Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
August 3, 2011

A Feast of Famine Pictures From Somalia … and What a Photo "Ought to Do"

Salon inoculated itself and all the usual suspects via an article on the New York Times’ decision to run this haunting Tyler Hicks’ photograph on their front page. Times’ Executive Editor Bill Keller says photographs like this “ought to disturb us, at least.” But if that’s all he’s asking a photograph to do, to  deliver the “concern” in “concern photojournalism,” Keller (and Salon) are missing the point.

Hicks’ emaciated Somali child, like the child in this AP photograph which ran in an NPR article on Somalia last week, is the emblem, badge, symbol of countless famines, political upheavals, and ethnic unrest.  They are the bugaboo of every 6 year old who fails to down his or her broccoli from the 1950s on. We’ve seen so many of these children and our governments have done so little to stop the root causes of their misery, we don’t really see them any longer.  We turn away precisely because there is nothing we can easily do.  Their images become aestheticized into artful shots of near death wrapped in thin brown skin.  Keller and Salon are asking the reader, the visual consumer, to pay attention. Of course, these children (if still alive) need action.

Salon asks, “Can a Photograph Change the World?” When your expectations in this always on 24/7 news cycle are so low, the answer is: you’re asking the wrong question.

— Karen Hull

(photo: Tyler Hicks for The New York Times. caption: A malnourished child at Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia. More than 500,000 Somali children are verging on starvation. photo 2: AP. caption: Mihag Gedi Farah, a seven-month-old child with a weight of 3.4kg, is held by his mother in a field hospital of the International Rescue Committee, IRC, in the town of Dadaab, Kenya, Tuesday, July 26, 2011.)

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