What Do You Think of the Picture in This G-8 Ad?

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This past Friday, Save the Children ran a half-page advertisement on page A5 of The Washington Post. Judging by its words, the ad’s purpose was to grab the attention of G-8 leaders meeting in Camp David last week. I’m not sure that happened but I’m sure it grabbed other peoples’ attention.

The left half of the ad is a picture of what appears to be Caucasian people, well-dressed and enjoying a fancy meal, four glasses of wine held aloft as if everyone’s toasting. No one’s full face is in the picture, just the smiling mouth of one of the diners. The right half of the ad is a picture of a young boy, likely African, looking a little dirty, apparently malnourished and with his ribcage showing. He’s gazing directly at the camera, no expression on his face. Text runs across the two pictures: “WITH” in big white letters across the fancy diners and “OUT” in big red letters across the boy. The contrast between the pictures is stark.

The text below the pictures reads: “G-8 Leaders: What’s on your menu this weekend? While you enjoy your first-class meals, more than 170 million kids are suffering from chronic malnutrition, in part because they don’t eat the right variety of food. Producing more food in the world is good. But making sure kids eat the right food is even better. Change starts now. Take action at SaveTheChildren.org/Child-Survival.” (The link leads to a page titled “Hidden Crisis: Malnutrition,” which features the picture of the young boy and urges people to sign a petition. It appears that the ad targets the G-8 and the petition targets the general public.) Below this text there’s a photo credit in tiny print. The Save the Children logo is in the bottom right corner of the advertisement.

I admire Save the Children and I think the organization does great work. However, I’m not posting the ad here because I think the photograph of the boy is sensational and lacking in dignity. In addition, the audience doesn’t know anything about this boy, not his name or when the picture was taken, what his life is like or where he lives. The picture reminds me of those Sally Struthers ads from the ’80s, the ones featuring poor and hungry kids with flies in their eyes. This is the type of picture we talk about avoiding in the CORE Group Humanitarian Photography Group I help lead.

What do you think of the picture in the ad? What are the ethics of using these types of photographs to garner support and awareness about humanitarian issues? Are these pictures effective in building support and awareness? Should organizations use these types of photographs in their communications materials? If so, when?

If you want to see the ad, you can view it on the U.S. Global Leadership Council Twitpic page.


3 Comments

Brian Carlson says:

May 22, 2012 at 8:55 am

I’m sure these pictures are effective in building support (why else would we use them) but I think they are manipulative and rob the subject of dignity. I believe there is a more dignified way of showing the same subject matter. Possibly showing what your organization is doing to help? One issue I have with these kinds of photos is it simplifies the problem. Poverty and malnutrition are complex. They shouldn’t be treated lightly.

The only instances I can think of where this sort of imagery might be appropriate would be in war or genocide. War and genocide are filled with suffering, some of which I think needs to be shown to relay the weight of the situation, especially in a society that is isolated from these issues. That being said, these are complex issues as well and I’m not sure how I feel about using this sort of imagery to depict them, it’s just a thought I’m throwing out.

There is a fine line between manipulative and dignified imagery. There are times when the subject matter seems so grim, how do you bring dignity to it? I think the key is this: we are shooting for organizations that are doing good things. We should be showing those good things in light of the situation and focus less on negative manipulative imagery.

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Laura Elizabeth Pohl says:

May 22, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Thanks for “throwing out” your thoughtful comments, Brian. You bring up some good points. I think many of us working with humanitarian photographs sometimes struggle to balance showing dignity as well as the urgency and grim reality of a difficult humanitarian situation. Where’s that fine line? How much should crossing that line matter if people are roused to action by a photograph that seems to be lacking in dignity? I don’t have the answers — I’m learning myself and always will be — but I think dialogues like this one are useful in figuring out what the answers might be (and I do believe there is more than one answer).

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Emery Graham says:

April 16, 2014 at 3:59 pm

There’s a subtext to this conversation and it seems to be about the use of power. Images, as “Art”, are able to evoke feelings and thoughts without asking permission from the viewer. The contest between dignity and reality emerges from the social context of the artists and their construction of the propriety of power usage. This dialog defines the realm of power technique that is peculiar to all image makers, to artists, i.e., the ability to evoke thought and feeling without permission through the use of the artistic medium. At this level of dialog the artist becomes the warrior/scholar/priest/king and must accept the responsibility for the power they wield. If “poverty is pornographic’, then story tellers are the real pimps and the poor are the prostitutes. If you work out the NGO business model and economics, i.e., the cost of producing the pornograhpy, the revenue from the use, and the amount going to the actors, the distribution of revenue seems to be amazingly proportionate to the street game. For me the real challenge is how to use my artistry to construct a world of giving that teaches a person to construct the world they want to live in and to discern what is worth wanting.

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