by Sasha Alyson
When UNICEF needed photos from Bolivia, India, Jordan, Malawi, Myanmar and Niger to illustrate their clean-water campaign, did they hire local photographers in each of those countries?
No, they engaged an Australian man living in New York.
The photographer they chose was the award-winning Ashley Gilbertson, at VII Photo Agency, who produced good work for their “#Wateris: a family affair” campaign. In my opinion, however, that’s no excuse for UNICEF hiring him rather than local photographers in each country.
But that’s how most Western aid agencies work. Three years later, UNICEF published “Crisis in the Central African Republic” (shown at top). Every single photo is tagged “Gilbertson VII Photo”.
It’s not just UNICEF. The reports shown above were published (often jointly) by World Vision, Save the Children, Plan International, ChildFund, and W.H.O., as well as UNICEF. The first report is titled Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000-2017; Special focus on inequalities. It was published by UNICEF and the World Health Organization. The cover photograph is by an Italian man.
In these five reports, U.N. agencies and international NGOs tell how they help people in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. But the cover photos (and often most or all of the photos inside) were taken by Americans and Western Europeans.
If these organizations are concerned about inequalities, why don’t they make it a policy to always hire local talent in the countries they wish to help?
It seems like a no-brainer. Hiring local photographers would provide jobs where jobs are needed. It would help people in the global South to build their resumes and develop stronger skills. It would reward those who have invested in doing so. It would mean that aid money which is supposed to help these countries, would actually go into them without immediately bouncing back out. It would show respect for the local people, rather than treating them merely as a population in need of help.
Aid agencies typically hire local staff only for low- and mid-level positions. That’s an important story, but a different one. Here, I’m asking: Why do they so often pass up local talent when they need video work, graphic designers, and photographers, in favor of Westerners?
For some jobs, such as a big video project, they may argue that the skills needed aren’t available locally. Given the poor state of public education in most of these countries – much of which is a result of policies pushed by the U.N. – there may be some validity to this. But freezing out locals is not going to improve the situation, it simply creates greater inequality. At the very least, these agencies should insist on local involvement as much as possible. They do not.
In the case of photography, there’s simply no good excuse. Every country has photographers able to produce excellent work… and they’ll charge less than a globe-trotting Westerner. Why does the aid industry give so many assignments — especially the bigger ones with higher pay and travel opportunities and which are crucial for building up resumes — to Westerners?
Several factors are clearly at work.
First, it’s easier. Aid workers usually only stay in a country for one or two years. They socialize with other ex-pats, who often make a comfortable living by providing free-lance services to NGOs. Nurturing these connections comes naturally, and will benefit everybody’s career and social life.
Furthermore, the aid industry comes with an Us-and-Them mindset. We are the ones with answers, and we’re paid to help. They are the ones who need our help; they’ll be the subject of our photos. In this ethos, Westerners are the first people considered for any skilled job.
And there is a bias, whatever you wish to call it. The Western aid worker is more comfortable working with other Westerners. There are cultural, and often language, differences if you work with local talent. Aid workers may, without even consciously thinking about it, assume that people like themselves will do a better job.
But while we might understand all this, that doesn’t excuse it. Karma colonialism is the nicest term we can think of for this behavior.
The tweet which announced this story has generated much lively commentary. Here are highlights.
Justus Keith, @matandaJK: True 100%. I am in Uganda, Africa and I totally know and I have experienced it as a photographer.
Mebo Philip, @MPhipex: Anyone with practical experience knows the aid Agencies have a purpose and their pictures must meet their very expectations for “business” to continue. These pictures must always portray the poor countries as ridiculously helpless, they alone have to be the saviours.
Karabelo Mosia, @MosiaKarabelo: simple, we’re not as poor as they make us look!! the Australian man has a mandate to capture only the poor.
John Jude Adnan, @BENDYMAN20: Cynical me sometimes thinks this AID is similar to the Missionaries of yonder who had slave traders in tow at some point.
Joy Haines, @JoyHaines6: Excellent piece. Sadly witnessed this mindset, ‘up close & personal’ when I lived & worked in West Africa back in mid ‘80’s… 21st century hasn’t improved our western-mentality much! Except now, people are on the move northwards, less sun, but perhaps, improved opportunities~
Vita Fugit, @FugitVita: It’s how the Aid game works. If you’ve worked in overseas aid/development and you haven’t noticed this then you’ve either failed to open your eyes or you’ve chosen to look the other way.
Alimatu Dimonekene, @TheAlima: I see this also in the fight to end violence against women and girls. Every conference and summit I’ve attended has a face of a child from Africa, Asia or Latin America. Yet in making decisions around funding and expertise you hardly see these same faces.
Taremwa karakire, @TaremwaD: I relate to this story. I was once part of a USAID project in Uganda where they always hired photographers all the way from USA to come and document the project.
Mana, @Jun1orm: A local photographer will do his best to make his community show the best it has to offer while a foreign one will do exactly what they want.
iNk, @nwaoma007: The Australian man knows that his brief is to tell a specific facet of the story which promotes the narrative UNICEF wants to disseminate.
Sunflower, @TalelovesSuga: This is why I don’t like it when a white person points a camera at me… You can find yourself on a UNICEF poster.
Ruby, @Oghenerume9: I had always known this in my heart but it was confirmed when I was working for one NGO and actually saw with my eyes that it was all fraud. Life has been worse for the poor in developing countries since more and more NGO’s came around
O&B, @The44Families: This is business people. You really believe UNICEF and Co want equality and self-sufficiency in Africa, Asia, and Latin America? Say they succeed in their purported goals, what then will be the reason(s) to keep them around? They need the needy to be relevant
Takor, @Takor61802157: Foreign bodies talk negative things about third world countries, they don’t take photos of the good things in third world countries, only negative ones.
david pearce, @davidpe11188501: A local head of UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] told me that the children learn to cry on command for foreign visitors, esp photographers. Otherwise, the children look and act quite normal. They need crying children to sell their product.
[Author adds: In her book The Crisis Caravan, Dutch journalist Linda Polman records many stories of the quest for heart-rending photos. Of a camp for amputees in Sierra Leone, she writes: “Like pit bulls in a kindergarten, journalists from all over the world pounced on the story of the amputees. From CNN and the New York Times to Dutch public television and the South China Morning Post, they all managed to find Murray Town Camp. ‘It’s never been so easy to collect money as it is with the pictures of these poor devils,’ said an INGO staff member in Freetown.”]
Faye Pixie, @PixieFaye: The Us and Them thing is so true. Even if some of these organizations are trying to be benign, they’re still being colonialists about our countries. Photography is inherently biased as you choose what you want to photograph to “spread awareness”.
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