McGregor, and Colin Farrell), but the call for the voice of the American is omnipresent while the call for the voice of the African is nonexistent. This is not the first time this voice(less) slogan has been promoted by an aid movement; the 2005 Live8 concert that was designed to pressure the leaders of the world’s most powerful industrialized nations to increase international aid touted “it is your voice we are after, not your money” (Richey & Ponte, 2008, p.717). Ironically enough, Bono’s Product (RED) ™ flips this statement and suggests ‘we are after your money, not your voice’ (Richey & Ponte, 2008, p.717). What Product (RED) ™ fails to recognize is that money is a voice—it’s the voice of the American consumer.

The Perpetual Cycle of Silence and Commodification

The current way in which famine aid imagery re-presents the African serves a silencing and commodifying function that is part of a larger and fundamentally flawed movement that creates a perpetual cycle of need. First, we are caught in the numbing cycle of producing and consuming negative international image discourses. The proliferation of negative, graphic re-presentation creates what Moeller (1999) refers to as ‘compassion fatigue.’ Put simply, American’s are bored, international crisis like famine in the Horn seem “too permanent to yield to resolution…too remote, not sufficiently connected to Americans’ lives” (p.12), and we are generally overcome by a world full of crises (Moeller, 1999). “I think we’ve reached the son of ‘horror fatigue’ situation in which, when you’ve seen one starving baby, you’ve seen them all,” stated Smith Hempstone, a former U.S. ambassador to Kenya (Moeller, 1999, p.37).

Despite the numbing nature of these images, the number one concern for those who make a living off of photography, just like in virtually any other profession that does business on the international market, is producing what sells. The highly competitive nature of photojournalism (deadlines for those competing on the international level can be hourly) and the fact that the image market is increasingly driven by economic and political forces, has forced photographers to simplify their outlooks and rely on what is familiar, such as the starving baby photo (Clark, 2004, p.700). Not only does reliance on what is familiar and what has sold in the past become an overwhelming force guiding the photographers, but generally negative news also outsells good news (Moeller, 1999). As quoted in Moeller’s Compassion Fatigue (1999), former Boston Globe foreign correspondent Tom Palmer stated, “People being killed is definitely a good, objective criteria for whether a story is important. And innocent people being killed is better,” (p.34).

As long as we continue to consume, the media will continue to produce, and we as Americans will care less and less that the subjects of these images are real starving people. Even when one has not been numbed beyond the point of caring there is a feeling of helplessness because the images is framed to tell the American audience that the starving baby cannot possibly survive anyway (Moeller, 1999), p.39). The African family is portrayed as fundamentally incapable—they will always need American help and benevolence.

The commodification inherent in this re-presentation and the organized commodification of American humanitarian organizations also perpetuates the flawed movement and cycle of need. By reducing Africans to products as opposed to people and removing their voices from the crises they are experiencing, we are furthering the control of Western politics and economics over non-Western peoples. The nature of these commodifying organizations does not allow for the necessary public critical reflections because “references to political-economic factors would highlight the incongruity of hyperconsumption” with the world problems they aim to combat (Bell, 2011, p.177). As long as the American movement for African aid is typified by graphic, silencing media re-presentations and organized humanitarian commodifiers, there will always be, if not genuine need, an illusion of insatiable need.


The fundamentally flawed nature of the current American movement for African aid can only start to be remedied with more careful attention to our photojournalistic coverage of crises and responding humanitarian organizations. A fundamental way for an aid movement to restore voice and begin to end commodification is through more socially responsible photojournalism. Economic and political forces will always dictate the media’s photojournalistic agenda, but this does not necessitate an abandonment of ethical accountability. The bounds of this paper do not allow for an explication of a fully reformed photojournalistic American movement for African aid, but it will have hopefully provoked more reflection on our current practices and potential for future directions, where photos can be framed to reflect voice and the multifaceted nature of reality.

Unfortunately this reform of this nature has to not only overcome political and economic factors, but also blatant disregard by those who front humanitarian causes. Those behind the organized commodification are aware of the lack of African voice, yet they do nothing about it, or even worse, they continue to call for the American consumer’s voice. Bono has stated “I represent a lot of people who have no voice at all…they haven’t asked me to represent them. It’s clearly cheeky but I hope they’re glad I do,” (Richey & Ponte, 2008, p.721). While it is undeniable that celebrities like Bono have done some good for African aid, such as helping thousands receive AIDS treatments (Product (RED) Impact, 2010), the face of the African aid movement needs to neither be a rich, celebrity white male nor an abandoned, objectified, starving child.

Another hindrance to reform is that the photojournalistic practices that have been outlined and consumer driven aid organizations are becoming an increasingly dominant voice in the American movement for African aid. As of 2004, America is if not the biggest, then one of the biggest buyers of photography on the global image market (Clark, 2004, p.697). Because of this immense presence, photographers look to the US media, and their economic and political agenda, for cues about what to produce (Clark, 2004). Until the U.S. market begins to reject the iconic starving baby photos, photographers will continue to seek it out, as opposed to seeking a realistic and holistic reflection of crises.


Abdi, M., Abdi Warsameh, F., Delay, J., Faruk, O., Karumba, T., Moore, J., Mukoya, T., Omar, F., Orsal, O., Scarff, O., Schmidt, R., Senosi, K., Taxta, I., & van Zuydam, S. (2011). Deepening Humanitarian Crisis in Somalia (individual photos untitled). Retrieved November 5, 2011 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/deepening-humanitarian-crisis-in-somalia/2011/07/13/gIQAASuSCI_gallery.html

Abdi Warsameh, F., Bashi, A., Mukoya, T., Omar, F., Senosi, K., & van Zuydam, S. (Photographers). (2011). Somalia famine: East Africa’s drought is battering Somali children, with undreds left for dead on the journey to the world’s largest refugee camp (individual photos untitled). Retrieved August 8, 2011 from http://news.yahoo.com/photos/somali-children-struggle-to-survive-1310660287-slideshow/severely-malnourished-child-southern-somalia-being-held-makeshift-photo-130855913.html

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Clark, D. J. (2004). The production of a contemporary famine image: The image economy, indigenous photographers and the case of Mekanic Philipos. Journal of International Development, 16, 693-704.

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Moeller, S. D. (1999). Images and compassion fatigue. In Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death (pp. 33-53). New York: Routledge.

Moyo, D. (2009). Dead Aid: Why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.

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ONE Website (2011). Policy brief: The crisis in the Horn of Africa. Retrieved from www.one.org

Ponte, S., Richey, L. A., & Baab, M. (2009). Bono's Product (RED) Initiative: corporate social responsibility that solves the problems of 'distant others'. Third World Quarterly, 30(2), 301-317.

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Richey, L. A., & Ponte, S. (2008). Better (RED)TM than dead? Celebrities, consumption and international aid. Third World Quarterly, 29(4), 711-729.

Richey, L. A., & Ponte, S. (2011). Brand Aid: Shopping well to save the world. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

TheONECampaign. (2011). The F Word: Famine is the Real Obscenity (US). Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzcRSr6PW_o&feature=player_embedded


1 ‘Iconic’ is used here to mean widely recognized representations that have been perpetually recreated by the media. This differs from Lucaites and Hariman’s more narrowly defined ‘iconic photographs,’ which are singular entities like the “Migrant Mother,” flag raising on Iwo Jima, and Challenger explosion (Lucaites and Hariman, 2001, p.37). While there is one flag raising on Iwo Jima photograph that all re-presentations refer back to, there is no singular starving African child photograph that all subsequent photos are re-presentations of (despite the particular prominence of a few, such as that of Mekanic Philipos (see Clark, 2004)). Alternatively, all the starving child photographs are representative of a familiar theme that has been perpetuated to the status of iconicity.

2 Ban Ki-moon took office in 2007 as Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) and has prioritized numerous African issues for UN action (http://www.un.org/sg/biography.shtml).

3 For example, the Washington Post and Yahoo! News each showed slideshows of at least 100 photos, while other online media sources like the Los Angeles Times published slideshows of less than 10 images (see http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-africa-famine-pictures,0,3747577.photogallery).

4 American international aid can be teased apart into three categories: (1) systematic aid, or aid given directly to other governments from the American government or global institutions like the World Bank; (2) charity-based aid, or aid that flows from organizations to ‘the people;’ and (3) humanitarian aid, which can be either systematic or charity-based, but is in response to a particular emergency situation (Moyo, 2009, p.7).

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