Please, No More Pictures of Dying Africans


I do not want to see another photo essay, multimedia presentation, or visual of any kind on the subject of dying Africans. Never, ever again. Enough.

I understand that these images can be compelling. I understand that the photographers seem to care. But at this point, the harm done by such photos outweighs the good.

Blood, Despair and War

In no small part because of the documentary photography we see from Africa, Americans have developed a distorted perception of this wonderful continent. Not every country in Africa is at war. Nor is every African an orphan dying of AIDS or malnutrition. Nor do all Africans live in broken-down shacks, wearing nothing more than ripped jeans.

Unfortunately, too many in our industry believe that “serious” photojournalism should focus on blood, decay, despair and war. This belief is perpetuated by photo festivals like Visa pour l’Image and others. This year’s event at Perpignan celebrated photographs featuring more violence and gore than a Tarantino movie.

And for this kind of photojournalism, Africa has proven a convenient feeding ground.

Although most of these images do not lie, together they do not tell the truth. They do not present a complete picture of Africa, or anything close to it. Their effect is the equivalent of putting a loupe on a beautiful dress to highlight its one tear, ad infinitum.

The NGO Influence

Beyond the biases about what “serious” photojournalism is or should be, there is a business explanation for what’s going on here. More and more of the documentary photography we see these days comes from NGOs, rather than the editorial press.

Rich people give money to NGOs, which then hire photographers to document their work. And because these organizations operate in the poor, war- and disease-stricken areas of Africa, that is what we see from NGOs. As international photojournalism from the editorial press continues to dwindle, NGO photojournalism may soon be all we see of Africa.

Just imagine what your perception of the United States would be if all you saw were images of 9/11, Katrina, crime-plagued ghettos and nothing else. Would you ever consider coming here for a vacation?

A Perverse Playground

Africa, or at least its despair, has become a perverse playground for too many photojournalists. It’s become a place to earn your merit badge as a documentary photographer. And so we get the same photo essays and multimedia presentations repeated over and over again, to the saturation point.

Interestingly, however, most of these merit-badge projects can only be found online today. Magazines won’t publish them even if they are technically brilliant; the editors, like their readers, are fed up — bored.

By settling for tired cliches rather than searching for richer realities, photojournalists are not only distorting audience perceptions; they are ultimately chasing away the audience.

So please, no more images of half-naked, dying soldiers covered with flies under an imponderable sun.

No more pictures of critically malnourished 3-year-olds staring mournfully into the camera.

No more photos of Kalashnikov-toting tweens walking barefoot on dirt pathways amid the empty savanna.

At this point, all a photojournalist does by taking such photos is to make Americans yawn and turn the other way.

Instead, make us hope. Make us see the diversity of Africa’s humanity. Make us empathize and connect. Make us want to get involved.


18 Responses to “Please, No More Pictures of Dying Africans”

  1. Wow. What a poignant and brave post. You totally hit home when you state:
    [Just imagine what your perception of the United States would be if all you saw were images of 9/11, Katrina, crime-plagued ghettos and nothing else. Would you ever consider coming here for a vacation?]

    Americans would be devastated if the view of America was forced through the tunnel vision of telephoto lenses that only wanted to capture despair. A country's true story is one of both despair and dreams, pain and pleasure. I think more than just pain has to be photographed to show a more inclusive view of any culture.

  2. I would agree that we do not have enough other stories being told about some of the positives in Africa.

    However, when the conditions improve and there isn't so much heartache, then and only then do you stop telling the stories of those suffering in the world.

    Another problem is that many NGO's do nothing more than exist to just tell the stories and do very little to solve the problems. Also, many like CARE do very positive things, but local governments are corrupt and redirect the outside efforts to the pockets of a few.

    When presidents of some of the countries in Africa were denying AIDs and those countries were actually getting worse, do we tell how wonderful this is a place to visit instead? I don't think so.

    I do think it is sad that so many young photojournalists run to Africa or to a war to make a name for themselves, rather than doing as you propose and just tell stories of average people who do heroic things or just cool people to meet.

  3. Well said. I've been thinking the exact same thing recently. There are so many good stories to be told.

  4. Well done: Important topic to be discussed in photojournalism - no matter whether photographers or editors. Tunnel perspectives always lead into desaster!
    (BTW: Great blog, interesting, inspiring, thoughtful. Enjoy to read it!

  5. Well said. Although as someone living outside the U.S. (New Zealand), I would argue that as a generalisation, that is EXACTLY how America is viewed from the outside. It's all 9/11, Iraq, ghettos, etc. I know this is inaccuarate, but it begs the question; is this just the reality of journalism, and are we all blind to the reality of how much potential journalism has to distort perspective? I guarantee that your views on my little country at the bottom of the world are very different to how we see it oursleves?

    Food for thought.

  6. @Rowan. Fortunately, the USA has Hollywood to counter any negative image it might has, along with thousand of multi national corporations with heavy marketing fire power ( Coca Cola, Mc Donalds, etc). Africa, unfortunately, doesn't have that.
    Photojournalism is becoming a cliche of itself and its becoming harder to find the jewels in the clutter of repeats. The good news is that the Internet is a great tool for discovery.

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you! the problem is much larger than Africa and almost all, including myself, photogs have been guilty of it.

    The problem has been that in an industry in free fall we are all trying to get noticed for the few remaining dollars that exist. So what do we do? crank up the the melodramatics and sensationalism. Does any think that a work like Frank's The Americans or HCB's The Decisive Moment would actually get published today? There needs to be a system that supports long term documentary work put into place. It needs to come from places like Getty, Black Star, and Magnum with the help of large scale grants from both endowments and the government.

  8. Totally agree with the bulk of this post. The issue, however, is that the humanitarian problems remain. The volume of images coming from pj's who see a trip to third world countries as some sort of right of passage, is adding value to who, exactly? On those few occasions when these images are still printed in mainstream media, the impact has diminished to such an extent that they are largely ignored. With an increasing shift to on-line access to news, readers can filter out any type of news that they do not want to see. How many people will create a filter saying "I want to see pictures of starving African babies" ? Not too many.

    So, although I agree that the volume of images on this topic is an issue, the bigger issue is that the topics being represented may be increasingly ignored. What do we do about that?

  9. Very interesting post. I'm suprised by this. I think the only tunnel vision comes when you only look at the pictures of despair and pain. I think that there should be a better balance, but at the same time, a story has to be told, struggle, and success.

  10. I cannot belive in this article. Are you tired of Africa?? I think it is because you are among this blind persons that see Africa as Africa. Why don't you put names in the countries? No one is saying that Africa is a hell in earth. We the photographers working there are trying our best to put names in isolated problems. Please! Try to go for holidays in the once beautiful Mogadishu! Or please try to go for a safari in Darfur! Your opinion is full of misconceptions and ignorance about how it is to be working in Africa.
    Why do you not say to photographers covering F1 or Baseball or football that we already have far too many pictures of it? How many more pictures do we need of Barak Obama with his family? What have we not seen from the Oscar nomination??
    Are you tired of seeing children dieing? I can't imagine how! Your text shows a person with closed yes.

  11. Paul

    Your comment about photojournalism becoming a cliche of itself is exactly what has been troubling me for years. Photography has done itself in - it was a matter of bewaring what you asked for. Digital photography, photoshop and motor-driven cameras have destroyed the intrinsic value of any given photo. Don't get me wrong, there is still great photography being produced but it is largely lost amongst the morass of substandard dreck out there.

    And I would venture to say that the only people who really appreciate great photography are other photographers - the audience has been lost somewhere - no-one gives a damn. I understand that the average income for a top flight photojournalist is around $30k. That's just sad.

    We do have a vastly distorted view of Africa - it is a massively compelling and beautiful continent... we should all be so lucky as to visit. I have only been twice - once to South Africa and once to Kenya. On both ocassions I had a huge sense of not wanting to leave.

  12. It's good to see the heavyweights like Paul weighing in on this topic. I have been harping on for a while about the negativity often portrayed by foreign press about Africa, http://text.hmmm.co.za/2009/06/africa-always-a-story-to-be-told/

    Thing is, is it hard to tell a happy story or is it just easier to take a shot of a dying kid?

  13. Amen! There is so much more to the continent than is portrayed. I learned this first hand when I booked a wedding in Nigeria. After that, I booked a double wedding there. On both trips I've been met with the most amazing families. Here are my results:

    http://climie.com/_shout/2009/05/04/igba-nkwu-nwanyi-congrats-nina-efiom/

    http://climie.com/_shout/2009/05/11/congrats-nina-efiom-calabar-nigeria/

    http://climie.com/_shout/category/nigeria/

    They deserve a more rounded coverage. It's not all misery all the time.

  14. Finaly, someone has seen the light. Halleluja!

  15. Photojournalists believe their photos can change the world and history show that, for the most part, they get results.
    Lewis Hine photos changed the Child Labor law, Eddie Adams photo of the police chief executing a Vietcong soldier contributed in large part to the end of the war in Vietnam, Eugene Smith photos of mercury pollution made us aware of the environment, Stephanie Sinclair photo essay of child brides gave us a clear idea of the physical social sexual abuse these young girls endure and with these photos, most civilized countries have now defined the age of consent to 18 years, and thanks to the photos taken at Abu Graib, we know now that prison abuse really happened in Iraq and actions were taken to stop it.
    The list of remarkable stories told by remarkable photographers is endless and I want to name a few who worked also in Africa. Their mission ‘’to raise global awareness of the problems of this extraordinary place. Africa, vibrant continent in transition and ongoing wars, encompasses 53 nations, nearly a billion people and more than 800 ethnic groups but also plagued by wars, famine, and genocides.
    James Natchway’s poverty in Rwanda, Marcus Bleasdale’s genocide in Darfur, Tom Stoddart’s Aids in Sub Sahara, Ed Kashi’s oil pollution in Niger, Sebastio Salgado’s North African immigrants, Brent Stirton’s killing of gorillas in Congo, JP Laffont’s child soldier in Angola, Pascal Maitre’s children orphaned by wars and Aids in Burundi and the list goes on.
    Some of these photos will make you sick and hopefully they will make you angry as those problems matter and you want the world to have a good look at it and take action. To say that Africa has become a ‘’perverse playground ‘’ for photojournalists show a lack of knowledge and a lack of compassion.
    Without these photos, no knowledge of the problems and without photojournalists, no action to repair them Photojournalism is a code of conduct and photojournalists are our modern heroes. Over the last 10 years, the landscape of photography has changed considerably and Visa Pour l’Image in Perpignan has become the capital of photojournalism, the last place that save defenseless people from oblivion, force you to have a look at problems that matter and reward the photojournalists who took action, sometimes at the risk of their lives.

  16. I agree. But: never say never...

  17. Whilst the idea of this article is one that people should seriously take to heart, we should not entirely turn a blind eye to the realities of poverty, war and disaster throughout the continent of Africa - and in fact, the rest of the world.

    Western society, it would seem, is suffering from a sever case of desensitisation and compassion fatigue. We are so used to such images, that they no longer capture our attention.

    Instead of writing such articles as this, it might be a good idea to write about our society's lack of empathy for the suffering and less fortunate - turn the focus on ourselves, rather than others. In this way, the story hits home about our selfishness and disregard for the troubles of others. This may spark a change in attitude among the general public, and help to remedy the devastating problems faced by millions.

  18. WOW...really? You are tired of the whole, starvation, warring, genocide, "critically malnourished 3-year-olds staring mournfully into the camera."-thing? Imagine the poor souls going through these atrocities. I have never read an article like this, or seen a photo spread, and thought that ALL of Africa is like this. Africa is a HUGE continent. If you are covering a country in it, I would hope you would do the country proud, but showing it in it's full views, beautiful and otherwise. It is an ignorant point of view to believe the ENTIRE county is as such, but that in NO means begs the idea that we should stop covering these topics because --"At this point, all a photojournalist does by taking such photos is to make Americans yawn and turn the other way."
    Frankly this is EXACTLY why these photographers and missionaries MUST continue to cover these stories. So we know that these conditions still exist and still beg our attention, aid, money and love. They beg for us to do something about it. I mean other than to write articles and comment from the comfort of our warm, dry, homes sitting with our full bellies, hoping that someone sends us something to entertain us and fill our time with great pics about things that will not stir in us any discomfort or call to action. Please don't disturb our peace, with all your hunger and desperation, that was sooo last year! Really? America has actual WHOLE magazines and books and television shows dedicated to what is happening in Hollywood! Who slept with who, is divorcing who, is marrying who, where they spent their vacation, or shopped, or ate! Who F$#$ing cares! Please, for the love of God, you photojournalists whom are covering something real in this world...please hear us...on behalf of all those people still ignorant of the deep need we still have in this world...please do not listen to this article...We DO want to see and hear of what is of real substance in the world. When you sum up your body of work at the end of your life, I hope you can look at it and see that your talents went to bringing real change to the world. We have enough fluff to entertain ourselves to death. I think, as long as there are people. bored with the topic, and as long as these conditions persist in the world, we need those that are willing to bring awareness to us in our comfortable little American lives...we so need the stirring in our souls.

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