Images of the humanitarian crisis in East Africa this year, and particularly the ongoing famine in Somalia, have been pretty difficult to avoid. As a Somali I’m already painfully aware of the scope of the crisis on a more personal level. Which is why I have come to recognise that even for me, these cynical but harrowing descriptions of the famine tend to evoke apathy rather than anything else. On TV news items, countless well-meaning articles describing heart-wrenching stories of struggle in the refugee camps, and thanks to Google’s AdSense, on pretty much every website I visit I see the tiny frame of Baby Hashim. His large, vacant eyes staring back at me almost in judgement. Are these images of absolute despair totally necessary to remind us that these skeletal children are deserving of life? I’m not so sure.
The front page of the New York Times this summer.
This apt term, disaster pornography, was originally coined by human rights activists Rakiya Omaar and Alexander de Waal to describe the voyeuristic Western media coverage of the 1991/2 famine in Somalia, a depressing angle which has re-emerged for this latest catastrophe. This attempt at eliciting charity and sympathy is doubly exploitative. Most dangerously, it perpetuates the humiliating depictions of the poor in the global South. For Somalia, since the outbreak of civil war in 1991 to the present day, these images have focused on the starving child and its helpless mother or the young gunman. These media images also exploit its target audience by reducing an entire people to objects of pity without seizing on the opportunity to educate the masses on the true causes of famine. It is for this reason those of us living comfortably in the West will so often hear the maddening question; “Why don’t they just have less children?”