Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Not peddling misery

A girl eats sorghum porridge as she sits in the dirt in Chidyamanga, a village in southern Malawi that has been hard hit by drought in recent years, leading to chronic food insecurity, especially during the "hunger season," when farmers are waiting for the harvest.

Images of hungry children are commonly used by all sorts of organizations to touch the heart of the viewer and thus convince them to give money to the cause. Churches are pretty adept at the practice, what I disgustingly call “peddling misery.” The antidote, however, isn’t to not take photos of hungry children, not if a photographer is trying to accurately convey the brutal conditions in which many people live. The trick, for lack of a more artful term, is something I was searching for on a trip to Malawi last year. The African country had made some real progress in establishing food security, and the president liked to leverage the claim into fame and fortune. It wasn’t the whole truth, as I described in a blog post from the trip, and my job was to visit some sections of the country hard hit by drought, which contributed to food insecurity, especially during the “hunger season” when farmers wait for the harvest. Indeed, I found hungry people, all striving in one way or another to resolve their problems, many by installing ways of irrigating their crops. Global warming has caused problems for farmers who traditionally have depended on rain, which is much more fickle these days. Yet only 3.5 percent of African crop land is irrigated, compared to 39 percent in South Asia. As a result, 47 percent of children under 5 years old in Malawi are stunted from malnutrition.

I took ample photos of people working on irrigation schemes, but none have the emotional pull of this girl, who’s eating sorghum porridge as she sits in the dirt in Chidyamanga, a village in the south of the country. Sorghum, by the way, is usually what people eat when they’ve run out of corn or other preferable foods. I’ll let you judge if the image buys into the old paternalistic stereotype, or whether there’s something else there besides the flies and the obvious poverty. Perhaps it’s the enjoyment with which she relishes the last bits of porridge. I’m not sure I can pin it down, but I like the image. It also enjoys an uncluttered background, which nicely isolates the subject, and is taken while kneeling low, thus avoiding the top-down colonial look of many photos of hungry children. (Yes, I wrote “colonial,” because having the viewer look down on the hungry child subtly reinforces hierarchical relationships of class, color, and power.)

By the way, in April the old president died, rather unexpectedly, and Joyce Banda, by background a community organizer, was sworn into office. She sold the presidential jet and a fleet of 60 presidential luxury cars, announced a war on corruption, removed a ban on homosexuality, started cracking down on domestic violence, and has tackled the challenge of hunger without the self-serving rhetoric of her predecessor. Unlike President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia, who went to Harvard and worked for Citibank, President Banda comes to the post from women’s advocacy, particularly founding women’s micro-credit organizations. Keep an eye on her; she’s someone to watch.

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