The Guardian newspaper (UK) continues its Flickr photo projects in 2012 with this interesting challenge. Only open to those residing in developing countries, they are asking people to document one theme over the coming year. Whether education, farming, business or politics – they want people to shoot a series of images regularly over the year to tell an in-depth and evolving story.
Obviously, some countries are more attractive than others as places to live, though much will depend on where you are from and what you like. However, some are not predisposed to peaceful, easy living. But even in the most economically destitute places on the planet the picture is far more nuanced than is often represented in the media. Case in point, Foreign Policy’s ‘Postcards from Hell.’ The piece takes an ever so fleeting look at 60 of the world’s top ‘failed states’ (they even get a numerical rating ranking how fucked they are). For each we get one photo and a paragraph describing the country’s wows. Mainly focussed on African and South Asia in includes some places that currently have or have had in the recent past some troubled times. But rather than shed light on under-reported conflicts and poverty it just slaps a huge ‘FUCKED’ label on a host of vastly different countries and situations (sometimes even whilst admitting things are on the up).
But the problems don’t end there. Some of the countries included on the list are highly questionable – Bhutan? Exactly how is this a ‘failed state’? If you are going to list it then at least mention the 100,000 people who were forced to leave and have now lived in Nepal as refugees for 15 years. Or Bangladesh, admittedly not without problems but has made good progress in recent years. And Nepal, experiencing post-conflict political difficulties, but at least they are ‘post-conflict (and FP, no serious analyst on Nepal at the moment thinks the Maoists will go back to war). I could list more – the point being, what is this list trying to achieve? Show people in wealthy countries that despite the ‘Great Recession’ that things could be a lot worse?
In this piece FP have demonstrated exactly how NOT to do a foreign correspondent photo piece. It provides just enough info to add to the over simplified images perpetuated by much of the media on these parts of our world, but not enough to show the complex, and often positive, side of things. Certainly, individuals who feature are characters, composites of poverty and violence. No lives are explored and revealed. I am surprised there wasn’t an accompanying map with big red crosses just to show us where not to go. Nonsense.
Interesting article in the National Journal magazine on the digital democratisation of image making. It covers the usual questions of how this ‘revolution‘ will impact on socio-political events, particularly in regard to so-called ‘citizen journalism’?
So, as you would imagine the question of undemocratic / censoring political systems comes up, especially China and Iran, and whether governments today can get away with the atrocities they did in years gone by? My view is that more people producing images and making them available to more people is all very well but the impact this will be determined by how they are used and people are mobilised. As the article points out, we should not fall into the trap of heralding yet another technological advance as the end of human oppression.
There are several key issues to consider; 1) ‘Do the math‘ - more stuff being produced means most stuff will get lost in the noise. Some stuff will float to the top and others will sink without trace. There may be more stuff out there but audiences will form into interest groups and be splintered; 2) ‘We are all human’ – our capacity, interest and time to process information are finite, no matter what snazzy web collators / filterers you use. Already issue groups compete for people’s time and money, this will only intensify; 3) ‘Get involved’ – getting info to people is one thing, getting them to act is another. To have impact you need to be organised, to mobilise people the info needs to be packaged for the audience and be trustworthy; 4) ‘Witnessing’ – the camera does lie, governments do too, images alone do not change the world (see point 3). Don’t assume that because a government is caught with their trousers down (or guns out) that things will change (i.e. Oct 2007 demos in Burma, March 2008 Tibet etc.); 5) ‘What we have governments have’ – OK, you no longer have to rely on state TV to get the ‘news’ but governments still have a great deal of resources at their disposal to spread propaganda. Groups wanting to spread hate and violence for what ever reason also have these tools, and as such we may just see an esscalation in info competition, cancelling out any major benefits in tipping the balance in the favour of peace and love.
Excellent post on the ‘After Photography‘ blog on the keys issues regarding shifts in communications on social issues. It focusses on the move away from linear witnessing towards pluralistic conversations. It comes at this via journalism but applies to the work of NGOs and activists as well. Some of my thoughts on the post are copied below.
‘Thanks for this excellent summary of the key points regarding shifts taking place in communications around social issues. I look forward to getting hold of a copy of your book to see how practically this could work. I agree that there is great potential for creating ‘conversations’ between ‘subject’, ‘reader’ and ‘journalist’, and that this could facilitate better understanding of solutions and appropriate roles for each in addressing issues. The ‘subject’ is increasingly becoming the producer of content, and a key challenge is how this content is used to maximise its impact within strategies for change? I can see the beginnings of this in social activism but it is at an embryonic stage (currently more a ‘meet & greet’ than a ‘virtuous chain of information and mobilisation’ at local, national and international levels). I come at this from a social activist perspective and can see how ‘voice’ (attained in part via new media) can empower individuals and communities impacted by rights violations, as well as better informing those wishing to be involved in a solution from a distance. The democratisation of communications will need to be supported by genuine participation in decision making and action – which is an organisational challenge. I think there needs to be a balance between ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ (as put forward by James Surowieiki) and the potential for an overly democratised space to be usurped by interest groups (as put forward by Fareed Zakaria in ‘The Future of Freedom’). Democratisation does not necessarily lead to better representation, and requires the involvement of diverse, independent, informed and numerous voices. The level of peoples understanding and involvement is still going to vary, and although we need to aim at presenting the world more accurately we still need to provide information and opportunities for a variety of audiences to be involved – which may be purely providing funds at one end of the spectrum to dedicated in-depth activism at the other.’
Infochange India is inviting applications for its 2009 Media Fellowships. These fellowships will be awarded to journalists, film makers and researchers reporting on a selected topic of research. The topic chosen must be related to social justice/sustainable development in India.
The fellowships must result in either a series of five or more original articles, three or more audio documentaries, or one documentary film.
The deadline for applications is 30 September. Click here for full details.