This image taken by Kevin Carter of The New York Times won three Pulitzer Prizes in 1994. The Times described the picture as so: “To The New York Times, for Kevin Carter’s photograph of a vulture perching near a little girl in t he Sudan who has collapsed from hunger, a picture that became an icon of starvation.” This picture is ridden with issues relating to the politics of representation as well as the reaction it received. To start, the image is of a naked infant, hunched over in weakness, hunger, and sickness. She has no family or motherly figure to protect her from the vulture that appears to be ready to attack or to provide her with food or water. There is a feeling of abandonment, helplessness, and extreme suffering. She is given no name. The viewer has liberty to interpret the back story of this image in whatever way he/she sees most viable in terms of how this small child got to where she is, where her parents are, what she is feeling, what greater symbol the vulture stands for, and the likes. As Arthur Kleinman suggests, the power of this image is that “it causes the reader to want to know more.” This image has been replicated in numerous advertisements for NGOs raising funds for food in places like Sudan.
The power of the image, especially how far it spreads on social media, is unmatched in garnering support. The support comes from evoking a reaction—the “shock factor.” It is human instinct to look at a picture like that and want to do something—save the child, scare the vulture away, or prevent this from happening again to others. These images and representations are a call for action; they are a plea. The plea is coming from outsiders—Kevin Carter was an American photographer who works for The New York Times; who was he to spread word that this child is suffering? What did he know about this child’s life and that hunger was her main complaint in it? Who was he to represent a country, continent, and even race in a certain light? My point is that no matter what intention is behind actions, an outsider will always maintain an outsider’s perspective. This raises one of the main themes of the class—the idea of power dynamics and domination. We talked about the one child, one computer campaign spreading throughout the world, including parts of Africa (and the give one, get one aspect). The issues that arise include the questionable need for the computers, the utilization and integration of the computers into daily life, what products are actually being sent, and a slew of technical issues like language barriers, non-user friendly operating systems, battery life, and the likes.
The idea that outsiders must come in and “fix” or “better” the lives of others just further subjugates them as lesser and helpless. At a conference I was at this weekend, a speaker said that there are more people with access to cell phones in Africa than to toilets. There is a disconnect between what is given versus what is in fact necessary. I would argue that this disconnect often stems from the commodification of select suffering through images portrayed in online advertisements.
The interesting thing is that as these images pop up and spread, the representers that come from worlds apart often feel like they understand the helpless life of the represented. Meanwhile, these images often fabricate and extenuate the differences, making the bridging of worlds “understood,” yet completely unrelatable. I put understood in quotations as the accuracy of representation in pictures like this one, a seeming all-encompassing representation of the problem that is hunger, as well as other representations of suffering is faulty. Kleinman suggests that suffering is an individual experience based on the local moral world of the individual—this is based on gender, age, class, ethnicity, subjectivity and many other factors. Generalizing suffering into a “representative” image, video or advertisement is extremely problematic.
The politics of representation is a deeply complex issue. I would say that there is no one way to go about resolving it, however I do believe a collaborative effort between the representer and the represented may alleviate some of the disconnect. To end, I will quote an African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Kascak, Lauren, and Sayantani Dasgupta. “#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism.” Pacific Standard. N.p., 19 June 2014. Web. 08 Nov. 2014.
“Kevin Carter.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 11 July 2014. Web. 09 Nov. 2014.
Kleinman, Arthur, and Joan Kleinman. “The Appeal of Experience: The Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times.” Daedalus. The MIT Press, 30 Dec. 2010. Web. 9 Nov. 2014.
Kopinak, Janice K. “Humanitarian Aid: Are Effectiveness and Sustainability Impossible Dreams?” Humanitarian Aid: Are Effectiveness and Sustainability Impossible Dreams? The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, 10 Mar. 2013. Web. 09 Nov. 2014.