Hunger, poverty strips human dignity, photographs should not

Wednesday June 3 2020

Top view of a child hands holding three white beans.

Top view of a child hands holding three white beans. Why do international organisations use photographs that take away the dignity of the same people they claim to be helping?  FOTOSEARCH 

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Recently, my attention was drawn to a picture of an African child used by an inter-governmental organisation in its publication on Facebook. It was captioned, Urgent: The coronavirus emergency threatens the delivery of vital food assistance to nearly 100 million hungry people. Help us continue our life-saving work. Send life-saving food. Hungry children cannot wait.

The child in the picture was striking; First, because she or he didn’t look hungry in the usual stereotypical ribs-sticking-out-of-skin picture, beloved of such organisations when appealing for donations; Second, she or he had visible saliva drool.

As an adult, I wouldn’t show anyone a photograph of myself as a child drooling, let alone broadcast it to the whole world.

The conversations on the post’s timeline were enlightening.

Many questioned the motives of using such a picture as donor bait. Why do international organisations use photographs that take away the dignity of the same people they claim to be helping? The Covid-19 crisis has brought hunger, however, people still need to be represented in respectful images, despite their desperation.

What is the link between the child in the photograph to coronavirus and the help the organisation is seeking?


The conversation on the comments section then turned to the huge salaries that international organisations get from fundraising through the usage of such photographs. Why, it was asked, since they were so kind and generous, didn’t they get paid on the same scale as nurses and teachers?

Soon, a crescendo of demands to report the post grew.

Unlike the lurid, agonising and heart wrenching photographs of African Ebola victims, the dignity, through photography, given to the Covid-19 sick and dead in Europe and the US is commendable.

Did we hope too early, that Coronavirus would change the world, to be kinder, particularly towards those in the global south photographed when sick, dying or for purposes of raising funds?

When did the use of images of poor children from the global south become acceptable for fundraising? Photographs of global south adults are used in the same way too.

International organisations that deal with violence in communities, splash their websites with pictures of people, usually brown or black, holding guns or crude weapons.

Gun Violence Archive, an organisation tracking down mass shootings, reported of there being more mass shootings in the US in 2019 than there were days in the year, laying out details of 417 mass shootings, with 31 being mass murders.

Twenty ceasefires have been broken since the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution began. In Memorial Book to the Fallen, Shapovalenko, Vorokh and Hirchenko write that Ukrainian government forces have lost 4,428 service men with overall deaths being more than ten thousand.

American mass shooters or Ukrainian fighters do not headline the appeals of international organisations seeking donor aid as they do not fit the profile of photographs donors are conditioned to seeing, of the archetypal image of the global south needing help from the global north.

It is true that extreme poverty and violence are a reality in Africa, but so is in many areas of the US and Europe too.

Why is it taken for granted that photographs of global south people can be used to show them at their most vulnerable? Shared to the world for posterity, these photographs strip them of any shred of dignity they may have.

The overall effect is that those from the global south developing an inferiority complex based on their persistent portrayal as being dependent on Western ‘’saviors.’’ On the flip side, donors see themselves as Western ‘’saviors’’ of the global south poor and violent.

In 1981, Jorgen Lissner criticised these kinds of photographs, calling them poverty porn. Matt Collin defined poverty porn in 2009 as ‘’any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.”

Photographs such as that of the child drooling call into question the oversimplification of poverty, without dealing with the cause, which is the need for structural change.

Coronavirus offers an opportunity to do things differently. The African continent must redouble efforts to be self-sufficient and provide its basic needs.

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides [email protected]