This tweet got me thinking


I wonder what would happen if TV news started slipped into the convention of returning to black and white when covering starvation in Africa?

Of course TV news and photojournalism are two different beasts and photos are still often printed black and white in newspapers.

I agree with the thought above by Mikko. The black and white photos that are coming from Northern Kenya have that timeless feel to them. When the photos come without names in the captions I can’t help but feel we could be looking at a picture from the region taken anytime over the last thirty years.

One thing that bothers me. The photography seems to be, more often that not, part of the story that we need to do more. That we need to give more. That we should feel guilty.

A lot of the accompanying journalism does the same.

It all seems part of the machine that WE need to do something to save these people; that in some way we should feel responsible.

Journalism loves drama and there is little more dramatic and upsetting then watching children die because they couldn’t get enough food. Its a devastating thing to witness and it would never be allowed to happen in a world that has any sense of decency.

I think we need to be asking why this keeps happening, not just gawking at pictures of the half-dead. And when we have some sort of reasonable answer to that question we need to fund the organizations that present some well thought out approaches to turning the situation round.

I love this part of the world, but I’m not prepared to fund half arsed solutions that ultimately some would argue actually help perpetuate the problem. To put money in the pockets of charities that refuse to engage with the bigger issue of why the population is growing at rate of around 2% in one of the most food insecure areas on the entire planet.

Author — duckrabbit

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White. We specialize in digital storytelling.

Discussion (10 Comments)

  1. Scott Squire says:

    So… do nothing then? Just because journalism and photojournalism in particular hasn’t caught up with your vision–which I happen mostly to agree with–we should do nothing? But wait, is it even the job of journalism to inspire us to _do something_?

    My first day of journalism school was September 11, 2001. I knew going in that the job of the storytellers was going to change faster than even Berkeley could keep up with. I came out believing, and now believe even more strongly that if you’re in pictures to help make crap situations better, there are better ways than traditional photojournalism to do it.

    The issues pictures that run in the news are, by and large, the same pictures that have always run in the news. We tell ourselves the line about learning from history, and tsk-tsk about those poor saps in the public who just don’t listen to the pictures.

    Ultimately I think the job of big-issue photojournalists today has come round almost completely: to show us that indeed we aren’t learning anything from history. Precisely by showing us the same pictures over and over.

    These pictures look just like pictures from the last famine in Africa, which looked just like the ones before that. Only difference is it’s a different batch of 23 year olds getting inspired to volunteer to go and feed UN gruel to the babies (and another, parallel batch getting inspired to go and photograph the same situations where their peers are slinging gruel).

    If we’re all lucky, seeing the pictures over and over will help us inch forward incrementally, in a complicated kind of progress. This is what I’m banking on.

    • duckrabbit says:

      Hi Scott,

      great comment.

      I hope that ‘do nothing’ isn’t an option. I would rather that we ask deeper questions.

      This is a great thought:

      ‘Ultimately I think the job of big-issue photojournalists today has come round almost completely: to show us that indeed we aren’t learning anything from history. Precisely by showing us the same pictures over and over. ‘

      That said I wouldn’t bank where you do. Not with the growing population in this part of the world. But I hope you’re right and I’m wrong.

  2. Stan B. says:

    Perhaps as long as people are so devoid of any other possible resource, creating more of themselves is the only possible hope the future may produce- although the end result is usually yet more stress upon those resources already so woefully deficient, not to mention the inevitable conflict for the remaining crumbs. Unfortunately, the only successful model that has managed to suppress population growth is the authoritarian regime of China.

    Perhaps B&W’s predominance over color for these recurrent tragedies is not that far removed from Hitchcock’s reasoning for shooting Psycho in B&W- it would just seem a bit too real for people to look at with any degree of comfort.

    • duckrabbit says:


      you make a great point.

      The reason I am always given why people in this region have so many children is that when they are older someone will look after them.

      They will also expect to lose children before the age of five.

  3. TJ says:

    Hmmm, men who have nothing can still enjoy sex, When you pair these men with women, either their wives or their ‘conquests’, who have no access to birth control/education you end up with babies. It is not difficult to understand. Fundraisers know that photographing babies encourages us to donate and help out in a crisis and governments know that worrying about the babies deflects our attention from the men (1st and 3rd world) who conspire to keep the flow of food, health care, education and money uneven or non-existant. An immediate crisis and a long term solution require different photography, we usually see photography of the former, hardly ever any investigative journalism into the man made exacerbation of naturally occurring events. Of course these images might require us to think further than why don’t women stop having babies and consider much wider political issues that we choose to pretend have nothing to do with us. Our earth has knowledge and provisions aplenty but mankind has a problem sharing.

  4. Neil Hodge says:

    You are right to point out that journalists take a formulaic approach to reporting famine: close-ups of starving kids covered in flies, emaciated adults, dead cattle, dust and withered bushes and so on. Such pictures have won heaps of awards, which means that everyone tries to emulate what has been taken before without the need to ask any questions (I think the term “photojournalist” should be banned: while they may be good photographers, 99% of photojournalists are totally crap journalists because they never stop to ask questions about anything they shoot – just try reading the captions of any major news/photo agency to see that they have absolutely no idea who they are photographing, why they are there, what is happening, or even where they are. It is absolutely shameful. Some years ago I had a debate about this with the heads of two agencies who both told me that photographers are too busy to ask questions and just need to get the pics – I was astounded).

    You are also correct in pointing out that there is little or no explanation as to how the famine happened, except vague assumptions that it is due to internecine warfare (referred to but not included implicitly within the report or photo-story). While all these elements have their place within the story, there is absolutely no mention of why charities and aid organisations persist in carrying out the same, flawed approach as they have been for 40 years treating only symptoms and not underlying causes, or why their policies are failing.

    Evidently, there is a need for journalists to see past the horrendous number of victims, and question the causes, debate long-term solutions, and push for change. Otherwise, we will see several repeat performances of famine in Africa and set-up shots.

  5. Stan B. says:

    Neil & TJ-
    Right on in pointing out the fatal flaws of both photojournalism, and still photography as a whole- most effective at highlighting and nitpicking consequences and results, weak to useless at explaining causes and motivation. The multimedia approach as championed on this site is definitely the way to go- particularly for the latter.

  6. I think we need to realign the crosshairs somewhat. If we’re talking about the role of photography alone in effecting change, then maybe we need to rethink who/what the subject is and the outcome we’re looking for.

    The classic images of starvation we’re talking about are designed, and used virtually always, to do two things – make us feel guilty, and because of that make us give money. (But by the time we see them its too late, people are dying).

    We give, we feel better about ourselves, we feel relieved there are good people out there doing good things for people who need good things doing for them. (Our) problem solved. Root problem not.

    I think ‘proper’ photo-journalism is part of the answer to this conundrum but with more emphasis on the journalism. I think words have an enormous role to play in changing minds and attitudes. And specifically words carefully matched with images.

    Let me try to give an example – for years disability charities advertizing used images that made disability appear to be a problem for people with disabilities. The images used to evoke sympathy were tear-jerking, often dark, sometimes depressing and universally bleak, making disability out to be a problem – physical, medical or intellectual – of the people who ‘possessed’ those problems. They were victims.

    Then one day I spotted a very clever ad that | think marked a turning point – an overhead shot of two parked cars and in between was an empty parking space with a wheelchair symbol and a nicely blurred car bonnet as the car was driving into the space. The caption simply stated:


    I thought this inspired. It took responsibility for disability and its attendant problems away from people with disabilities and plonked them firmly in the laps of we able-bodied people. The message was clearly – “These are NOT victims,. The problems that people with disabilities have are often caused by the thoughlessness of society at large. These are problems of access, not inability. These are problems of YOUR making.” And from this changing attitude has come the DDA and other equality legislation.

    So how can this be done with famine and food, education and birth-control, politics and war, and all the other issues that conspire to bring us the desperate images of tragedy we’re currently seeing? Can it be done?

    I have no simple answer, but I DO feel that the the subject matter of the images that are used to prick our consciences and which should prick the consciences of our governments and political representatives, are not perhaps the best ones to effect the change we need to see. These images, for the most part, evoke sympathy. We need images that evoke anger, and that cause embarrassment and shame. Who should feel those emotions? The people resposible for decision making, for implementing policy. And by implication us too.

    By the time this tragedy is news its all too late for the starving. Things need to happen much much earlier in the process – and every famine is predicted. Perhaps then this is a job for advertisers not journalists, is it a heresy to suggest such a thing?

    Perhaps an alliance of the skills of both? I dont know, but I do believe enough in the power of intelligent photography (and good words) to hope that someone rises to the challenge and finds a way to combine and use them both. I agree with StanB that the DR approach is heading in the right direction. Here’s my best word shot:


    Apologies for the long post,

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