Science, Tech & Environment

Images of Famine in the Media

An image of an emaciated African child is one of the most persistent elements in the history of photography. On Tuesday, a new version of that image arrived on the cover of The New York Times print edition.

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In a way, even though the child is different from famine to famine, be it Ethiopia in 1984 or Somalia in 2011 and dozens more besides, the picture of the child is always the same.

"These people have no names, they have no identities," says Barbie Zelizer, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication in Philadelphia.

"And we don't know actually if the people we're looking at are dying if they're already dead by the time we look at their pictures."

Zelizer says the image of the child is a symbolic proxy for the larger story of famine, in this case the famine in Somalia. It's an image of what Zelizer calls 'possible death'.

The power of the image isn't really in what has happened, but in what will continue to happen as we look on.

And, says Zelizer, the fact that we're seeing these images now—the same images that have haunted the West for decades—means things have already gotten desperate in Somalia.

"What this tells us is that these are delayed, they're retrospective. They're giving us visual information about stories that we've already read about."

There have been news stories about the drought and security crisis in Somalia for some time.

And international aid agencies have been warning for months that drought, conflict and high food prices would likely generate a humanitarian crisis there. They use versions of the same image, too.

"Often images like these come to the forefront of public attention not only by journalists but also by non-journalists: through human rights organizers, through fundraisers, through celebrities, through relief workers who recognize that there is a need to push the visual dimension of these stories if there is going to be any kind of policy change" says Zelizer.

Indeed, images from news and aid organizations do have an impact on the willingness of governments to respond.

Philip Seib directs the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California.

He points out that it was TV reports from Ethiopia in 1984 that really got the relief effort going.

"Governments don't react sometimes until they feel they have to, and that requires some political pressure from below, which means news coverage needs to alert the public to provide that pressure."

And, however late it comes in the story, arguably no image produces more pressure—or more donations—than the one depicting a single emaciated African child. That's why we keep seeing instances of it in famine after famine.

"They are used precisely because they remain powerful. Whatever the problems with them, they remain powerful for the purpose of fundraising."

So said photographer and researcher David Campbell at a seminar on the imagery of famine in 2005.

In recent weeks Campbell has been arguing in discussions online that the powerful symbolism of the starved African child is a double-edged sword.

Looking at that picture alone, he says, Africa becomes a single entity, a single person even. It also becomes a child: the continent is infantilized.

Finally, Africa is reduced to the desperate and passive status of a victim. And while the image packs an enormous emotional punch, it blinds us to the structural issues that created the famine in the first place.

We don't see pictures of al-Shabab fighters blocking water or diverting food away from people. We don't see the difference between this famine and other famines.

We only see the final result.

And we need words — or more images -to fill in the gaps. Still, says Philip Seib at USC, that can only happen if the story has gained people's attention in the first place, and that's only getting harder.

"The biggest task is just getting through all the noise and letting people know what's going on" he says.

The image of the emaciated child does that, time after time.

We want to know your thoughts: Does the use of imagery depicting emaciated children in Africa help or hinder the communication of the serious issue of famine? Post your thoughts below:

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    Kenya famine Kakuma refugee camp (Photo: Zorah/Flickr)

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    Kenya famine Kakuma Refugee Camp (photo: Zorah/Flickr)