The ethics of aesthetics. Exercise #1

Read the booklet ‘Imaging Famine’
Core resources : imagingFamine.pdf

Do some research across printed and on-line media and find examples that either illustrate or challenge the issues highlighted in the document.

The press coverage during the 1980’s of the Ethiopian famine disaster became a turning point for how aid agencies perceived images of human catastrophes. The consequences of how the crisis was perceived in Europe via such imagery was investigated by a United Nations organisation and as a result new codes of practice were put into place for the use of NGO’s imagery.

Twenty years after the Ethiopian images that shook the world leading the to Band / Live Aid movements the capacity and objective of such images were re-evaluated , what has changed ? Imaging Famine , a research project that investigated the representation of famine by the media , launched with an exhibition held at the Guardian and Observer archive in 2005.

Issues raised.

Charity appeals , whilst they are initially successful to help raise funds , do they stereotype the victims culturally and racially ? In the short term they evoke an immediate response but what of the long term consequences ?

Can a single distressing image represent an entire continent?
The Band/Live aid appeal whilst highlighting the famine and raising funds has also diminished the African continent and it’s heterogenous population to a single destitute place in many peoples’ minds.

Negative and positive images.
Are images of suffering necessary and can they be justified?
There is always a danger of ‘compassion fatigue’ , yet this needs to be balanced against the need for immediate action and aid. Positive images can be used to show how funds raised have helped alleviate suffering , which is surely the long term goal of aid agencies.

Use of text / title etc.
An image without text is described in the booklet as ‘arguably purely aesthetic (like a family portrait ) , shot of clear meaning and not photo-journalism at all’ (p.g 10) .
Who writes the text , often not the photographer , what information is being conveyed ? Text can be used to alter meaning and context.

Who chooses the image and whose agenda is being met ?

How to photograph death and whose ?
Whilst victims of smaller scale catastrophes but with whom we can identify are considered newsworthy death and disaster in distant foreign places only become newsworthy if they occur on a large scale , with mass casualties.

Men and women famine victims are frequently depicted differently
Women and children are regularly photographed as subjects of famine .
Are these images any different from earlier historical images taken by missionaries ?
Famine victims are photographed in a customary style , regardless of context or a different era.

Sir Bob Geldof believes that rather than evoking a feeling of sympathy or of ‘compassion fatigue’ such images evoke outrage.But can a photograph influence and change ? Can public reaction force political change ? Despite the short term achievements long term policies remain unsettled.

Celebrities , why are they used by the media ? Do they perhaps trivialise the crisis ? Celebrities have a lot to gain , publicity wise , by their association with ‘fashionable’ causes . The link here is to a Guardian article discussing celebrity philanthropists.

Does the length of time a photographer spends in a disaster /famine area impinge on the quality or produce a better image ? Also if indigenous photographers are involved in reporting will they maintain their freedom to report or will they be required to produced images biased towards a European audience ?

What is the impact of new technology and digital techniques ?Complex situations are being documented in minutes not months.The photo-essay is reduced to a single image.Are such images capable of conveying the context ? Can the cause be represented in a single photograph? Still or moving images which do an audience recall ?

The use of Christian iconography in the composition.Has the photographer simply recorded what is in front of him or used ‘artistic traditions’ to try and make a more potent image?

Should photographers be observers or should they actively intervene?
This is an interesting link here, photographers discuss their experiences of witnessing events they recorded but did not step in.

Without an image as authentication aid was not forthcoming for the victims of the Chinese famine between 1959 -61. Images were taken by Chinese photographers but, for various reasons , never published. Despite news coverage the text alone failed to elicit the response made to Mohamed Amin’s Ethiopian imagery.

I started to look for examples (see references below) that demonstrate or question the issues raised but after 30 minutes of looking at what were (to me) distressing images stopped my search until the following day. However I have found examples of more positive images but just seem to come across far more stereotypical examples of famine. This concerns me , it’s not that I don’t care but that I can only look at so much suffering before I need to look away , to try and forget. If I feel like this then so must a great proportion of the intended audience for images of famine. I understand why these sort of images are circulated , they guarantee a rapid and immediate response , but it also helps me understand a lot more the term ‘image fatigue’.

Rankin is a portrait and celebrity photographer and his collaboration with Oxfam is an example of how agencies are attempting to use more subtle and aesthetically pleasing imagery. Rankin discusses his involvement here. I like his images very much and feel they still manage to convey the message of how important aid is without reducing the subjects to objects of pity, they retain their dignity. Yet Alejandro Chaskielberg’s images for Oxfam see here, whilst being stunning to view , are perhaps too artistic to actually communicate the same message.

References / Bibliography

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2 thoughts on “The ethics of aesthetics. Exercise #1

  1. Catherine

    I share your feelings regarding needing a break from such images – Sontag comes to mind. Have you seen the recent WeAreOCa post as well on advertisements. I think it’s very relevant in terms of how Charities and others are changing the way they bring these issues to our attention.


    1. Judy Bach Post author

      Hi Catherine, I haven’t seen the post I shall have a look , thanks . I have just bought Regarding the Pain of Others , I think it will be an interesting read .



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