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Charity images ‘not doing enough’ to humanise world’s poor

Charity imagery taken in the global south too often depicts it as “disease-ridden and exotic” and does not do enough to humanise its subjects, according to the curator of a new exhibition that aims to provide a “deeper” perspective.

Ekow Eshun, the writer, editor and chair of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, said charity photography and reportage could still often misrepresent the people its creators are trying to manufacture empathy for.

“Some charity imagery or reportage photography depicts the developing world as this place, this other that’s inherently troubled, that’s disease-ridden or exotic in some form or another,” he said. “There’s an important emphasis sometimes on crisis and instability, but there’s also this sense that we see the people caught up in those issues, as a group, as a collective, rather than individuals with agency or autonomy.”

Eshun has curated a new photography exhibition in partnership with the Fund for Global Human Rights charity with work he hopes takes a deeper look at life in the global south. Artists focus on life in Africa, South America, and south and south-east Asia.

Eshun, whose Face to Face exhibition will be shown in King’s Cross, London, chose photographers and artists who spent, in some cases, several years working on projects to avoid a “parachuted-in” feel from the work.

Ogoni Boy, 2007, Oil Rich Niger Delta, 2003-2007

George Osodi, the award-winning Nigerian photographer, spent four years between 2003 and 2007 building relationships with the people of the Niger delta in southern Nigeria, documenting how oil exploration was dramatically affecting their lives.

Osodi said: “It was meant to be a blessing that oil was discovered, in reality it turned out to be a curse. That’s what I’m trying to state with my images; it’s about depicting the reality on the ground and people’s daily lives.

“The images might look appealing to the viewer but underneath there’s a very disturbing message.”

Other images in the exhibition include Dhruv Malhotra’s depictions of life in Delhi, work from Mexican photographer Alejandro Cartagena and Sabelo Mlangeni’s look at underground LGBT life in Lagos, Nigeria.

Untitled Sleepers, 2007-2013

James Logan, European director of the Fund for Global Human Rights, said this year had “starkly exposed” the consequences of inequality, racism and authoritarianism and that he hoped the work could “show that we can all make a difference and create positive social change”.

“Facing the crippling effects of Covid-19 and its devastating impact on marginalised communities, people are questioning the way our societies are set up, while movements like Black Lives Matter have highlighted how activism can challenge systemic human rights abuse,” he said.

Eshun added that the exhibition’s aim was to humanise its subjects and encourage viewers to look more closely at the lives that the photographers are depicting.

He said: “I think one of the goals that we set out to do was to find a way to always bring together sets of work that allows us to look with more empathy, with more proximity with more engagement, rather than to play those same games of objectification.”

It comes after the Guardian revealed last week that Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) broadcast a $400,000 (GBP307,000) TV fundraising campaign in Canada despite warnings from staff that it was exploitative, reinforced racist “white saviour” stereotypes and breached the medical charity’s ethical guidelines.

Dorothea Papier on her birthday. Black Ranch Pos #2, Spitzkoppe (Namibia). 23 February 2016 'Cry Sadness into the Coming Rain'

A damning review of the decision to run and later withdraw the advert, which featured the REM track Everybody Hurts played over images of crying black children being treated by MSF medics, concluded it exposed a lack of trust in leadership and triggered an “organisational crisis” at MSF Canada.

Some staff and board members alleged they felt pressured to remain silent about their objections to the advert, according to the review, published internally in May. MSF Canada said it had immediately responded to staff concerns over the advert by editing the video before determining it should be pulled, and had conducted a rigorous review of the decision-making process and feedback received.

  • Face to Face is in the King’s Cross Tunnel from 7 October to 1 November 2020