Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On the power of Images : to inform or to distort

The first time I saw this picture in my Face Book news feeds, I saw it as a thumbnail and as with most such images I scrolled on and did not pay it any more attention. The next day I saw it again and I curiously enlarged it, wondering what the little girl in the picture was doing kneeling on the ground. Well I got the shock of my life when I saw that what I thought was a little girl was a woman, bare breasted kneeling beside a tiny grave in which there lay a tiny human being. I started crying. I could not stem the flow of tears and I became really angry. I sobbed and continued to stare at the picture on my computer screen and yet I had a hard time nailing what I was so angry about. I am looking at this picture now, having decided to calmly describe why this is in such poor taste and in my mind a cruel and callous picture.

When I look at this picture and the manner in which I saw it, I realize the fact that poor Africans are so often stripped of their dignity. Here is a woman who has lost her child, probably to hunger or to some easily curable disease. She probably held her child to her dry breast and tried to give it sustenance but had nothing for it to nurse on. Then she decides to bury her child, grief stricken as I can only imagine, and there is a camera clocking away, documenting images of her sorrow, her pain, her vulnerability, her partial nakedness. I ask: as a mother myself, how would I feel if there was such a gross intrusion on my personal grief and loss? How would I react to a camera man, probably unknown to me, taking pictures while I stared at the corpse of my child, lying naked in a hole in the ground? What is the purpose of such a picture I ask?

This picture when I saw it came with no title, no name, and it was not attributed to any photographer or journalist. It has been circulating on Face Book and people have been pasting it on their walls. I have seen many varied reactions: some are mad and feel violated at being forced to see such a deeply saddening picture. Others are moved to tears and cry for Africa. But I ask again: what is the purpose of such a picture? Was this woman even asked if she wanted an image of her kneeling beside her baby’s grave circulated around the word for all to gawk at?  What does she stand to gain from all this “publicity”? Where in Africa was this picture taken and is it right to assume that it is in Africa? Mind you images like this are so associated with Africa and therein lies my problem with it: there is nothing on the picture that says where in Africa this is (That is if it is even in Africa, could be in Haiti or Grenada), and so this leaves room for assumptions that this is happening in the whole of Africa. After all Africa, for many in the West is a country. Because there is no name, no story attached to this picture, viewers are left to draw their own conclusions about what is going on, leaving room for more assumptions: that in Africa, women are left to bury their dead children alone in a hole in the ground and that African women, real African women, not the westernized kind, go around topless.

On another level my anger was an embarrassed sort of anger that we have leaders on the continent who shop at the most expensive stores the world over, who own homes and yachts and diamonds and run the country’s finances as though it was their own personal bank account, while what is in that image is going on. That health care systems and agricultural sectors are in bad shape, while people starve, and die of diseases that are considered eradicated in other parts of the world. That while  governments elsewhere have emergency plans and contingency plans to deal with drought and other natural disaster situations, governments in Africa have the hands stretched out to NGOs and WHO to come in and help.

The images of Africa continue to be images of the kind I have shown here and Africans as a whole are tired of seeing themselves represented in this fashion en masse. Yes the continent has its problems, yes there is disease famine and war, but these things abound in other places and yet we rarely see images so obscene (and jarring to the senses), of these places. Are the victims of Hurricane Katrina any more human than the Africans in refugee camps? Yet the images we saw during that natural disaster were not of dead people floating in the flood waters or half naked Americans sobbing heartbreakingly while clutching a dead child. It is not that these things did not happen, but there was a sense that some scenes were too sensitive to capture on camera. Why is the same respect for human dignity not afforded to Africans?

We have a responsibility to voice our concerns about such images and somehow vulnerable populations need to be protected against this kind of abuse. Yes, it is abuse to take a picture of someone who is mourning and who has not given her permission and then not to even bother to give her a name. She is just another faceless, nameless African in the throes of poverty and disease. It is not right to take advantage of people particularly when they are at their most vulnerable. It is low, empty of empathy and it is in poor taste.

What I really wished for more than anything when I saw this picture was to throw a shroud over the woman and her baby and to shield them from scrutiny and restore to them the dignity that poverty has robbed them of, so that they could say their goodbyes in peace. Surely every human being has that right?


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