The right kinda wrong…

“The images of others are always selective. They often only serve to confirm the images  that one has of oneself”.

This was the question posed to our class today, in relation to television images of people in humanitarian crisis situations. Think of the images we see on our TVs of the starving child in Ethiopia or the fields full of dead animals in drought-affected Somalia. These images are ingrained in our memory and every time we think of certain countries these images come to mind.

And not in a good way.

A media image of a young child in drought affected Somalia

If you search “famine somalia” into google, you will find hundreds of images similar to the one above. Images of the starving child. Images of what appears to be helpless people, in a helpless society. Surely a wrong and unfair portrayal of a nation.

Is it ethical to show a picture of a dying child, even if showing that image could generate hundreds of thousands of euro in donor funds? Would it be better to show a healthy and happy child who has already benefitted from funds raised? If the general public got used to seeing countries that are plagued year in year out by ongoing conflict or climate-related disasters, in a different, better light, would they still donate their precious pennies to the cause?

When watching a fundraising campaign on TV what images encourage people to donate money? Do we like to relate to the images, thinking to ourselves, “Wow that could be me” or do we prefer to see people who appear to be living in a different world to us who we like to think we can help?

Would a more upbeat image we can relate to be as effective?

 Images for these fundraising campaigns are specifically chosen for their shock factor. The accompanying stories are sensationalized. What will shock the viewer into donating now? An image that will stay in their mind all day and haunt them. That’s what.

By constantly churning out images of “the starving child”, are NGOs and the Media doing more harm than good? Are they wrongly portraying countries and their people as beggars who can’t help themselves, scaring away potential investors who could have greatly helped the local economy.

By releasing these, somewhat unethical images, NGOs are putting these humanitarian crisis in the media spot light. They are raising awareness worldwide and are, most importantly, raising much needed funds to help buy food, clean water and shelter for those in need. But in doing all this, are they REALLY HELPING?? Or, are they doing more harm than good.

Are they doing the right kinda wrong…?

If so, Can we offer an effective alternative that isn’t as harmful?

Any ideas welcome!!

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11 thoughts on “The right kinda wrong…

  1. We could always try to leave a more balanced account. there are always two sides of a coin no matter what country we take photos in. There are homeless people in Sweden where all is not perfect. The 55 countries of Africa seldom shows pictures of business women but more often of women carrying things on their heads. There are both (although women do not carry things on their heads generally in all African countries. There are business women though in all 55 African countries.

    1. Thanks for your comment. That’s an issue that we did discuss, for example I’m sure the many successful businessmen/women or entrepreneurs in Ethiopia, for example, must get annoyed that the world they live in is never portrayed in the media. Nobody knows they exist. But on the other hand, images of business men/women aren’t going to generate funds for a humanitarian response which is my dilemma. How can we raise funds effectively without showing unethical photos of starving children?

      1. I think you hinted in your blog that some sort of before and after picture might work in situations of need.
        Maybe showing that there is hope if you help could add to the shock value and actually make donors feel their money will do some good.

        I have seen many ads from Doctors without borders actually tell you how many vaccination shots 10 dollars will buy etc. That is one one to generate help.

        In general when help is not needed maybe journalists can try to show another side of things. There is a huge demand for help in southern Ethiopia/Somalia but at the same time there are other parts of Ethiopia that look different. Just youtube Addis Abeba and you will see there are high rises there as well as poor areas. Maybe trying to show that there are business people within countries needing help but that the circumstances are such that they alone cannot cope with catastrophes due to vastness of them.

        At the same time I think that many countries and locals in catastrophe zones are doing much themselves Maybe one could try and show that and the same time keep asking for funds so that they can continue doing what they can to help?

        Even the U.S.A was offered help from other countries when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and they are one of the richest countries of the world with countless of business people and millionaires.

        By the way i like your blog

      2. Yea MSF (Doctors without Borders) are pretty good with their campaigns it must be said. I agree with you that pictures of before and after would work well, as long as the “before” picture isn’t too gruesome or unethical. These typical images of the starving child, malnourished and covered in disease spreading flies really haunts me and as James said above, I would prefer to change the channel than view such images.

        It’s funny what you say about people giving money the US when Hurricane Katrina hit. There are so many example of this too, for example students in Ethiopia fundraising for victims of Tsunami in Japan (??!) and students/the general public in Korea fundraising for the poor earthquake victims in ChristChurch New zealand. I guess being able to help often empowers the giver more than the receiver.

      3. Does it not show that people are people no matter where they live. Everyone likes to lend a hand when they can. It just moved me so to know Ethiopians helping Japanese, Japanese surely helping someone else etc. Help and love in an endless chain …

      4. Yea I think you are dead right. People all over the world like to help, no matter how small or how bug, if given the chance. Like you said, it’s human nature. It still fascinates me though!

  2. I think whatever is most effective is the best idea. If we see pictures of a more upbeat situation with people smiling and going about their day, then will First World people think: “Oh, these people really need our help”…? “Probably not” is the answer I think. Having said that; throwing money at a crisis such as a famine isn’t really the whole answer either.
    Must confess, I really, really hate seeing those typical famine images with all the flies, bloated bellies and etc. I always turn off/over the T.V. when I see those ads. So I suppose, in one sense, my second paragraph is contradicting the first.

    1. It’s a difficult dilemma. While one feels the images are needed to gain media and public attention and awareness and to raise funds, people in developing countries can become very resentful of the images we use to portray them. For example, if people always showed pictures of Ireland with guns everywhere and bombs exploding all over the place OR of potato famine victims queuing up in soup kitchens I’m sure the Irish republic would feel far from empowered. In face we would probably be angry and feel let down, don’t ya think? Argh I have no answer! lol

  3. Wow…this post is very thought-provoking. It has given me something to think deeply about for awhile – something I’ve never really considered. Not sure yet exactly how I feel about these images…they are absolutely one-sided as presented in ads…but they are also representational of dire situations for which aid is desperately needed. On the other hand, I am mad about presenting all sides of an issue. As a Journalism student, whenever I see single-view (read: dominant ideological view) reporting, I immediately dig in to find other viewpoints. I’ll really have to give this aid/ad issue some thought. Thanx for a great post!

    1. I’m glad you found it thought provoking. It is an issue we are talking about a lot in class at the moment and is an issue I would like lots of people to think long and hard about. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  4. cant believe i came across this article…even though i am a little late, its a god send. not that this directly answers your question, but im a senior in high school and in regards to my passion of helping the truly desperate, i chose to do my entire capstone project on if and how journalistic photos (such as the starving child above) really do generate funds and ultimately lead to the betterment of victims. if i were a journalistic photographer, i would leave it up to pure numbers. if disturbing and extreme images generate more money for these victims than yes, it is the right way to go. however i would like to point out that when people feel like they can actually make a change and help, they do tend to feel more motivated to do something about it. i think there are always going to be people who turn off the tv if they feel uncomfortable seeing certain realities which may be far out of their reach, but there will most likely always be people who keep watching and donate to causes. I would really appreciate a reply for my research…thank you for the best source i have found in the past 5 months!!

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