The NGO Moral Dilemma

It is a topic the development aid industry has been struggling with for years: how do we put forth ethical imagery of the developing world that still shocks the Western public enough to donate funds? Put forth an image of a bloated, starving African child and you’ve committed a moral crime, but put forth a positive image of a Central American family celebrating the year’s crop of their coffee, and you might detract your targeted audience from feeling the urgency to donate their money. What then is the solution – and the main question is if a sound solution even exists.

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In a talk at the London School of Economics, Brendan Paddy, Head of Communications at the Disasters Emergency Committee, showed some of the imagery that he feels personally responsible for putting into the public eye throughout his career. Yes, there were the starving children, the flies in the eyes of screaming infants, and of course the White woman cradling the Black baby, as if she was some sort of godsend. Shuffled in with this bunch of photos though were the ones that Paddy was much more enthusiastic about presenting to the public. They essentially had one message at their core: aid is a helping hand, but the real heroes are the victims themselves.

After the talk, I asked Paddy if it is even possible anymore to provide a shock value while simultaneously putting forth morally acceptable images. He believed that we can. It may not be shocking in a demeaning way, but it can still break stereotypes of what the West thinks about the developing world. The trick is keeping engagement with the issue at hand. Like all disasters, the recent Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines will fall out of the main media and the public interest, but funds will still be needed, and there still needs to be a method of meeting these costs.

Returning to the question of ethical imagery, I have to ask if there is an element of racism involved in our acceptance of unethical, shocking imagery. That is, would we be willing to publish an image of a Western child starving and suffering with the same ease that we do those children in the developing world? I believe, to some extent, we would if it supported our fundraising prerogative. In fact, there was recently an image on the tube in London of a young girl – assumed to be from the UK – who was the victim of starvation. The ad was for a food bank. The image was scarring, and her eyes stared at you with desperation, the same way I feel children of the third world have gazed at me in need for my entire life. One cannot deny though that the majority of these images is from the developing world – a world that most of the Western public don’t truly know, and have only been able to find understanding and meaning through shocking, degrading images, as if this is all that exists within these countries.

The harsh reality is that no member of the public will have the same emotional connection to the imagery that people like Paddy do. At some points, Paddy was even brought to tears because he knows these children, he’s spoken to them, and he’s seen the devastation they face everyday of their lives. The people that live in the West however most likely cannot even begin to imagine these circumstances, if they even hold an interest to begin with.  Shock can therefore still have value; after all, in today’s world there are less and less visuals that are capable of shocking our exposed minds. The gap between visual consumption and bodily experience can never be filled without the desire of the consumer to take action.

This is an issue with which I feel extremely personally invested. I’ve volunteered in three developing countries – Tanzania, Peru, and Thailand – and in all of these countries, I’ve taken these images. One in particular (that I’ve posted on this page) looks almost identical to a photo you might receive in the mail when you sponsor a child through Amnesty International or World Vision. This image is typical and has been done by innumerous photographers, but the truth is that it was easy to find. It didn’t take long to find the perfect shot of a schoolchild with that captivating look on his or her face because it surrounded me. Images that I preferred from that experience were those from the soccer match that we’d organized between two local high schools because it was filled with moments of joy and equality. Volunteers and students were all equally passionate and competitive, and it remains one of the most inspirational and proud moments I’ve experienced. It also taught me a lesson that I don’t believe everyone in the West understands: the developing world has just as much, if not more, to teach the West than the West can teach it. When it comes to choosing one of these images to present for a marketing purpose however, unfortunately I think it is clear which one would win.

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