Famine Porn?

I hesitated to add my thoughts about the World Press Photo Instagram posts from Alessio Mamo showing villagers from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in front of tables with what for them would be exotic foodstuffs. Really I didn’t want to give what I felt was a misguided project any more publicity. But since every man and his dog, including The Guardian and the BBC have had their say I felt I too should say something, just in case anyone had manage to miss this and the enormous stir it has created on the web.

Firstly I think it important to state that some of the criticism has been ill-informed. The villagers that Mamo worked with were not starving or particularly malnourished, though certainly they were not the obese figures we are so used to in the west.

As Mamo has stated:

Most of the people enjoyed spontaneously to be part of this and photographed behind the table. The people I photographed were living in a village and they were not suffering from malnutrition anymore, they were not hungry or sick, and they freely participated in the project.

Mamo, as he says, “brought…a table and some fake food, and…told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table”. But the food on the table was not food and would not represent the dreams those people had of food.

It isn’t true to say as some critics did, that this was bringing fake food to starving people. It wasn’t although it did rather look like this, and it is that impression which matters. We make pictures but it is others who read them, and create their own meanings from them whatever our intentions.

This picture highlights the problems when photographers start doing rather gimmicky projects like this imposing a false situation on their subjects. It might be art, though I think not particularly impressive as such, but it certainly isn’t photojournalism, and should have no place at all on the World Press Photo site, whose Instagram posts Mamo was given the opportunity to takeover for a week.

The guidelines to photographers who take on this responsibility remind them that they should present “quality visual journalism and storytelling’ and “present accurate, compelling and creative work allowing people to see the world freely.”

WPP reserves the right to step in and “edit a post or a photographer’s selection”, but chose not to do so, and instead gave what many of us feel a response which fails to support any clear idea of what photojournalism is or should be.

The area into which these pictures fall is certainly not photojournalism, but rather more that of advertising, with Mamo thinking like an art director trying to sell a product to an audience than allowing “people to see the world freely”.

There have been so many comments on this work already made – with large collections of them on various web sites including Scroll and PetaPixel. For a couple more opinions you could read Allen Murabayashi of PhotoShelter and Yamini Pustake Bhalerao on ShethePeople.

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