Images are just as powerful, if not more powerful than words. A photograph can capture in two seconds what even the most expert prose writer might need a few hundred words to say. Photos often remain etched in people’s minds when they read articles, reports, or look at any type of information coming from Aid organizations.
Photographs play a role in shaping our understanding of history, poverty, and culture. Because images are so powerful, a photo removed from context can be a dangerous thing.
Before we dive into how this plays out in the international development industry, let’s look at an important lesson from history.
Lessons from a photographer and ethnographic enthusiast
In the early 1900s, Edward S. Curtis embarked on a journey to document ‘the vanishing people:’ Native Americans in the western United States. He created thousands of photographs of 80 tribes over a period of 20 years. It was a remarkable feat that, for better or for worse, has shaped the public perception of Native Americans.
The collection truly is stunning. However, although he made sure to photograph people with dignity and with reverence, his own prejudices still shaped the way he composed these images. This collection is often credited with perpetuating the idea of the ‘noble savage,’ and other unhelpful stereotypes about American Indians. In fact, Curtis created studios, paid his subjects to pose according to his direction, and even manipulated the images to suit his own ideas of what was ‘authentic’ to Native American culture.
For many non-Indians, this was the first contact they had with Native Americans.
And today American Indians are still trying to shirk a myriad of stereotypes.
Critics have also pointed out that because these images removed American Indians from the realities of life on reservation, they avoided dealing with the negative impacts that US policies were having on the wellbeing and survival of Native Americans.
So what does this have to do with visual storytelling for international development?
Ethnography, images, and international development
In the same way that these photos still shape contemporary concepts of Native Americans, photos of the developing world without context spread damaging stereotypes and can manipulate our understanding of humanitarian crises and global poverty reduction challenges. By now, most of us understand why poverty porn is a bad idea. Although these images still exist, most NGOs are changing the way they tell their stories. More organizations are “replacing misery with opportunity.”
And that’s a good thing.
However, as Curtis’ photos and their criticism teach us, we must also be careful not to romanticize poverty. Romanticizing poverty creates a convenient excuse for inaction. It is impossible to say whether or not showing a more nuanced representation of life on reservations would have altered US policy towards American Indians. Nonetheless, romanticizing these diverse groups of people in the face of varying forms of persecution did not help them.
This is why context matters.
Context shows how a person smiles in the face of adversity, not because of it. Context shows that poverty sucks, but that people are not helpless victims waiting for a white savior. Context can break down the barriers that divide people into “us” and “them,” and help us connect as humans. Context shows that all people have hopes, worries, dreams, fears, goals, and desires no matter who they are, where they are, or what income level they have achieved. Context reveals the opportunities that exist amidst the challenges.
We can give context through the camera lens and through the words that go with these images. What is left out of the frame is just as important as what is in the frame. I am not arguing for poorly composed photos that do not offer a focus point or a subject. I am saying, however, that we really need to think about the message these images are sending.