Photojournalism, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 1: There Is No Other But Us

Please read my introduction post Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism: An Introduction before continuing reading the post here.

There Is No Other But Us

The Congolese is missing. The world created in the video game Zero Hour: Congo is based around a very clear and specific set of actors, none of which are Congolese unless they are ‘victims’. As Marcus explains:

The characters in the game would be based on people in the field: doctors, nurses, aid workers, journalists, photographers, child soldiers.

There is an surprising absence of ‘the other’ – the Congolese as an agent, an actor, and as responsible and engaged. This is now a comon argument, and one that I too have written about before (see one example here), but the fact that this erasure continues requires that I begin by addressing it again. There are no Congolese who are writers of their own history, agents of their own politics, definers of their own futures. It seems somewhat irresponsible to produce a product to educate a market segment called ‘Grassroots Electronic Users’ (I wonder what MBA came up with this one?), and not even have them deal with a reality more complicated than found in a typical comic book. In fact, this limited but popular world view is right out of Hollywood movies like Blood Diamond, The Constant Gardener, or any number of other features that show us the European as the agent of change, and action, and the force that allows the African (or some ‘Other’) to ‘discover’, ‘find’, ‘achieve’, and ‘become’.

Much as in popular culture depictions, the game does the same: the Congolese are simply removed from the discussion. There is no need to offer them as agents of their own destiny, as a people with a specific historical, cultural, social and political trajectory, or even as something crucial to the process of raising awareness. They exist as child soldiers and I am surprised that the warlord or the rapist are not defined as another actor. The NGOs – and here we clearly understand this to mean international aid and humanitarian organizations, come in for special mention as they do in most any Hollywood depiction of white saviors in Africa. In fact, it was precisely this rather out-dated concept that was being mocked in the Radi-aid spoof that tried to send radiators to a cold Norway.

We are further told that As a revenue generation NGOs … could also benefit from revenues generated by the players, which could aid real world projects in specific places. I have to admit that this is seriously out-dated stuff. I am in fact surprised that a photographer who spent twelve or more years working in the Congo has been unable to offer us Congolese actors, organization, political actors and institutions who could use our collaboration, support and participation to confront the factors fueling the conflict in the DRC and working to stop it. I am surprised that he has not been able to go deeper and realize that in a nation as huge as the DRC, different issues and factors affect direct regions of the same country. In fact, I find it highly unlikely that someone as intelligent as Marcus does not know such individuals and organizations, and I have to believe that he simply chose not to highlight them.

This habit of leaving out the African when writing about the African (or other non-European / Western actor) has a long history and pedigree. It has been famously labelled as the white-savior industrial complex by the writer Teju Cole who pointed us to one of the best proponents of this debilitating approach – the New York Times writer Nicolas Kristof, who has made a name for himself parachuting into the ‘Third World’, finding a ‘good’ white person who he believes is all that stands between ‘barbarism’ and ‘salvation’, and encouraging us to simply send money to support their work. In the process, entire histories, economies, politics, communities and individuals who do not fit this model are eliminated and never discussed.

As Teju Cole pointed out in his piece called The White-Savior Industrial Complex that :

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.”

And why does this matter?

It matters because it’s the people – the ones who have the most and immediate stake in the assistance and ‘intervention’ that is being attempted, who are erased in the process of fulfilling these fantasies. Their agency, their struggle, their history, their commitment, their sacrifices, their aspirations, their risks are being cast aside as irrelevant and uninteresting. This is a terrible injustice to those who in fact risk it all to resist, dissent, confront, challenge, and transform – the local agents, the ones that few ask about if they are repressed or simply eradicated. Throughout the world there isn’t a nation that can claim to lack individuals fighting to improve the conditions and lives of their fellow citizens. There isn’t a society where human injustice is being confronted, oppression resisted, disease fought, social pathologies addressed. There isn’t. But it seems that we seem anxious to simply remove these local actors. Again, I quote Teju Cole:

…there is an internal ethical urge that demands that each of us serve justice as much as he or she can. But beyond the immediate attention that he rightly pays hungry mouths, child soldiers, or raped civilians, there are more complex and more widespread problems. There are serious problems of governance, of infrastructure, of democracy, and of law and order. These problems are neither simple in themselves nor are they reducible to slogans. Such problems are both intricate and intensely local.

How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact.

This is a fairly common approach to most of what passes for ‘concerned photojournalism’ from and about ‘The Third World’. It is most certainly the set of erasure typical of works produced by photojournalists working with international aid organizations where the aid workers, particularly the European / Western aid workers, are highlighted, and all else is erased. The photo projects ‘create a space’ where the European / Western audience / viewer can insert herself as an ‘actor for change’ and can usually do this not by taking real action, but simply handing over some cash to an NGO. The problem being addressed, with all its attendant social, political and human complexities, is reduced to a simple transaction – an act consumerism that requires little thought, no engagement, even less after-thought, and a large dose of self-righteous and feel-good energy.

Photojournalists continue to produce stories from around the world that document a social and human pathology by presenting the subjects as ‘victims’ who are desperate ‘presented’ to a Western / European audience for a charitable intervention. They do this by deliberately ignoring the local institutions and actors that are present beyond the boundary wall of the chosen aid organization headquarters. Even when these local actors and agencies are more effective, persistent and committed than the international aid agencies (see more on this below).

It is unconscionable that today we allow such works to stand, and that a more intelligent, nuanced, engaged and honest approach is not insisted upon. This is not just about being politically correct, but about being intellectually honest, and revealing the real issues that persist. It is about a genuine engagement with the issues at hand, and the full breath of people involved in addressing it. It is about not painting the world as a palate for the satisfaction of a Western need for relevance. Again, as Teju Cole argued, when speaking about the frenzy, and massive viewership that the Kony2012 YouTube video garnered:

What Africa needs more pressingly than Kony’s indictment is more equitable civil society, more robust democracy, and a fairer system of justice. This is the scaffolding from which infrastructure, security, health care, and education can be built. How do we encourage voices like those of the Nigerian masses who marched this January, or those who are engaged in the struggle to develop Ugandan democracy?

In Teju Cole we read a demand that we insist on the inclusion of the local in what has so far remained the exclusive purvey of the foreign. Again, this is an argument for inclusion and the need to take a broader, more comprehensive and collaborative approach to any acts of advocacy and speaking out. It is an argument for moving our citizens to a more real, more concrete understanding of the complexities of long-running conflicts such as DRC – we need not more reductive representations, but more complex engagement, one where the social, cultural, political, economic and historical realities of the conflict are laid out clearly and with as much honesty as possible. It is about revealing to them the full breath of engagements, and the many issues involved. It can’t be about neat, sound-bite packaging that not only insults the intelligence of the audience, but dehumanizes and dis-empowers the community.

Let me illustrate this with another example – we have seen dozens and dozens of photo projects that focused on the horrors of the HIV/ AIDS crisis in Africa. Many photojournalists produced powerful works, as they should have, about the horrors of the disease, the need for immediate action, and the importance of an international medical and humanitarian response to the catastrophe. But how many projects did we see that in fact highlighted what the microbiologist and writer Helen Epstein was compelled to point out after her years spent working on the issues in South Africa, in her work The Invisible Cure that the most effective strategies were the local ones! As pointed out in a review of her book, (see The Invisible AIDS Cure by G. Pascal Zachary) she:

…[urges] outsiders to make more space for responses crafted by Africans themselves. Her advice is worth noting, especially since spending on AIDS in Africa, as Laurie Garrett recently highlighted in an article in Foreign Affairs, is soaring. Increased funding for AIDS will only compound past mistakes, Garrett argues. Epstein is similarly concerned that in the coming explosion of international funding to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa, past errors will replicated as foreign donors mistake the size of the checks they write for their potential to help ordinary Africans.

Ultimately, “The Invisible Cure” concludes that success in the war on AIDS in Africa “depends critically on a sense of commitment and will” on the part of Africans. Epstein is right, once again. Yet her conclusion is sobering for those rooting for a quick end to suffering in sub-Saharan Africa. In a timely warning to foreign do-gooders with fat checkbooks, Epstein suggests that an African commitment to fight AIDS effectively “cannot be bought.” Instead, victory must flow out of a rebirth of African self-reliance. Yet if outsiders cannot supply a quick fix to what ails Africa, and Africans themselves must shoulder the heaviest burden, the spectacle of AIDS devastation is likely to persist for years to come.

And they did – some of the most effective HIV/AIDS prevention programs emerged from local, regional efforts. In the preface to her work, she argued that:

When it comes to fighting AIDS, our greatest mistake may have been to overlook the fact that, in spite of everything, African people often know best how to solve their own problems….Everyone seems to know what Africa needs, but sometimes I think our minds are not really on it…most of us see only Africa’s contours, and we use them to map out problems of our own. Africa is a career move, an adventure, an experiment. It fades into an idea. We aren’t really looking.

Helen Epstein, a woman I have had the honor of meeting and speaking to recently, has consistently argued for our opening ourselves to the voices, perspectives and experiences of the very people we claim to be working to help. Most recently she has been focusing on Ethiopia and the crisis and once again argued in a recent piece called Cruel Ethiopia she wrote for the New York Review Of Books on the state of humanitarian aid and Ethiopia where despite a rapidly rising aid budget,hunger continues to grow.

There is no simple solution to this crisis, but as the Ethiopia expert Siegfried Pausewang has long argued, only the peasants themselves have any hope of finding one. Working with agronomists and other experts, they could confront such issues as security of land tenure, the onerous rural tax regime, political favoritism, the low prices offered by party-run cooperatives, and compensation for those whose tiny land parcels can no longer support them. However, there are no independent organizations or other forums in which peasants can openly discuss these issues, air grievances, or advocate for their rights. Under the CSO law such forums are unlikely to emerge.

This is not a tangential concern, but in fact I would argue, one of the fundamental flaws in photography advocacy today. It is a major concern and one that is rarely discussed in any forum whether it is about photojournalism, or about activism. I was very excited to read that the journalist Jina More has returned to Rwanda and South Africa to look at stories about HIV / AIDS.

This very issue – The West’s desperation for ‘white’ interlocutors and the silence of the other – was very strongly bought to the fore by Ben Ehrenreich of The New York Times, the writer of a powerful and rather unusual for the magazine, piece of reportage on the Palestinian resistance to Israeli military rule and occupation in the West Bank. The article, This Is Where The Third Intifada Will Start was a powerful piece and rare in the voices of the Palestinians it allowed to come through. In an interview he gave afterwards he was asked a very pertinent and powerful question which touched on this very issue – the constant representation of the other by an European – and his response was powerful and clear. The question that was posed to him was this:

Let’s talk about the Jewish narrator. In 2006 the Times published a very important essay by Tony Judt in support of Walt and Mearsheimer’s LRB piece on the Israel lobby, and Judt later said that they asked him to insert in there, I’m Jewish. Judt told the story because he knew that Jews were privileged, and that the Times needed to send this signal to its readers. As the NYRB does by publishing David Shulman when it’s critical of Israel, as the New Yorker does when David Remnick is the authority. As Mondoweiss does by stating, we’re a progressive Jewish site at root. As JVP does. It’s a racket, we’re all in on it, and my question is, When do Palestinians get to hold the microphone. Aren’t you and I to blame too? Because if they were holding the microphone, a basic human rights issue like the right to resist that is so core to your piece would have been noncontroversial many many years ago. As it is, Americans have to warm up to the idea, and a Jew has to bring them this news. Comment?

And Ehrenreich’s response was unequivocal and clear. He responded:

I’m glad you asked that question, and yeah, it’s super-problematic. It’s a specific instance of a bigger problem, that black and brown people’s stories can generally only be told in this society via the authority of a white narrator, that we–white people, in this case of Jewish ancestry–are tasked with the representation of black and brown and in this case Palestinian people, who in this dynamic are stuck in the passive role of being represented and are not allowed to interpret their own realities. So certainly we are complicit, and I don’t see any way out of that complicity except to use what privilege I have to tell stories that tear holes in the broader narratives which allow this arrangement to continue. And to do so with scrupulous attention to my own role in it, to the power differentials at play. (My emphasis)

The Inclusion of ‘the other’ – long marginalized, and reduced to being a helpless victim, is one of the major changes that photojournalists need to make when they step out into the world to produce their stories. It also remains one of the most important aspects of any attempt at effecting change, and carrying out acts of advocacy. Our campaigns, our initiatives and our creative energies have to not just be aimed at the West, but must be aimed at actually contributing, supporting and enhancing the conversations and on-going struggles locally. They have to include, if not prioritize, those who are directly involved in the issue of concern, and most affected by the changes being advocated. Rather than offer stories constructed to make space for the white-savior we have to re-construct our stories to reveal the many agents and institutions involved in the hard work on the ground.

This is not simply because of a feel good component, or some sense of feel-good political correctness, but for the simple reason that the people with the most at stake are ones with the best understanding of how to improve and change things. We ignore these voices, these experiences at our own peril. By consistently erasing the very people we are claiming to be working to help, we not only remove their agency, we reduce their humanity. This has to change. Our works cannot be so provincial in their focus, and so distant from the very communities we claim to be speaking for.

There are people in Bangladesh fighting for garment factory worker rights, there are women in Pakistan who have been on the forefront of the resistance against Zina laws, there are farmer movements across India resisting corporate agricultural practices, there are thousands of Pakistanis resisting the military’s landgrabs. And so much more. I use South Asia as an example because I am based here at the moment, and seeing all these amazing, courageous, determined and beautiful people who are at the forefront of so many struggles for justice, peace, and equality that it would be impossible to write about anything in Pakistan without writing about them. Or to photograph anything about Pakistan without photographing them. And the same is true for Africa. Or anywhere else for that matter. To erase these local actors – the ones taking the greatest risks, facing the greatest threats, is nothing short of irresponsible.


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