May 5, 2005

Life on the Farm


Nicholas Kristof has a passionate editorial in the NYT on Tuesday on why “W” has sold out Darfur. 

Rather than confront what they admit is a genocide, the White House is attempting to railroad legislation that would rollback preventative steps by the U.S. to halt the disaster.  Why the turnabout after earlier intentions to help?  According to Kristof, Bush doesn’t see a neat solution so he wants to avoid getting his hands dirty; he has had some success calming Sudan, and he doesn’t want to apply any more pressure to the factional government; and the Sudanese are making nice with the C.I.A. on terrorism issues, so why interfere?

But that’s news, whereas the BAG’s concern is primarily the visualization of the news. 

In contrast to Kristof’s column — which make the invisible more visible — this image seems to do the opposite.  This photo, which ran a full page wide, accompanied a story in last Sunday’s NYT Week in Review relating the tension between Darfur’s nomadic tribespeople and it’s citizen farmers.  The article explained how Arab nomads have taken to squatting on land which the farmers of Darfur have temporarily abandoned for safety sake.  Apparently, the nomads are not above a little slaughter. 

In the face of this content, however, how are we to feel the connection?

If the headline (you can see it right below the photo) promises access through some sense of what’s broken and how it can be fixed, the article provides no such thing.  (You would need the Kristof piece for that.)  Certainly, our government isn’t engendering any empathy.  And frankly, I’m not sure how much the image does either.  If anything, the visual is about disconnection and separation.  The stump disconnects the animal’s head from its body; the tree separates the woman from her livestock; death separates the animal from it’s animated posture; the barren topography separates the woman from other signs of life; and the woman’s expression and body language separates her from her worldly possessions.

Papers tend to regularly fill enormous spaces with images like this.  All too often, though, the effort seems more grounded in voyeurism than inquiry or advocacy.  In increasingly inelegant times, I keep growing more wary of these elegant windows.  In the same way the farm owner walks past her property with a mournful glance, it is all too illusory for us to come close, look, and assume we have lost something. 

(To view the image at larger scale, go here.  To view the real Darfur, and not just the “arty thing”, go here.)

(image: Thierry Dudoit/L’Express.  May 1, 2005 in The New York Times, Week in Review, p.3;  referral: Darfur Eyewitness via

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Michael Shaw
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