Illustrating aid

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Just a short post to finish off 2010.

I was struck this morning by the photo used in this Guardian article on UK development assistance.  The article is about DFID’s plans to focus spending on malaria, contraception and safe abortion, and as you can see the image shows a crowd “clamouring” for free condoms.  The image troubled me since, coming in the context of an aid article, it made me think of those other pictures we often see of people reaching in desperation for food and shelter aid from trucks. Images like this one and this one.  The use of images like that is worrying in and of itself since it tells the story in a very particular way.  It is also often the case that emergency aid or relief distribution looks more like this or this… but of course, news editors telling a story about aid are seldom interested in images of refugees forming orderly queues.

Anyway, back to the condoms. Contrary to the impression given by the image in the Guardian article, condom distribution doesn’t on the whole happen like that. Even “committed” condom users aren’t desperate for condoms in the same way that people might be desperate for food, and the idea of people joining an hours-long queue, let alone a stampede, just to get condoms, is absurd.  They would sooner do without (do without the condom, or even do without the sex).  I don’t know what the intention of the Guardian photo editor was, but if this picture was used to illustrate the need for condoms or the ways in which condoms are distributed, it fails.  Much like the stock aid images, it contrasts the benevolence of the giver with the need or dependence of the crowd, though the “need” in each case is quite different.  It strikes me that what is happening in this image is much more likely to be something along these lines: a crowd at an event trying to get some of the free stuff being given out.  

Isn’t it interesting how such different stories are told by such similar images?

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One thought on “Illustrating aid

  1. This is an interesting topic and one much debated over the years. The Guardian has addressed this many times (e.g. http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/books/story/0,10595,858914,00.html) and was among those in the media many years ago that moved away from stark images of starvation and suffering. Novelty played its part, since donors and sympathisers can be numbed even as the images become more graphic and violent.However, the news must sell and editors need to capture attention and find novelty. The condom crowd is a bizarre image and thus quite arresting, beyond the immediate visual appeal of the shape and focus in this photo.

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