Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
October 24, 2016

Haiti, Matthew and the Limits of Attention

A young boy watches helicopters carrying politicians to the worst hit areas land in Roche-a-Bateau, southwestern Haiti, on Oct. 8, 2016 following Hurricane Matthew. Andrew McConnell—Panos

Why does one critical event capture more attention from the visual media and “name photojournalists” than another?

What made Kiev Square such a draw? Or Ferguson? Or Occupy Wall Street? Or the Nairobi Mall attack? And what leaves other events, such as the Syrian crisis or the Fukushima FUBAR or the campaigns in Afghanistan or Iraq, largely ignored or forgotten?

We can tease out plenty of factors, including access; duration; western interest (strategic, pocketbook and attention span); dramatic value; and, critically, what else is going on in the world. Too often, though, the difference feels random, and cold-hearted.

These questions are often in my head as I watch what and how much of what fills up the visual newswires and media photo galleries. For example, I wondered about the deluge of coverage of the Trump hurricane as compared to Hurricane Matthew. I was also mindful of the much greater attention given the serious impact of America’s Matthew as compared to the Matthew that has thoroughly devastated Haiti. And I was thinking about the difference in the paltry attention paid to the Haiti cataclysm now, as compared to the concentrated and acclaimed (in fact, inordinately fixated) coverage of the Haiti Earthquake by the world’s leading photojournalists and visual news organizations in 2010. Mirroring that attention, we here at Reading the Pictures also looked plenty (if ironically, many photo links are now broken).

That all went through my head when I saw the photo above. The caption reads:

A young boy watches helicopters carrying politicians to the worst hit areas land in Roche-a-Bateau, southwestern Haiti, on Oct. 8, 2016.

Given the general futility of Haitian self-governance, as well as the limited effect of international support and rebuilding efforts, especially since 2010, the photo is painfully apt.

A UN helicopter lands next to aid sent by the United States for the people affected by Hurricane Matthew, in Jeremie, southwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on October 10, 2016. Haiti's death toll from monster Hurricane Matthew has risen to 372, civil defense officials said Monday, as the impoverished country continues to dig out of massive destruction in the south. More than 175,500 people were staying in temporary shelters, days after the Caribbean's worst storm in nearly a decade slammed into Haiti last Tuesday. / AFP / Rodrigo ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)

Of course, there have been many heart wrenching photo galleries of Haiti in the aftermath of Matthew (12) because, frankly, there is plenty of news photo gallery space to fill. But what hit me again was still another helicopter photo — this one of US Aid boxes being heaved from a UN helicopter.

Sometimes, the most informative photo in a thoroughly distracted world is the one that is that impersonal.

(photo 1: Andrew McConnell—Panos. photo 2: Rodrigo Arangua / AFP / Getty. caption: A UN helicopter lands next to aid sent by the United States for the people affected by Hurricane Matthew, in Jeremie, Haiti, on October 10, 2016)

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