In Black & White
issue 228 - February 1992
In black & white
Visual images are powerful. But all too often the power is misused.
Many people's ideas about the Third World, for instance, have been conditioned
by aid-agency advertising from the past which used shocking images of destitution
and malnutrition to raise funds. Some charities still offend in this way.
But others have realized that such images can be very damaging -
and have changed their whole approach as a result.
THE BAD OLD DAYS
An ad from 1961. The contrast between the plump, happy Western child, safe in the arms of her caring mother, and the skeletal, starving African child could not be more marked. When this ad was conceived the contrast aimed to show how lucky we are in the North compared with people in the South. It probably aroused a lot of pity and raised a lot of money - but it also did a lot of damage in the long term.
The African child in this ad is almost like a creature from outer space, so completely is he dehumanized. Of course there are still famines in which children reach this terrible, wasted state and need emergency relief. But back in the 1960s this was the only image of the Third World that we were being offered. We were encouraged to think of most of the world's population as listless objects for our pity, instead of active, resourceful people worthy of our respect.
Fundraising images do not have to show people. Some will avoid the danger of stereotyping or exploiting the people they are trying to help by using just words or typography in a striking way. Other agencies even try to raise money at the same time as they campaign for a change in our relationship with the Third World. This sledgehammer satirical graphic could easily have been commissioned to illustrate an NI article about the greedy consumption of the world's resources by rich countries. In fact it comes from Community Aid Abroad in Australia and was aiming to recruit the most committed donors of all: those prepared to give a regular portion of their salary each month to its Aware Programme'.
YOUR TINY HAND
The white hand belonged to Leslie Kirkley, the original director of Oxfam UK; the identity of the child ravaged by the Biafran civil war in 1968 was predictably not recorded. Kirkley led Oxfam UK right through the 1950s and 1960s and deserved great credit for his work.
But everything about this particular image is wrong. It sums up the paternalistic approach to world development: the feeble, childlike Third World enveloped caringly by the big, superior Western man who stoops to meet it out of the goodness of his heart. There are still aid-agency directors who would pose in such positions for the camera. But a charity that promoted this image of itself and of the Third World now would be utterly unworthy of our support.
Photos which show someone looking straight out at the reader always pack an emotional punch - especially if they belong to a child. The child-sponsorship agencies use the same kind of photos endlessly to tug at the heartstrings of potential foster parents by mail'. Child sponsorship is the easiest way to raise money because it is a kind of aid constructed to appeal to the donor. It makes the donor feel good as the copy with this picture makes clear: 'Sponsoring a child through the Christian Children's Fund is easy, affordable, and it will be one of the most enriching experiences you will ever have. It takes only $21 a month to save a child's life, give them hope for the future, and show them that someone does love them.'
But at the recipient's end such sponsorship tends to cause divisions as people are plucked out of poverty as if by God; it creates Western aspirations that cannot be fulfilled; and it maintains a relationship built on paternalism and dependence. There are better ways to help.
Images are such dynamite that extreme care has to be taken. Oxfam UK has worked very hard over the years on its use of images, and now has strict guidelines which all its workers are supposed to observe. The image above fits those guidelines perfectly and was chosen as a centrepiece of the charity's anniversary launch.
But some people have objected to the choice of slogan on the grounds that the secondary meaning of the word 'fairer' - 'whiter' - might pander to racial prejudice. They point out that the danger is increased by coupling the words to an image which is reversed out to show black people as white.
Aware of the possible controversy, the organization's press office canvassed black groups and met with no objection. But should they have gone ahead and built their whole visual identity for this anniversary year around a collision of words and images about which there was some doubt?
THE WHOLE PERSON
Aid agencies now are very conscious of the photographs they use. They try to choose pictures that show how active their partners in the South are in the process of their own development. The aim is to present the whole person rather than just the aspect of them that the Western public might want or expect to see. Often they show a person working and will always try to give their name.
The eager 11-year-old on the left, for example, is Tununu Malidi, at work with the 51 others in her class at Mount Meru Primary School in Arusha, Tanzania. The difference between this image of an African child and those on the opposite page could hardly be more dramatic.