Amongst all the strife and apparent upheaval in the West, that nebulous entity we once took for granted – and go on continuing to take for granted for fear of what lies outside it – there are some developments that can show us that the old difficulties of a complicated world growing ever more complicated haven’t gone anywhere. The liberal order of progressive, centre politics may be falling apart, but at least we’re not quite starving yet, right? Only of course as things stand at the time of writing, there are portents everywhere that business is not as usual, that in fact the calamity we are always dealing with is going to rise up with a ferocity more stronger than ever before. Because in actual fact some of us are starving, and we may no longer have the capability or the stomach to be able to see these facts.
For today, in February 2017, Donald Trumpet will announce a budget that decimates American diplomatic and foreign aid – soft power budgets – at the same time as it ramps up defence spending. By roughly $54bn – a helluva lot of dosh for more tanks, hellfire missiles, helicopters. Whatever you want, you name it. He’s gonna buy it. The USA already spends more on its military than the next nine highest spending countries combined. This is truly hard to fathom. The reasoning and justification behind this can only result in a kind of horror in the right minded, the level-headed. As one commentator has said, it’s like buying 100 bright fire engines to protect your shiny towers, only to rip out all the smoke alarms while you’re at it. Indeed over a hundred former generals and military officials have stated as much. While not only does it defy logic to let the security and diplomatic infrastructure go to ruin, the very same mechanisms that inhibit global conflicts and crises in the first place, it also should horrify exactly the disenfranchised and lesser well off demographic segment of America that we are told allowed for Trumpet to become president in the first place.
But let us not think that this is confined to the USA alone. Today, like yesterday and like tomorrow, people across Europe will rely on Food Banks and charity to feed themselves and their family. Hunger is of us. It isn’t just something willed by those dieting for the desire to be more attractive, it is unwilled and unwanted for many within our own communities – and it is something difficult to see unless one wants to actively seek it out. And this then becomes a question to ask: why would one want to seek out images of their fellow human going hungry? What will we gain from regarding the starvation of others? What indeed, does hunger look like?
These questions can be asked now more than ever, with the current American administration entering into a process of apparent economic nationalism, which in turn gives fuel to the notion of a retreat of empathy, a supposed draining of people’s willingness to express solidarity and compassion. However also in the news this week is a historic pledge given at a summit in Oslo, Norway: a third of the 1.5 billion dollars the UN has requested, with the Norwegians taking the lead. The US and UK have yet to pledge anything, although that is in line with budget cycles and expectations, the hope being that in time and once the transition between administrations is complete it will come through, although the noises coming from the nasty cabal at the head of the US government doesn’t leave one to hope for much, if anything at all.
Last week famine was declared in South Sudan. It is threatened in at least four countries, with the UN declaring that the prospect of it being declared in Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen also a strong possibility. Aid agencies have never been so over stretched. Many factors are playing to create a perfect storm that could be devastating for up to 12 million people, from the interminable Boko Harem insurgency to drought across the Lake Chad region. One key underlying cause that affects the ability for crop development, and in turn for aid to reach those most affected by this crop failure, is conflict. In turn the severity of the conflicts in Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen has led directly to less journalists reporting on the ground, which leads to an ignorance on behalf of countries and publics that would otherwise be more knowledgeable and donating a lot more than they currently are; married to all of this is the lack of understanding as to why aid matters in the first place and how short termism, fed by narrow minded politicians, leads to a tightening of purse strings right at the moment when serious efforts at reform and expansion of international aid and development should be pursued, and indeed is being advocated by those in the business and most familiar with its complicated workings.
It has long been outlined how journalism and representations of war have been used and deployed by ‘those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists’, as Susan Sontag had it in her famous book-length essay from which this article takes its title1. In the celebrated, oft referred to text, she outlines what images of war and brutalism did and did not achieve, tracing the history of the photographic view of war from its very beginning through to the super mediated age of 9/11 and all that images of war have given us. Starting with Virginia Wolfe’s own response to photographs of the Spanish Civil War, Sontag writes that Wolfe’s conception and doubling of what these images do to the mind of the viewer ‘allows photographs to be both objective record and personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality – a feat literature has long aspired to, but could never attain in this literal sense.’ (Page 23) Throughout the text, Sontag seems to be trying to reconcile literature’s disability to do what photographers and photography can do, namely be both subjective and objective, democratic and unbiased at the same time as being ultimately captured by someone – that is, authored. But perhaps it is with memory, that which literature does deal with so well, and that Sontag says is local, that war is best remembered –
The memory of war, however, like all memory, is mostly local. Armenians, the majority in diaspora, keep alive the memory of the Armenian genocide of 1915; Greeks don’t forget the sanguinary civil war in Greece that raged through the late 1940s. But for a war to break out of its immediate constituency and become a subject of international attention, it must be regarded as something of an exception, as wars go, and represent more than the clashing interests of the belligerents themselves. Most wars do not acquire the requisite fuller meaning. (Page 30)
And this can of course be extended to hunger, and more often than not for every war, there is an interruption in the food chain for the civilian population. This would require an entire article or indeed treatise in itself – the collective memory of hunger and what it does to a people. The Irish famine in the 1840s saw the population of the island decimated by over 50%, with incalculable repercussions, from the Irish diaspora’s affect on the world, but also to the seeding of an urgent nationalism that would ultimately give rise to independence. Or in Germany, the memory of the Second World War and the barren years that followed are often cited as an indelible markers on the mental landscape of a whole generation, leading to the economic miracle but also perhaps to a level headed approach to debt, and even the use of cash.
Many of those ‘specialised tourists’, to reiterate Sontag’s unfortunate term for the war journalists of the 1960s and 70s, did a lot to convey the horror of wars’ attendant famines. Reporting from south eastern Asia or Africa, they started to bring war and famine back to a Europe that by then enjoying peace for a generation. One of them, was Don McCullin, the renowned British photo-journalist and subject of a recent well received documentary McCullin (the biopic starring Tom Hardy is forthcoming); he managed to show that ‘famines were not just “natural” disasters; they were preventable [and as such] they were crimes of great magnitude.’ (Page 31)
The world has gotten a lot more complex than the heyday of photojournalists like McCullin, and you could use the fortunes of his career as an indication of their fate. He suffered from the rise of the likes of Robert Murduch and the overtly commercial direction his takeover of the Times Newspaper group ushered in during the 1980s, resulting in an editorial direction that favoured a The Sunday Times Magazine oriented toward lifestyle and luxury products rather than gritty, real life dispatches from some of the world’s most turbulent corners. You could say the world is doubly different now, even from the time Sontag was writing Regarding the Pain of Others – not only did the two Gulf Wars result in the devastation of Iraq, which was only beginning to unfold at the time of her death in 2004, but then the financial crisis of 2008, the Arab Spring and its myriad fallouts, not least the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS – all of this, coupled with the rise of Trumpet and the unfortunate lies told to the British people about Brexit, leads one to see just how journalism is needed more than ever.
To read McCullin on Biafra, or indeed to hear him talk about his experience photographing starving and dying children, is to get a sense of the mindless and simply mad nature of what war is: Biafra was a secessionist state of Nigeria, its breakaway leading to a civil war from 1967 to 1970. The federal government blockaded the state and this led to starvation on a massive scale. McCullin, himself recovering from a bout of malaria, visited a Catholic mission, home to around 800 starving war orphans and children: ‘Half blind children with bellies like beer barrels (from malnutrition and kwashiorkor) stood on legs like sticks. One boy’s arms hung out of their sockets, attached only by thin strips of skin…Others lay dying in their own excrement with flies encrusting their sores. It was beyond war, it was beyond journalism, it was beyond photography, but not beyond politics.’ Mc Cullin was duly devastated by what he documented that day, but could justify it, even years afterward, because he felt he ‘would like to think these images brought help to the beleaguered hospitals with their dying children. I knew my pictures had a message, but what it was precisely I couldn’t’ have said – except, perhaps, that I wanted to break the hearts and spirits of secure people.’
And that is exactly what he did: his photos resulted in widespread protests back in the UK and across Europe. We have gotten used to images of starving people from parts of Africa, images used more often than not to jolt us into what Sontag called the ‘unstable emotion’ of compassion, and in turn to donate to charity, to feel like we can do something. Not by lobbying our governments for extra foreign aid expenditure and to hold the governments and NGOs to account, or indeed to make them stop the export of arms or to intervene in the complex conflicts more often than not behind famine – but to donate money. Or at worse, to say ‘oh dear’, and turn the channel on the TV.
There are arguments against regarding the hunger of others, of those less well off than us, of fellow humans that might live next door, amongst us in our society, or in the next continent over. Plenty of people simply curate what they see or read, in the contemporary, Internet connected, world – images of every conceivable human suffering is right there just out of sight, present yet easily ignored. Again let’s look at Sontag, she uses the then novel government act of putting disturbing images on cigarette boxes, something that arrived in Germany only two years ago:
‘Right now the smokers of Canada are recoiling in disgust, if they do look at these pictures. Will those still smoking five years from now still be upset? Shock can become familiar. Shock can wear off. Even if it doesn’t, one can not look. People have means to defend themselves against what is upsetting— in this instance, unpleasant information for those wishing to continue to smoke. This seems normal, that is, adaptive. As one can become habituated to horror in real life, one can become habituated to the horror of certain images.’ (Page 65)
This growing inoculation against images of fellow hungry humans was the seed for a paralysis, for what the British journalist and film maker Adam Curtis has termed ‘Oh Dearism’. Because these images have become divorced from much larger, more complicated narratives, which is not only regrettable but dangerous because after all ‘narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.’ If America, for the first time since the second world war, or arguable its history, does pull back from the world into an economic nationalism, it could well be because people are tired of being simply haunted, they have forgotten what it means to follow a narrative to its logical source, to understand.
There was a lot of excitement in the autumn about Adam Curtis’ BBC iPlayer outing Hypernormalisation. It is easy enough to unpick Curtis’ style, in a way it is an uber-narrative style, his soothing public school boy voice, his authoritative, almost non sequitur statements, the jump edits in both time and place (‘Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet a man…’) and the familiar, comfortable soundtrack of contemporary pop music, all feed into any liberal, left leaning viewer’s delight. But Hypernormalisation shows what the Internet can provide when narrative is used, and people ran to it. In many ways the documentary dared us to look beyond what we take for granted, to imagine that we are being duped. What we see is not all we get. In one sense it was an epic two and a half hour version of something that he summarised in a six minute video two years before, and which because I am writing this for a website, I can encourage you, dear reader, to watch, so I can have a break:
What we need then is to imagine ways of seeing the hunger that lives amongst us, so as to better understand hunger elsewhere, hunger tout court. Another Brit, Ken Loach, perhaps has done so with the movie last year, I, Daniel Blake… Compassion needs action, or else is dissipates into frustration, cynicism, apathy. For so long regarding hunger has meant an inherent, often racist and condescending, transference, with a denial built in: recent years and the rise of austerity proves that this is hypocrisy. It is a wrong on all levels. Hunger is here, wherever ‘here’ is for you, reading this.
The more remote or exotic the place, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead and dying. Thus postcolonial Africa exists in the consciousness of the general public in the rich world—besides through its sexy music—mainly as a succession of unforgettable photographs of large-eyed victims, starting with figures in the famine lands of Biafra in the late 1960s to the survivors of the genocide of nearly a million Rwandan Tutsis in 1994 and, a few years later, the children and adults whose limbs were hacked off during the program of mass terror conducted by the RUF, the rebel forces in Sierra Leone. (More recently, the photographs are of whole families of indigent villagers dying of AIDS.) These sights carry a double message. They show a suffering that is outrageous, unjust, and should be repaired. They confirm that this is the sort of thing which happens in that place. The ubiquity of those photographs, and those horrors, cannot help but nourish belief in the inevitability of tragedy in the benighted or backward—that is, poor—parts of the world. (Page 56)
Perhaps this article fails to fully do justice to the profound ethical and moral questions raised by considering what it means to regard the hunger of others, or of how best to do so without compromising the people in positions to represent such hunger, to maintain the dignity of the hungry, and to in turn offer you, gentle reader, some kind of strategy to either alleviate your sense of shame in the face of a personal, societal and human problem that is deeply depressing, on-going and incorrigible.
Just more hand-wringing then.
But where this article is really probably coming from is the sense of deep, deep dismay at the sheer idiocy of transferring funds from foreign aid, diplomacy and environmental protection ‘dollar for dollar’ and placing it in what is already the largest military arsenal in the world, able to kill every last one of us many times over. It comes from a belief that the ‘professional tourists’ that travel the world and document it and link its abject and decimated stories together into narratives that question the prevalent tendency to ignore the uncomfortable, the difficult, the Other, are to be supported, that far from being the enemy, photographers and journalists, as well as novelists and artists, have the ability to give a ‘soul to history’, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it. Yes that means it will be subjective at times, skewed, possibly constructed and contrived, manipulated and exaggerated – but that is because there is no such thing as objective history. Humanity is too full of those ‘unstable emotions’ – like compassion, but also like whatever the fuck makes Trumpet get out of bed in the morning – and all of that needs to be documented, written up, reported and in turn regarded and ingested.
1 Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Last accessed February 17, 2017 https://monoskop.org/images/a/a6/Sontag_Susan_2003_Regarding_the_Pain_of_Others.pdf