Debates about the ethics of famine photography miss the point. By seeing pictures of suffering, we are spurred into action
The eye of a dead cow stares at the camera focused on its hollow sack of a body. Photographer Colin Crowley has taken the shot at a diagonal so the head, the face, of the ruined animal is given emphasis, as if to accuse, or warn, its unknown watchers.
It has died of hunger and thirst. Its carcass is a shell that tells us this. Loose bones, picked clean, form a broken tent. The brown hide of the animal is slung over emptiness, a body eaten away from the inside. Pastoralist Bishar Hassim, who stands with his blue shirt in the blue sky above a parched earth in Jowar village, Wajir, Kenya, has seen all his animals die in the drought that has hit east Africa. This week famine was declared in Somalia. Children are especially at risk. It is a food crisis of catastrophic proportions.
This photograph displays what starvation is. The cow looks as if it was eaten away from inside. There are complex causes behind every famine, “but what the photographs fail to show is the reason why so many people have reached this state of destitution”, writes an expert. Of course. But photographs tell the physical, immediate facts. This picture does give some very concrete information about what has happened: pastoralists have lost their animals, and as Hassim explained, “we can no longer rely on them for food or income”. But its power lies in making people thousands of miles away see the facts of hunger.
I am writing this on a full stomach. I will eat again soon. All around me are shops loaded with food. But this animal has experienced death by drought, and the reality of what happens when water and food are taken away is there to see.
“Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience,” wrote the critic and essayist Susan Sontag, “the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialised tourists known as journalists.” There’s no way to avoid the fact that I am a “spectator” of this scene, a well-fed observer of faraway suffering. Do photographs of famine do any good? Sontag made her jaded remark in her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others, a pessimistic critique of war photography. Since the invention of the camera war photographs have proliferated; and so have wars. Photographing the horrors of war did nothing to prevent new conflicts ? looking at “calamities taking place in another country” is just a refined voyeurism of despair.
Photographing famine has sometimes been questioned in a similar way. A decade before Sontag’s essay appeared, photojournalist Kevin Carter took a picture of a vulture stalking a young child in southern Sudan in 1993: after it appeared in the New York Times he was accused of voyeurism and passivity, of observing when he might have acted. An editorial called him “another predator, another vulture on the scene”. Carter killed himself soon afterwards.
Yet what nonsense all these sophisticated criticisms of photojournalism are. It seems shocking that commentators in 1993 wasted their breath on the ethics of a photograph instead of urging action to deal with the suffering it showed. The fact that people far away can see with visceral immediacy the facts of a crisis like the one now hitting the Horn of Africa is one of the most optimistic aspects of the modern world. Consciences are awakened by the camera. Don McCullin’s pictures of Biafra in 1969 are moving examples of the way photographers have forced the world to see the reality of hunger. In fact, the history of photography and famine leads to the opposite conclusion to the refined bleakness Sontag finds in the history of war photography. It is only since the dawn of modern photojournalism that global conscience has accepted the hunger of others as a responsibility.
Before the camera it was almost incredibly easy to ignore famine. Victorian Britain ignored it in Ireland, so near and yet so far. Artists painted beautiful landscapes that rarely even hinted at the real lives of the rural poor. Only in paintings of apocalyptic horror such as Bruegel’s Triumph of Death do we glimpse the experience of famine in pre-modern art.
A photograph can put suffering on the front of your paper while you eat breakfast. But there is a danger of merely inviting exhausted pity and helpless horror if the photographs seem to come after the fact ? a photograph is by its nature a document of something that has already happened ? and to tell a story no one can change.
This picture tells a story whose end is not yet certain. It demands that we act. It shows not the last, but the first stage of crisis: the animals have died. The intimation of what might come next is there in the animal’s shattered tent of a body. But it is not too late to stop the worst happening. In parts of Somalia, that nightmare scenario ? famine ? is already here. This picture tells the whole world what will happen across the region unless urgent international action comes immediately. Don’t look: act.