Old Masters and Current NGO Images

Most photographers and visual storytellers are aware to some degree, how much Western aesthetics have been defined by the Old Masters. Rembrandt, Dürer, Vermeer, Sassoferrato, Manet and many others have shaped our understanding of aesthetics of portraiture, women and children, and depictions of suffering.So it is no surprise that in NGO images notions of religious iconography, stemming from these old masters, are often invoked in mother and child images (part 3). These images often possess a “Mother Teresian” or “Madonna and Child” like quality.

While, in my own view, these can result in more positive and appealing images, it can also be argued that in doing so, women and children are ultimately represented as God-given and innocent “symbols of famine”.

Particularly with fundraising appeals, these images construct a narrative about the “innocence” of the child and a mother’s “purity” or “saint-likeness” - which may cause viewers to reflect on their own moral compass or belief system as a motivation to donate.

Interestingly at the same time, and often contrary to these more positive depictions, captions are often written, which turn the positive into a negative, e.g.: by explaining “that food is limited”, or “that time is running out”.

These captions thus attempt to embed the perhaps positive visual into an urgent-need framework, which may not be evident from the image alone. Meaning-creation occurs through images and words e.g.: through image captions. A duality of frames is at work - the innocent natural victim who must be protected from the evil of famine.

Australian INGOs often make use of these dynamics of meaning-creation in order to influence readers’ understanding of (and response to) the image through captions and descriptions (see also part 5).

However, since the year 2000, changes can be observed when it comes to imagery of women and children generally.

Australian INGO publications, especially of the last five years, with exceptions, have moved away from overtly negative representations depicting quasi-naked, malnourished and isolated infants with mother who seem unable to provide for them.

The stereotypical “famine-icons” of skeletal bodies and fly covered crying faces were not seen at all and are replaced by more dignified images. And thankfully in almost all newer publications children are shown adequately covered, avoiding topless or naked bodies – which is likely a reflection of taking seriously child protection and safeguarding policies.

Women and children are thus generally represented in more positive ways in regard to their clothing and cleanliness, with less torn, ripped and dirty clothes. It could be said that Australian NGOs today generally aim to choose more dignified and positive ways of presenting women and children.

——- Related Articles ——–NGO Representations of the Other - About NGO Photography - Africa: Timeless, Rural and Natural? - Women and Children———— 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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