How Photographs Make Darfur Mean Something
The relationship between photographs and text in the construction of political understanding is often complex and frequently unclear. Although news photographs regularly present themselves as windows illustrating the world, the articles, captions and headlines with which they are associated can bind them into meanings at odds with both their pictorial content and the accompanying textual themes.
Odd conjunctions of this sort are common in the visualization of Darfur. Back in March 2009, when the liberal UK newspaper The Guardian wanted an image to accompany the story of the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against President Omar al-Bashir, a photograph by French photojournalist Frederic Noy was chosen. Showing a distressed baby boy (identified in the caption as malnourished) being vaccinated by partially obscured adults, it was taken at Koubigou refugee camp in eastern Chad. Noy would have had no control over the use of his image by a British newspaper, but the newspaper’s choice of this picture says much about how “˜Darfur’ has been made visually available to us.
As my earlier research on this topic has demonstrated (see my “Geopolitics and Visuality: Sighting the Darfur Conflict ,”) photojournalism visually enacts the field it claims merely to document. In the case of Darfur, that visual performance has drawn on the established iconography of disaster in “˜Africa’ in which the political is rendered in terms of the humanitarian, and the humanitarian is signified by the bodies and faces of refugees.
Indeed, the vast majority of Darfur photographs have come not from the province but the camps in Chad, a product of the way photojournalists rely on international aid organizations to provide access to the edges of the conflict zone. My review of all the pictures used by The Guardian and The Observer in their coverage of Darfur from 2003 to 2005 showed that 43 of the 48 published photographs foregrounded individuals as symbols of the conflict, with two-thirds of these pictures focusing on refugees. And as Lynsey Addario’s March 2009 visual essay of the Otash camp in southern Darfur demonstrates (these being the most recent set of photographs used by the New York Times) the emphasis on the face of the individual remains the most common pictorial form for a political story, even one about the Sudanese government’s expulsion of humanitarian organizations from Darfur.
In fixing meaning, either photographs or text can have the upper hand, depending on their particular context. As Alex de Waal demonstrated in his review of the Darfur essay in David Elliot Cohen’s What Matters, the ambiguities of Marcus Bleasdale’s photographs were expunged by the force of the accompanying text written by Samantha Power and John Prendergast, which ensured the reading of the conflict as genocidal prevailed. However, in the case of the news photographs of Darfur circulating in European and North America, I would argue that the pictures have trumped the words. By constantly reproducing the stereotypes of the refugee as passive victim, these images have made a humanitarian account of the conflict dominant over all others. In turn, these photographs have distilled identities to a fixed essence such that the conflict can be easily mapped in terms of a tribal or genocidal war that pits “Arab” against “African”.
Regardless of whether photographs or text are triumphant in directing the political meaning of a conflict like Darfur, what is missing from both is an appreciation for the wider context, abundant complexities, and many contingencies through which the fate of millions is determined. Although no single media holds the answer, the challenge for visual journalists is to find new ways to tell the story of Darfur so that this lack of certainty can be cogently represented.
I remember a Sudanese friend of mine telling me the story of Kevin Carter, the South African photographer who won the Pullitzer Prize for a photograph of a starving Sudanese baby and a vulture. Apparently when the photograph was published, readers asked whether he had helped the baby. He had not. He had just walked away.
The idea that “witnessing” suffering is a form of activism in itself is totally misleading. It simplifies suffering and obscures the meatier reasons behind conflict. Very good post….
But what kind of images can the news agencies use for these things?
Thank you, a very interesting post.
I also wonder if the relationship between pictures and words is changed by new ways of telling stories online? Richer multi-media packages create very exciting possibilities for different ways to tell stories and add more context. But is there also a greater risk that the various parts of the story – or the gaps in the story – can amplify a particular meaning by association?
Journalists reach for some kind of objective truth but as soon as you have to decide what to leave out, you are making some kind of judgement about what is the most important part of the story. So while I also would urge photographers – and journalists working in all mediums – to find new ways to tell stories and to think about the message they are creating in its entirety, I’m not sure this objective window on the world has ever been possible in the purest sense.
Thanks to Laura and Kate for the comments.
The story of Kevin Carter and the ‘girl/vulture’ famine picture has itself become iconic in a particular visualization of Sudan. Carter had a troubled life, and was deeply affected by the negative public response to his photograph, and eventually committed suicide. The fact that the public responded, not with outrage at the conditions in the Sahel in the early 1990s, but with condemnation of the photographer as inhuman, is revealing. Too often photographs themselves rather than the issues they are connected to become the issue. Part of that is brought on by the photographic community’s idea that ‘witnessing’ is an indispensable activity, but it also represents a misdirection of the viewers concern.
Indeed, as Kate suggests, multimedia format for photographic story telling offer significantly improved ways of narrating events and distributing the account. I am especially interested in these, and have started producing work in this format (see http://www.david-campbell.org/multimedia/). Of course, as with any article, essay, or report, the production of such narratives involves in the inclusion of some elements and the exclusion of others. We cannot escape constructed-ness, and claims of objectivity have always been misguided in relation to photography.
This is an excellent post,I find it particularly interesting how the so called main stream media uses images to make their point. Publishing a picture of a baby clearly in distress is a less then subtle attempt to coerce the reader towards a particular view,but the reason why this message is conveyed through images and not words is because these papers want to preserve the pretence of impartiality. No person will process this picture for what it is an inoculation of a toddler naturally a person sees a suffering baby and will resent the person associated with that image,the case is made in the image not the article. Compare this to how the guardian would report on Iraq,the picture usually chosen to accompany these stories wont be an Iraqi child with three of his limbs missing,it would most likely be a picture of a British soldier confidently waveing cars past a check point,the choas and destruction in Iraq might be adequately portrayed but the Human suffering is never showen.
while the more right wing groups like Save Darfur who have long passed the realm of impartiality will combine pictures with words to make their point infact they will digitly add a streak of blood across a picture of a child just for good measure.
Objective and insightful .Another dimension is the selective nature of photographs. Nobody is interested in photos that show the reconstruction of Darfur.No desire to show the schools or the model villages rebuilt by Qatar or the hospital that relies on solar energy in South Darfur .No interest at all in the motorway linking the Capital to ElFashir in North Darfur; or the bridges that cut short by days travel inside Darfur.No western magazine is publishing photos of the thousands returning from Chad to Darfur.
Darfur rebels are now mainly in South Sudan where they are paid to fight(as Hide Johnson who was UN secretary generals representative in South Sudan has documented in her book).No photographs of the atrocities they allegedly carried out. They are also in Libya .No photographer was sent to trace them.
Professional photographers sell and those ready to pay and buy are not interested in a stable or peaceful record of Darfur.
Samantha Powers accepted the Henry Kissinger prize from Kissinger himself .The real face of liberal hypocrisy .
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