Is there more to this photo than meets the eye?
I became an activist in 2014.
In 2014 my city was invaded by hordes of protestors wearing white, demanding peace and democracy through disruption on the streets, no longer willing to accept the destruction and despair handed down to us by politicians. I remember walking across a bridge overlooking Asok road, the heart and soul of Bangkok, seeing nothing but people and hearing nothing but cheers for miles and miles. Standing as far as I could see were human beings who thought that change was coming.
In 2014 I was 16 years old. I was young, and perhaps a little idealistic. I wanted to change the world, but felt invisible among the revolutionaries in white, powerless amidst the in-fighting and secrets of the political elite. I looked elsewhere to make my mark.
In 2014 my school (recently incorporated into Nord Anglia Education Co.) flew my friends and I to Tanzania, Africa. Here, I was to be an ambassador for my educational community. I was to spend weeks changing the lives of children at the Maua Primary School, reporting daily to students around the world about how amazing my experience was, about “how wonderful it was... to be able to give back.”
In 2014 I realised that I was complicit in a publicity scheme. I was an example of how naive, but arguably good-hearted students can be used as opportunities for large corporations to act like they care. The revolutionary work I thought I was doing was replaced by requirements I wear my school T-shirt for the photographers, ready to capture me in a moment of giving. I didn’t. I was told to gush and smile for the video cameras that asked me how good it felt to be an influential global citizen. I cried instead.
In 2014 I left Tanzania with photographs of the children I thought I would help. These children had become a part of my photography portfolio - anonymous, innocent, a symbol for what humanity was doing wrong - through the same medium that made me a symbol for what humanity was doing right. My relationship with photography matured into one ruled by skepticism; I, as person in possession of the camera, have control of how this story is told. To the outside world, my photographs were evidence that I had made a tangible difference to an impoverished community, but I knew that I had done nothing but paint school walls blue.
In 2014 we did not create change. We created moments that looked like we were.
I soon learned, however, that the way I had portrayed these children was not a unique phenomenon. People of colour, especially those from developing countries, have commonly been exoticized and patronized for decades through the visual medium by mainstream media and NGOs alike. In 1984, a photograph of a starving child from Ethiopia, a decade after the civil war began, was broadcast by the BBC, exposing the white world to the horrors of a drought-induced famine engulfing the lives of millions (Michael Buerk, BBC, 1984). Through this process the child’s individuality disappeared because he was no longer just starving - he was materializing starvation itself. His anguish, caught or perhaps constructed by the photographer, provoked an influx of humanitarian aid and food relief, whose workers did not consider the complex socio-political context on the ground - context evidently unable to be articulated by a single portrait photograph. The famine, later revealed, was state-engineered, and food aid was subsequently used as part of counter-insurgency strategies which cost many innocent civilians their lives. (Alex De Waal, 1991). Galvanized by a photograph, western aid workers added another layer of complexity to a situation no one had even attempted to understand from the beginning.
I call you to question: who shapes the narratives you consume, and for what purpose? Whose rights are violated, or perhaps protected, throughout this process? I am not dismissing the fact that the visual has been successful in exposing human rights abuses, depicting protest movements all around the globe, and has functioned as an instrumental tool for creative activists like myself. But it is worth considering that photography, especially in the context of humanitarian aid, is not always objective or benevolent. It is worth asking yourself, perhaps, if there’s more to a photo than meets the eye.
The following photo collection, featuring people belonging to the indigenous communities in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia, is by photographer Trevor Cole. A valley that almost 200,000 people call home, the Omo Valley has been deemed one of the most diverse areas on the globe, as it encompasses eight agro-pastoral communities whose livelihood and land is dependent upon access to the river (Human Rights Watch, 2019). Over the decades, the valley has become an enticing location for visiting tourists, with various guide books and websites painting the valley as an exotic world like no other. What many visiting tourists do not know, is that these communities are being coercively displaced by the Ethiopian government to make way for new state-sponsored development projects. What is more, lands are also being leased to foreign corporations eager to build sugar and cotton plantations (National Geographic, 2017). Livelihoods of those in the Omo Valley are at war with the policies, infrastructure, and neo-colonial crusades of states who have no other motive than to continue existing as a cog in a capitalist machine. Corporations and government alike, do not care for, respect, or understand, the rights and sovereignty of those who occupy territories deemed valuable only for its economic potential.
I hope readers acknowledge that the people featured in these wonderfully shot photographs are real, and that there is inherent coloniality in marvelling, exoticising, and visually manipulating those from developing nations to evoke white saviour guilt, kickstart problematic humanitarian relief efforts, or sensationalise the “other” as a tourist attraction. This photo collection, while undoubtedly standing as a testament to the power of photography in capturing the diversity of people, emotions, and experiences that deserve to be protected, is not, and should not, be viewed as a universal representation of Africans, Ethiopians, or even its indigenous populations.
Because every medium has its limits, even photography.
This article was first published as part of LSESU Amnesty International Society’s annual human rights journal “A Climate of Change.”
DeWaal, A. (1991). Evil Days. Donors 'ignore abuses' in Ethiopia. (2013). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-23344154
Ethiopia: stealing the Omo Valley, destroying its ancient Peoples. (2015). Retrieved from https://theecologist.org/2015/feb/16/ethiopia-stealing-omo-valley-destroying-%20its-ancient-peoples
Interview: Ethiopia Lets in Human Rights Watch for First Time in 8 Years. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/02/22/interview-ethiopia-lets-human-rights-watch-after-8-year-ban
See a Massive Dam’s Big Impacts on Tribal Communities. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2017/08/omo-dam- ethiopia-kenya-photographs/
Thirty years of talking about famine in Ethiopia - why's nothing changed?. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/34776109/thirty-years-of-talking-about-famine-in-ethiopia---whys-nothing-changed