On NGO Photography

Historically the photographic image has long served as a means to describe and understand the world.

In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag (1977) suggests that, “In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at, and what we have a right to observe”John Berger (1991) in About Looking notes that in the 20th century, photography was thought to offer “direct access to the real”.
Despite an ever increasing flood of images, and an increasing awareness and cynicism about what is presented to viewers as “reality” in various media, Berger’s notion is arguable still true today.Humanitarian documentary photography especially, has traditionally been closely aligned with journalistic work ethics – that is on attempting to finding and describing truths and realities.

My good friend and fellow documentary photographer Michael Coyne (2008) touches on this notion when he emphasises the “high expectation and demand that the content of photojournalism will be accurate, that it will reflect reality or actuality without distortion”. However, it should be obvious that photography is quite limited in the creation of “pure evidence”. The photographer’s own worldview, understanding, knowledge, objective and creative vision - as well as organisation’s objectives - come to bear on the process of image making. Thus, when photographing, the image is always chosen by someone i.e.: the photographer. The photographer selects a frame - and to frame is to exclude.
With this in mind - and in light of the Australian Council of International Development (ACFID) code of conduct - I’ve recently looked deeply at Australian NGO images representing African Famine Emergencies and Food Crises. It should be pointed out that most of the images analysed are also clearly marketing and fundraising publications - or sometimes critiques as “aid advertising” - and thus their function is not purely that of documenting realities, but that of advertising in the broadest sense.
Alas, herein lies the great dilemma of many NGO image publications. Their overlap of objectives (to uphold the notion of creation of realities, and to raise donations) creates tensions when it comes to representation of realities.For a fundraising appeal to compel readers enough to donate to a good cause, is to engage them emotionally, narrating stories of need, aid and successes by means of imagery and context, in new and increasingly compelling ways.

It has been shown that “within organisations, the most salient divide is between development practitioners and fundraisers” (Kennedy, 2007 cited in DEEEP, 2011 p. 20).

Ruth Gidley (2004) describes this conflict, saying “whenever a sudden disaster strikes, aid agencies face a quandary - how to tug at donors’ heartstrings with powerful images, without breaking self-imposed rules about portraying survivors with dignity” (Gidley, 2004) – or to avoid images and messages that potentially stereotype, sensationalise or discriminate against people, situations or places.

It’s with this (rough summary of some thought on NGO photography, that I’ll move into some actual examples and research findings next.

Up Next: Understand the most dominant way, in which Australian NGOs represent African Famine and Food CrisesPreviously: 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 fair dealing provision of the Copyright Act (1968).

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