In 1984 BBC News aired a report into the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia as widespread famine engulfed the country. For the first time on such a scale, audiences in the UK and around the world sat on mass in their homes and watched as the brutal reality of poverty, of starvation, and of mass death was broadcast to their screens undoctored.
BBC reporter Michael Buerk described an almost “biblical” scene as he slowly walked among people who were starving to death and held a child in his arms as she faced her final hours on Earth. The report was unprecedented for its raw portrayal of reality. It fuelled an international wave of interest and generated an equally unprecedented aid response.
The following era saw a wave of international charities deploying similar means in their communications. Images of starving children filled our consciousness and quickly became the currency of communication for global poverty and humanitarian disaster. But this also opened up a wave a criticism of the perceived exploitation of poverty. Are these images really representative of the countries and the people that they depict, or do they deny those people the agency and variety that sits behind them? After all, reality is a spectrum upon which we all take our place and even under these horrific circumstances, Ethiopia is not a country defined by famine. Do these images say anything of the cause (and therefore the solution) to the situations that they portray, or do they simply show us the effect? Do they really evoke compassion and sympathy, or do they simply reinforce a hierarchy of life between the wealthy West and the poverty of the rest. Do those watching feel inspired to help, or powerless and dejected? Do we simply look away, unable or unwilling to process the magnitude of the horror in front of our eyes.
The result was a shift away from negative charity campaigns which used this so called ‘poverty porn’ to communicate the realities of suffering and towards more positive campaigns which used, for example, images of smiling families to represent the outcome of a successful development intervention. Follow any anti-poverty charity today and you are likely to be confronted with those smiling images. The lens has been turned from horror to happiness, and it feels good. Don’t give money to prevent horror; you should give money to spread happiness.
What these two approaches share – negative imagery and positive imagery – is an appeal to emotion. With negative images of starving children we are encouraged to feel anger, pity and even guilt. With positive images of happy, smiling people we are encouraged to feel hope and empathy. The distinction is a fundamental one. For all the valid criticisms of using negative images in humanitarian communications, there is one inconvenient truth. Whether poverty, famine, homelessness, pollution, conflict: these images show a problem which the world needs to solve. They are a small window to something that isn’t pretty but remains a reality for many people across the world. They depict something which demands our anger, our pity, our indignation, our guilt, and our action.
Positive images cannot be used to represent injustice. They remove the invitation for us to express anger – replacing this explicit emotion with a simplistic appeal to generic pre-conceived ideas of poverty. Our anger becomes a generic call upon accepted, universal conceptions of injustice, generated via a past era of negative imagery. Without some pre-existing understanding of the problems that exist in the developing world, positive imagery would become meaningless as the basis of an appeal. Rejecting negative imagery simply removes the foundational premise of any humanitarian call to action. Furthermore, in creating a false equality between donor and recipient, positive imagery also removes the feeling of guilt that follows the stark inequalities presented through the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty. We are therefore led away from an analysis of our own role in perpetuating global structures of poverty.
More recently these appeals to hope and positivity have moved into the realms of ‘hyper-reality’ (see The Ironic Spectator by Lilie Chouliaraki) where real people are removed altogether, replaced with animated scenes and generic appeals to humanitarianism such as Oxfam’s invitation for us to “Be Humankind”. Of course, this is a noble objective. We should all be humankind. But this completely overlooks the subtleties of reality, of cause and effect, of anger and hope. In doing so, it omits the important questions of who we are being humankind to, why they need us to be humankind, and how we can achieve that in reality. No longer is the emphasis on fixing a problem, now it is on making ourselves feel good.
Nowhere is this more acute than in the growing tendency towards consumerist humanitarianism. Buy an Innocent Smoothie and we’re told that 10% of the profit will go to charity. Buy one of 50 Cent’s ‘Street King’ energy shots and we’ll help him “feed a billion hungry people”. Buy a (RED) label t-shirt and we’ll help end AIDS. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these objectives, just as there’s nothing wrong with the redistribution of corporate wealth. But let’s be honest about the extent to which they are driven by true altruism, rather than an attempt to increase corporate profits by appealing to our narcissistic sense of self-importance. I’m all for giving money to charity, but shouldn’t we also have a discussion about who needs it, why they need it, how it can be used, and – perhaps most importantly – about the political and economic structures which perpetuate poverty and will continue to do so no matter how many smoothies we drink or t-shirts we wear.
The minefield of humanitarian communications is tale of imperfection. But at least those horrific images of people starving in Ethiopia are an imperfect glimpse at a section of reality that we need to change, rather than a self-indulgent and delusionary endorsement of our own perfection.