“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills” are the famous opening lines of Karen Blixen’s “Out of Africa”. And these words seem to encapsulate, to some degree, the framework of today’s NGO representations of Africa famine and food crises publications.Africa: Timeless, Rural and Natural?
In the appeals and fundraising pieces Australian INGOs have published on African famine and food crises since 2000, the dominant overarching representational framework for images is, what I call, “Agriculture and Rurality”.
Images show an unified African landscape and are dominated by dry land, lack of water and struggling crops throughout. These connote a sense of impending death and lifelessness. This sense of lifelessness is often heightened by the absence of humans or living animals in many images. When people are shown, distance from civilisation is amplified by natural and earthen colours - increasing a sense of ‘the natural’ and people depicted as lone survivors in harsh rural environments.
Overall, the vast majority, if not all, images (analysed in this study*)place African people experiencing famine and hunger within an homogenous, natural, rural African environment.
To state the obvious, the specific focus on hunger crises and famine to some degree warrants such images. Food is, after all, an agricultural product, and of course populations affected most by famine are typically rural communities and farms, rather than people living in main cities and urban center.
People escaping hunger and famine often do so with the little they have and make their way through harsh desert areas, as was evident during the 2011/12 Horn of Africa food crisis that saw refugees from Somalia reach Dadaab in Kenya. So, those that escape famine areas are often the most vulnerable and at risk of starvation.
However, what is problematic about this representational approach is not so much what shown - but that which is omitted.
None of the images I investigated, show signs of what would signify any “modernity”, progress or development.
For example, there are no depictions of any infrastructure or houses (other than huts or tents), roads, or motor vehicles, electric wires or shops. There are also no images of any technology, or of people using radios, phones, computers or even medical equipment where that might be expected.
And herein lies the criticism of this overarching representational frame of “Agriculture and Rurality”, which incorporates a purposeful avoidance of depictions of technology of any kind (which is also evident by photographers briefings, who are at times asked to not photograph mobile phones or other technology that may be seen by Western audiences as “technologically advanced”).
Critiques have long argued that nature is used as an “ideological category to project a natural, rural, low-skilled, other-worldly sphere” (Mitchell, 1989), creating “geographic symbolism to connote a homogenously rural and inexplicably timeless Africa” (Dogra, 2012).
And this is not just true for the images. When it comes to captions or accompanying texts, with exceptions, messages are largely simplified, with only vague descriptions, that do not explaining often human-made causes and reasons of famine and drought. This too, remains an unchanged framework of representation.This framework positions Africa as a natural place lacking any urban or modern element and relates directly back to Rostow’s (1962) Stages of Development, placing Africa as a whole into the underdeveloped “traditional society” stage. Which for many countries and African places couldn’t be further from the truth.
It is problematic for NGOs to create a singular visual narrative of the African continent as a “homogenous rural entity” , leaving out the complexities of locations and populations, of production, and uses of technology and infrastructure.
Nuanced storytelling and documentary photography needs to address these issues – so that realities in African countries and people experiencing famine or food crisis, are layered with additional information and break the old cycle of representing Africa as an imagined homogenous entity.
Up Next: Women and Children (Part 3)
Previously: Thinking About NGO Photography (Part 1) & NGO Representation of the Other (Intro)———— Note ————*This series of articles is based on excerpts from my own Master thesis research ”A New Vision for Africa? An Examination of Representations of African Famine Emergencies and Food Crises by Australian International Non-Governmental Organisations”. The paper is copyright of the author. Any uses are governed by the fairdealing provision of the Copyright Act (1968).