Sudan has one of the most diverse populations in Africa, with the two most distinct cultural groups being Arab and Black African. Sudan entered its second civil war 1983, after gaining its independence from the UK and Egypt in 1953. The two major opposing groups are the northern Muslim government and the southern Christians (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army). Over a twenty year period of conflict, violence, and famine, more than two million died and over six hundred thousand people were forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries; another four million people were displaced. This is the world’s largest population of internally displaced people. In 2005 the Comprehensive Peace Agreement officially ended the war, though the violence has yet to stop (Bureau of African Affairs 2009).
This is the historical context and knowledge that a photograph cannot give. The problem is, since our society no longer relies on typography as the medium of communication, that photographs only give some information (Postman 1985). They expose a story, but do not and cannot explain it (Linfield 2007). Stoddart’s photograph reveals a tragedy, but it does not educate the viewer about its political relations, nor does it offer a solution.
The Government of Sudan has been accused of using famine as a weapon of war against the south. Its president, Umar al-Bashir, was issued a warrant for his arrest by the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in March of 2009. His charges were crimes against humanity and war crimes, including genocide (Bureau of African Affairs 2009). Sudan is one of the many countries without, what is believed to be, human rights. Stoddart’s photograph reaffirms the viewer’s notion of human rights because it shows a world without them (Linfield 2007). The boy is being denied the resources, in the case food, that would give him equal opportunity for success. He does not have the American cultural ideal of equality and liberty. We use it in comparison to our own standards of fairness in order to define the issue in the photograph as wrong. The photograph shows us what life without our ideology of freedom and equality might be like (Smith 2010).
This photograph was taken by Tom Stoddart, in 1998, at the village of Ajiep, in the Bar el Ghazal region, Sudan.
He had come without commission, but as a member of the Independent Photographers Group of the UK. UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders had set up food centers inside the village, only accepting children whose body weight was sixty percent below ideal (World Press Photos 1998). Once Stoddart returned to the UK he presented his photographs to The Guardian’s main editor, Eamon McCabe. The Guardian ran a few of his images, including one on the front page, in its August 12th, 1998 issue. Stoddart had requested that an MSF fundraising phone number be placed in the text, which ultimately raised over forty thousand Euros. It is now part of the ¡WITNESS series, an exhibition now located in More London Riverside, London, England (Stoddart 2006).
Photographs are a way of telling a story, a single interpretation of reality. It is the individual reader who must decide whether or not it is true. Readers base this on a number of factors such as societal beliefs, the photographer’s reputation, context of publication, and the quality of the photograph. A photograph presented in a well respected and credible magazine, creates a sense of accuracy and fact for the public. It is no longer seen as advocating a point of view, instead it is becomes evidence (Ohm 1977). This photograph makes its audience visualize cruelty, something that was impossible to do prior to the invention of the camera. The camera has expanded the concept of humanity and internationalism. Defying geographical borders, races, and cultures, the camera has become an extremely powerful tool in defining human-rights and globalizing our consciences (Linfield 2007).
Stoddart’s photograph of a starving boy staring desperately at his stolen food creates an individual experience of suffering that the reader can connect to. It is the individuality of the suffering, and not the collective tragedy, that draws the reader. “Atrocity photographs” have become the modern tool in creating a collective empathy towards their subject (Linfield 2007).
The media is often accused of having a single agenda when determining what information is conveyed to the general public. Their goal is to create a demand to supply to its consumer, and thus gain profit. However, within the concept of the public sphere a consumer becomes a citizen and a diverse variety of information is conveyed. Stoddart’s photograph fits into this model because of the cultural and political significance of its message. His photograph is meant to better society by teaching a reality that would otherwise go unknown to the rest of the world. Stoddart was not paid to take the pictures, nor did The Guardian have to offer a fundraising telephone line. Public discourse highly depends upon the quality of information circulated. The media can encourage social integration by bringing stories from around the world together. Stoddart’s photographs represent the diversity of stories possible within the public sphere model. It shows the responsibility of the media to enhance public interest by offering diverse perspectives and education, not just entertainment (Croteau and Hoynes 2006).
Stoddart’s photograph reveals that the struggle for power and freedom is universal. It shows how the Government of Sudan used its power to create a submissive population of subjects, while also confirming their own cultural identity. It is a form of discourse meant to identify and force out the “other,” by visually and mentally creating an inferior minority (Mellinger 1992). Their power was derived from their knowledge and ability to create a normalcy that expelled those in the southern regions for being abnormal. The man in the photograph’s power comes not only from his physical strength, but also from the knowledge that the boy can do nothing. The man’s power is harnessed and reconfirmed with the maize. The maize is the object of desire and need, and since the man holds it, and knows it, he has the power (Smith 2010).
Stoddart’s power comes from his knowledge of Sudan’s internal circumstances and his ability to interpret this in his photographs. He chose the specific location, angle, colors (lack of), and people to display in accordance to his message. His choices create a bias, an issue that he holds to be true and wishes to express to society. His photograph tells us something we did not know about Sudan before, and by playing off our empathy and ideals, creates concern for the society (Becker 1986). People do not question the photograph’s legitimacy or the lack of information that can be given in a photograph. Instead, these images become African stereotypes, without a detailed explanation or reasoning. The image of suffering in Africa persists because we accept it and allow it to persist, yet call it wrong because it goes against our beliefs about humanity (Nelson 2003). Money contributions, photographs, and fundraising, and outrage can only do so much to successfully solve the problem. The power is in the knowledge; the knowledge of Sudan’s history, its political relations, and its people, but this cannot be taught through a photograph (Smith 2010).
The invention of the camera changed the world forever. It created the ability to go beyond geographical borders and connect every culture to each other. Stoddart’s photograph symbolizes this. It is shows us a culture that would have otherwise gone unknown. Photographs reinforce our ideals, values, and opinions about the world. They also, like a story, are a form of expression, which dangerously can be mistaken for fact.