Notes on ‘Imaging Famine’
Reading this article reminded me of an earlier attempt by celebrity musicians to help in famine relief, the Concert for Bangladesh organised by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar in 1971. I no longer own the album but I do still have the inside booklet. I hadn’t looked at it for many years but dug it out to see how it represented the famine. A large, lavish, 64 page colour booklet containing many photographs of the stars who appeared at the concert. However the only image of the situation in Bangladesh is on the front cover; apart from a brief overview of the problem inside, there is no mention at all of the famine that the concert was organised to raise relief money for.
Of course it is likely that anyone buying the album would already be aware of the issue but it is by no means guaranteed. It must have been a deliberate decision by the booklet designers, Barry Feinstein and Tom Wilkes, to downplay the very situation that the concert and album were for. There is no information about the photograph, and the design and cropping means there is no context at all; it has little more meaning than a logo. This is in marked contrast to Band Aid and Live Aid where there was a concerted effort to ensure the viewer did not forget what it was all for.
As is mentioned in ‘Imaging Famine’, the rationale for using images of suffering is that if it raises more money for a relief cause then that alone is justification. The danger is that viewers become subject to compassion fatigue and stop paying attention. This is more likely to occur in news media when the intention is to describe a newsworthy event, which is much more likely to be some form of disaster than it is of day-to-day life. Newspapers and TV news will give far less attention to showing what ‘normal’ life is like in faraway countries.
New Internationalist magazine is an exception here in that providing information about normality in other (majority world) countries is why it exists at all. Photographs form a significant part of the publication, with stories that cover both major disruptive events and depictions of day to day life.
Athough the story here https://newint.org/columns/exposure/2016/05/01/jes-aznar-philippines-photography is about hunger, the photograph does not rely on a depiction of helpless victims but is more an image of self-reliance. The supporting text provides the context for the image.
The photograph here https://newint.org/columns/exposure/2015/12/01/karel-prinsloo is much quieter; essentially a photograph of nothing happening. Again the text provides context for the photograph, but as above also does not rely on the helpless victim trope. The vendor may not have much custom but he does at least still have an air of self-sufficiency.
Guardian (2005) ‘Imaging Famine’ At: http://www.imaging-famine.org/images/pdfs/famine_catalog.pdf