There is an image of Africa etched in the Western psyche that is hard to erase. It is the image of The Dying African: When not being ravaged by war or famine, this African is prone to die from preventable diseases, such as tuberculosis and HIV/Aids.
The Dying African is similar to the Starving African, except that he cannot be saved because he is beyond help. No food aid or relief supplies can prevent his imminent death. No doctor can ease his pain.
The Dying African’s last moments are often captured on film and shown at fund-raisers. The worst images in this genre that I have seen so far are the ones published in the June 14 edition of Time magazine, whose cover story, ironically, focuses on an African success story, namely the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
In a photo essay, Time has published the dying moments of an 18 year-old woman called Mamma Sessay, who is shown giving birth to twins in a rural clinic in Sierra Leone. Ten images capture Sessay’s slow and painful death as she struggles to give birth to the second twin, nearly 24 hours after the first.
The first image shows her lying naked on a bloody surgical bed, her eyes wild and bewildered as a nurse attends to her. This image is followed by several others showing Sessay’s steady decline: heavy bleeding followed by shallow breath, falling blood pressure, loss of consciousness, and finally, death.
If there was an award for “death pornography”, then these images would surely win a prize. Why is it that death is considered a private, sacred affair when the person dying is not an African, but a public event when the person dying is an African?
As one woman on a listserv called Kenyan Women without Borders put it: “Here, the author and photographer strip Mamma of all dignity, parading her in her very desperate moments for the world to see. Would these pictures have been published if she was white?”
It is possible that this particular photo essay was intended to raise awareness about the high rates of maternal mortality in African countries. The intentions of the editors of Time were probably to sensitise rich nations to do more (i.e. give more aid) for maternal and reproductive healthcare in developing countries.
But while these images might shock Westerners into digging deeper into their pockets, they have the unintended effect of disgusting the very people they are supposed to help. Moreover, they reflect double standards. Americans and the rest of the world are never shown images of dying US soldiers in Iraq, and under President George Bush, Americans didn’t even get to witness their funerals.
But a dying Iraqi is game for any photographer or journalist. Westerners give their own dead the respect they deserve, but strip others – Africans in particular – of this respect at every opportunity. Many Westerners do not understand why these images are so revolting to so many Africans. After all, as Michael Maren, author of The Road to Hell, put it, these images are supposed to edify, sensitise and mobilise Westerners into doing more for Africa.
But, he writes, it is not simply a matter of charities raising more money for starving or dying Africans. It is about self-affirmation: “The starving African exists as a point in space from which we can measure our own wealth, success and prosperity, a darkness against which we can view our own cultural triumphs.”
It helps, he says, if the African is portrayed as both helpless and brave. “Journalists write about the quiet dignity of the hopelessly dying. If the Africans were merely hungry and poor, begging or conning coins on the streets of Nairobi or Addis Ababa, we might become annoyed and brush them aside. When they steal tape decks from our Land Cruisers, we feel anger and disgust. It is only in their weakness, when their death is inevitable, that we are touched.”
More importantly, he writes, these images of Africans become a marketable commodity. They are blown up and displayed at fund-raisers by NGOs, donors and UN agencies; they help these organisations to stay in business. The more graphic they are, the more money they help to raise. Maren writes of a Save the Children advertisement in the 1990s that showed a photograph of a dying Sudanese child being observed by a vulture.
Many Africans and people working for relief organisations were understandably disgusted by the image; the head of one NGO even referred to it as “hunger porn”. But these protests were not enough to prevent the photojournalist, Kevin Carter, from winning a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph!