Not surprisingly the “suffering child image” is still as powerful today as it was in 2000, or in 1980 for that matter.
Children are often the weakest and most vulnerable when it comes to emergencies and disasters. And all children should be protected from harm of any kind. This is especially true in crisis and hunger. No surprises then that single images of children feature dominantly in NGO publications.
In publications on hunger, famine and food crises depictions of individual suffering children in isolated settings are very frequent, and most suffering-child-images are close-up portraits with direct eye contact, predominantly in rural and agricultural settings as symbolised by wooden sticks, sandy backgrounds, sheepskins and other “rural elements”.
However, in doing so images of isolated single-children are used as symbolic representation of starving children in general. Images often function as a kind of “emotional-space-filler” in publications, e.g.: when a sad looking child is placed strategically close to a donation form. With most of these single-child images there is mostly none, or only very little, context given.
Organisations also have a tendency to use these symbolic single-child images and frame them by means of caption texts and headlines, to fit the donation appeals and general gist of stories they want told, without paying an lot of attention to stories and situations. By omitting the context NGOs are not actually describing realities for individuals, but rather simply paint broad-brush scenarios of imaginations of what it “looks like” to experience hunger crisis and famine.
This reduces suffering children experiencing hunger to mere symbols of famine and crisis. Such representation are risking INGOs reputations as ethical storytellers. After all we are expected to represent people in ways that are dignified, empowering and truthful (see ACFID Code 2002, 2010, 2012) - especially when it comes to representing the most vulnerable children in crisis.
Across the last 13 years of famine and hunger images published by Australian NGOs, no noteworthy change could be identified in the theme of these single-child images. Their representation remains largely unchanged. I could be said then that these single-child images are used to elicit an emotional response, first and foremost, and that in order to get that response, agencies are willing to re-frame their representation to fit a fund-raising appeal agenda, without often giving enough thought to how children are represented.
Thankfully, images of starving, naked and skeletal children, with flies in eyes are missing from Australian INGO publications. Agencies have taken on board policies and calls for dignified representations, and are steering away from “shock imagery”.
It’s good to see that at least when it comes to child protection agencies have made changes in how children are represented. Agencies should also give more thought, especially among fundraisers, on how to make sure children are not just represented as “symbols of need” or “emotional-space-fillers” and instead be treated with the dignity any person, big or small, deserves.
——— Related Articles ——–
NGO Representations of the Other, About NGO Photography, Africa: Timeless, Rural and Natural?, Women and Children,Old Masters and Current NGO Images
———— 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).