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“Famine Porn” and the Marketing of Poverty

Yesterday was the latest in the Idea Exchange Series put on by St. Benedict’s Table and Aqua Books. This one was titled Images and the Selling of Charity: How the Need of the 2/3 World is Marketed to the Rest of Us with John Longhurst, Director of Communications and Marketing at Canadian Mennonite University.

[John Longhurst] has 25 years experience in communications with non-profit organizations. He has worked as Associate Editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald; directed communications for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Canada and Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA); and as founder and editor of the Dallas (Texas) Peace Times. John is author of the book Making the News: An Essential Guide to Effective Media Relations (Novalis, 2006). Making the News: An Essential Guide for Effective Media Relations He regularly conducts workshops on media relations for non-profit groups. In 1998 he helped organize Canada’s first national conference on how the media covers faith, and helped found Canada’s Centre for Faith and the Media. John is a Faith Page columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press, ChristianWeek (Manitoba) and the Mennonite Weekly Review, and also writes regularly for various church-related publications.

The plan was for him to facilitate

a conversation around how issues of global need and poverty are marketed to the affluent West. In particular, the issue of the use of images and photographs to motivate people to donate becomes an interesting one, particularly if you have the sense that maybe the subjects in the photographs are now being treated as “objects;” in one of his more biting moments, John referred to this as “famine-porn.”

With that setting the stage, the group had a few people along for the ride to take part in the discussion. These included Steve Bell, recently returned from Ethiopia on behalf of the Canadian Food Grains Bank (documentary to follow), Erick Paye (who spent a few weeks in India recently to try and learn practically about photographing with dignity), and Bram Ryan, who has traveled and worked extensively in situations of crisis. By show of hands, a good number of the people attending the discussion had also either worked with other relief agencies or had traveled abroad, including areas of the 2/3 world.

Fitting right into our recent discussion of Hotel Rwanda, these themes are on my mind a fair bit… not wanting to forget. I did manage to pick up a used copy of Shake Hands with the Devil, and I’ve got a hold at the library on Paul Rusesabagina’s autobiography, An Ordinary Man. I suspect it will take me a while to work through the material, as it’s not easy to gloss over, and I’m working myself up to it. In the preface to his book, Dallaire wrote,

In just one hundred days over 800,000 innocent Rwandan men, women and children were brutally murdered while the developed world, impassive and apparently unperturbed, sat back and watched the unfolding apocalypse or simply changed channels. Almost fifty years to the day that my father and father-in-law helped to liberate Europe—when the extermination camps were uncovered and when, in one voice, humanity said, “Never again”—we once again sat back and permitted this unspeakable horror to occur. We could not find the political will nor the resources to stop it.

The genocide in Rwanda was a failure of humanity that could easily happen again.

Since then, much has been written, discussed, debated, argued and filmed on the subject of Rwanda, yet it is my feeling that this recent catastrophe is being forgotten and its lessons submerged in ignorance and apathy. The genocide in Rwanda was a failure of humanity that could easily happen again.

After one of my many presentations following my return from Rwanda, a Canadian Forces padre asked me how, after all I had seen and experienced, I could still believe in God. I answered that I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists, and therefore I know there is a God. Peux ce que veux. Allons-y

This is the quote that made me want to read the book when I first saw it a couple of years ago. In the midst of the absolute worst portrayal of humanity that we can imagine, there’s the faintest glimmer of hope, a single thread: God exists. Still, the depths of depravity, despair, and helplessness are far too evident, making one wonder how to find the thread of hope. And when I say “depravity” in this context, there’s an open question to whom it would best refer… the racial hate of the murderers with guns and sticks and knives, or the passive indifference of the West with remote controls and soccer games and shopping malls. A young child’s yearning for something they can’t have is often “handled” with the strategy, “out of sight, out of mind.” Are we so different with the things we yearn not to face?

The timing of this whole subject for me is somewhat… disturbing. Yesterday while doing my blog-surfing, I happened to find Kiva Chronicles, a blog about microfinance connected to a program of “social entrepreneurs,” a phrase I find exceptionally intriguing. This was just after I found a Scientific American article by Jeffry Sachs, “Rapid Victories Against Extreme Poverty.” But we’ll come back to this.

John Longhurst gave an excellent though-provoking presentation of about 30 minutes to kick off the conversation. He talked about a photo of “Homeless Hank” that seemed to capture people’s imaginations when it came out in the paper as part of a fundraising campaign… though some of the sentiment turned when it was revealed that the image was a stock photo, actually used by several aid agencies in their fundraising efforts. The subject — or should I say “moral question” — of photographing people’s misery, of taking people’s photograph was put forth, along with the observation that it isn’t just the picture that’s taken… along with it goes the person’s dignity, self-respect, the right to tell one’s own story, and the basic ability to determine how and where their photo would be taken.

In 1994, photographer and journalist Kevin Carter was awarded a Pulizter Prize for an image of a vulture in Sudan, waiting for a child to die. The image is shocking and abhorrent. And prizewinning. Nobody knows what happened to the child, including the photographer. But three months later, Kevin Carter committed suicide under an extreme depression.

Little wonder.

The photograph is haunting enough… to have seen it first-hand is evidently disturbing enough to make the trip back to (or away from?) reality is, evidently, exceptionally difficult. Is it more obscene that the photo was widely circulated and awarded one of the highest prizes it could receive… or that as graphic as it is, it still did not have the effect of drawing the aid required?

We look at the photo, and we think about Rwanda, or about World War II, and we say “Never again.” And we mean it, too… we’ll make some effort to remember. For a little while, anyway. Sadly, it’s the present we don’t do so well with. It’s relatively easy to say “Never again” after it’s all over… the far more difficult words are, “Not this time.” Who’s saying those words? The far more difficult words are, “Not this time.”

After John concluded his initial remarks, the discussion remained both thoughtful and insightful. From someone who was on the ground there, we heard about the food crisis in Zambia in 2003 when several networks and news outlets all killed the story because the people “didn’t look hungry enough.” And we heard about how beautiful a country Ethiopia is… but that’s not the story or the pictures that one is supposed to bring home. There’s an expectation that a certain kind of image and story will come back, the kind that will help generate donations. It frankly takes a more sophisticated audience to solicit donations without the graphic famine porn. Since Longhurst coined the phrase “famine pornography,” (go on, Google it) an increased awareness and desire to correct has begun, and some agencies have set specific policies against it. Good on them: it’s actually a form of exploitation that allows the storyteller to craft the story with the words and photos any way he wants. To do so for one’s own purpose and ends is dehumanizing to the people who don’t get to tell their own story… which is itself a very humanizing process.

The truth is that in these areas where relief effort is needed in a dire way, people will smile and laugh. They have cities with cars and buses and office buildings. They have beautiful landscapes. Yes, they’re still hungry, they still need clean water. But they’re people. Like us.

The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time As I pondered this last night, I began to wonder about the drive now to end extreme poverty, to make poverty history. The fight had some good ground in gaining awareness through the One Campaign, and continues now, though I wonder if mindshare is slipping away again. We know how to end it, but we don’t have the will. The concept of microfinance is worthy of a Nobel Prize, but for many people, the idea seems positively daft.

“What would they do with money, anyway?”

The question in my mind is whether we’re undermining our own efforts. Through years of portraying Africa in particular as a continent of people living in hovels (or less) amid scorched fields and parched lands, after outlining the extreme difficulty in the fight against AIDS, after showing endless images people who apparently can’t fend for themselves and must be handed food and water directly or they’ll starve, with stories of genocide and corruption “over there” lingering in the backs of our minds, we look at our own bootstrapping culture, and we evaluate the seemingly absurd idea that we should lend some of these people a few dollars to run a small business, and we don’t even have a framework for ourselves to consider the idea of forgiving the debt of their nation. The unspoken question lingers in the back of our mind, “What would they do with money, anyway?” The view from our ivory tower suggests to us they would waste it, that they couldn’t handle it, that we would be wasting our money to give it to them. It isn’t reality. The truth is that the developing world is developing, and while the need for food aid and other very basic forms of assistance persist, the images we carry of Africa as a whole are no longer reality — if indeed they ever were, which is rather doubtful. AIDS is in decline in Uganda, though it’s debated as to why that’s so. Maybe we should have the whole story… but can we be trusted with it, or will we only choose to remember the parts that we can use to excuse ourselves?

I’ve never been to Africa, but almost 20 years ago now, in 1987, I was in southeast Asia. The economic station is not consistent there, and one day I found myself standing in a one-room shanty home with a dirt floor. That same day in that area, we found a bunch of kids running and playing in the street, and we gathered them together and talked to them, holding an impromptu evangelistic mini-meeting… we were just barely able to make a dent in the need during the time we were there. Less, really. But I snapped a photo, which a friend I was with on the trip evaluated and named the girl in the middle “Jamie.” Not “famine porn” or “poverty postcards,” but an image of people, of children. They could be anywhere… but they’re not just anywhere to me. The black-and-white image, titled “Jamie” is now framed and hanging in my home.

Photo: Jamie

Normally I just walk past it, forgetting it’s there, forgetting to stop and look… but every once in a while, I pause. It’s important to remember, and to remind one another when we’re in danger of forgetting. I’m glad to note that the session was recorded for podcasting. I’m not sure how long before it’s edited and ready for download, but I’ll try to mention it when I become aware that it’s available.

In the meantime, I’ve got lots to ponder on my plate… Does our marketing of relief needs undermine our own efforts, either through gratuitous nature of some of the graphic depictions, or by telling a story that isn’t true, one designed for a certain response? Is that response the best one? Do we need to reeducate ourselves about what Africa really needs? And what of our treatment of these people, the ones unable to tell their own story for themselves? How do we humanize them — or do they need it? I’ve said enough, what do you think?

6 Responses to ““Famine Porn” and the Marketing of Poverty”

  1. robbymac Says:

    Wendy, as a professional photographer, was often asked to take pictures of the street people and glue-sniffers (mostly but not all First Nations people) in the Winnipeg’s North End to “promote” certain causes, but she always refused to do it.

    Wendy always refused because it felt exploitive to her, and as someone who had grown up in and near Pinaymootang First Nation, she felt that the street people had been used and abused enough already, and she refused to add to it by taking nameless pictures to promote causes or “ministries” that didn’t seem to value the individuals in those (proposed) pictures.

  2. A.B. dada Says:

    It intrigues me that so many of my Christian brethren are giving to charity (microloans, too) when they can’t actively serve God as long as they themselves are in debt. Christ Himself explained that you can’t serve two Kings — how can you call yourself a Christian if you have debt to others? There is no ability to serve debt and God.

    On the other hand, we have Christians who utilize their government to try to “fix” foreign poverty. Government is predicated on stealing from the masses, through taaxes, to finance other regimes that may or may not really care about their own citizens. Christ never said to tax others to pay for the poor, He said YOU DO IT YOURSELF. Don’t give to charities and groups and governments when there is poverty in your community. First, pay your debts fully before trying to serve God. Second, work hard in your real job so that you have excess mortal treasure to share with those local to you who don’t. When your community is free of debt and poverty, THEN go to the next one over.

    The U.S. is on the verge of bankruptcy, and it is the very people who call themselves Christians who are a big part of the problem. Nice big homes, owned by the bank. Nice big cars, owned by the bank. Nice clothes and TVs, owned by the bank. How about getting the bank out of your life, so Christ can fulfill what He intends for you?

  3. len Says:

    This rabbit hole is deeper than most of us even want to know. The story of water in Africa is one I have been considering blogging about, because it parallels the larger story of aid and development work. The money spent on sand filters is enormous.. and mostly wasted for a variety of reasons. Waste. .and reasons that we hear very little about. A new technology is now in the offing, one that is simpler, can be easily taught and “owned” by locals in terms of maintenance.. but the institutional resistance among groups currently selling sand filters.. and marketing them to western donoes.. is considerable. With 22 million children a yhear dying because of dirty water, the stakes are high.

  4. Brother Maynard Says:

    Rob: excellent, right on point. It was noted that during a trip to these areas, the urge to snap photographs wanes, and one arrives home with most of the pics being from the beginning of the trip. It just starts to feel obscene after a while. Steve Bell has some good pix on his blog though.

    Len: interesting, would be worth hearing more. I tend to not fault the doing of things inefficiently, as it’s still progress… at the same time, efficiency is of course better.

    A.B.: for the most part, I couldn’t disagree more. I’m not going to go off on the phrase “real job,” though I’d like to… but for the rest of it, I’ve seen this logic used far too much in an attempt to completely stifle foreign aid or helping anyone who’s not an annoyance on our literal doorstep. This is not the way Jesus intended the message, but it’s used to promote the paying off of the mortgage and the second car before bothering to help the poor. Or should I say, the poor that survive long enough for us to finish paying for our lavish lifestyle… which we never do, because the free cash gets consumed. People who carry this message never seem to preach “Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor.” Jesus said that too, but it’s convenient to forget that part… though it’ll get the bank out of your life much faster, if that’s the excuse not to share with the poor. In my mind, the gospel of bootstrap theology is not the gospel of Christ. Not at all.

  5. NextReformation » poverty pornography Says:

    [...] Brother Maynard had a lengthy post on the subject a few days back and I was too busy to post a link. Check out the discussion HERE.    [...]

  6. The problem with regarding the photography of suffering as ‘pornography’ | David Campbell Says:

    [...] of atrocity and suffering, the charge of pornography abounds (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). # What does it mean to use this term so frequently in relation to so many different [...]

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