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.