24 July 2008

Photographer Embedded With NGO Reproduces 1970s Famine Photos

I do not know photographer Nick Danziger or his work. Today in The Guardian you can find this slide show of his photographs - a set of images of the worsening "humanitarian" crisis in East Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Djibouti and Kenya). According to the introductory comments: "Photographer Nick Danziger shot these images for Oxfam." And they are being published to publicize a new fund-raising campaign for Oxfam.

Two things are striking about this project. The first is that these images, more or less, are conventional "famine" images - animal carcasses, desperate individuals traversing parched terrain, women and the elderly with protruding ribs cradling dehydrated, malnourished children, and so forth. This is 2008 and the photographic conventions to which the photo-essay in today's Guardian conforms were well worn in the 1970s. They have been subject to extensive critical discussion, including via this exhibition that, ironically enough, was co-sponsored by The Guardian a couple years back.

Second, there has been a lot of comment and hand-wringing about the way journalists and photographers have been "embedded" with military units in war zones. But, as I have noted here since the outset, embeddedness is in the eye of the beholder. Would Danziger have had access to the subjects of his photographs absent his connection to Oxfam? Are the images published by The Guardian stock scenes because they fit into the stock fund-raising strategies of humanitarian organizations like Oxfam? What might a talented photographer like Danziger have done absent such organizational imperatives? Would Oxfam have funded his project had he produced less conventional images? More generally need the photographic ecology that makes up much of popular culture - and to which the famine images peddled by Oxfam and others are significant contributors - be driven by crisis?

Let me be clear. I am not questioning Nick Danziger's intentions or character or his talent. Nor am I saying that Oxfam and other humanitarian organizations should turn their backs on starving people. (The problem here is political not ethical or humanitarian. But if you do not regularly support Oxfam or Médecins Sans Frontières or some other such outfit you should.) Nor am I calling into question the editorial judgment of those at The Guardian who linked to the Danziger/Oxfam slide show from page one of their e-edition. Nor, finally, am I launching some sort of po-mo complaint about how Danziger's photos injure their subjects over and above the dire existence they already endure (to say nothing about the related, resentful complaint that such images make "us" feel bad).

The question I want to re-pose, for others have posed it too, is whether there is not a better way to proceed. We here in the U.S. hear a lot these days about the "facts on the ground" in various theaters of war and how they ought to determine policy choices. Is there a way for NGOs, photographers and journalists, and mass media publications to address problems of severe poverty and deprivation in more effective ways? Are there alternatives to humanitarian appeals that might mobilize political support for less crisis-driven, more systematic responses to political-economic problems? These questions may seem stale. Nick Danziger's photographs in The Guardian today simply raise them again.

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Blogger Stan B. said...

You raise several good questions... Photographically, despite the advent of digital, there really is no "new" manner or style to photograph, document or portray famines or other natural catastrophes in print- other than perhaps in color, which has also been done to no great effect. And until there is the political will to address these emergencies worldwide, it's up to the hit and miss tactics of underfunded charities. Clearly if the latter wasn't the case, and governments would step up whenever such a crisis loomed, those same tired but updated images would not be so prevalent, or necessary.

24 July, 2008 14:55  

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