The Narrative of Children in African and Development Photography: Whose camera counts?

In March 2015, I was at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol en route to Malawi. While at the airport I came across a big billboard by Unicef of a dirty black child, possibly from ‘Africa’, and wearing tattered clothes. This picture took me back to the debate about representation of poor people in development work. Is this picture a representation of the state of this child’s life? Or it is a picture that might help people to give their money to support the region where this child comes from?

Throughout my childhood experience as person born and bred in Malawi, I was troubled with this picture. Not only because it might not have represented the state of the child’s life, but also that it was at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol which is among the busiest airport in the world. I bet, that whoever passes through this airport, and has the chance to see this picture, might make the conclusion that this is the state of children in ‘Africa.’  Takes us the discussion about the Africa narrative, which I will get in someday.

When I was a child, I was among the children who enjoy playing too much. Which child doesn’t anyway? Dirty and torn clothes were my friends. Not that my mother wanted me to dress in torn clothes, but with my adventurous life, I always found myself wearing some torn clothes at one point or another. I had to hide these rugs sometimes because I didn’t want my mother to know for obvious reasons. My mother didn’t want us to wear torn clothes, but we were not such obedient children. We still had to wear torn clothes, because it was easier to play with sand and get dirty in torn clothes. In short, the rags gave me more freedom when it comes to playing time.

If someone came at this moment, and took a picture of my colleagues and I playing, would that be a representation of our state?

After a long day of playing, we would run back home around 4 pm, have a shower and wear clean and decent clothes. By the time, our parents come home; we look clean and neat. Again, if someone found us this time, and took a picture of us, would that be a representation of us?

Perhaps it is worth understanding how the families I have grown to know in Malawi, take their pictures. When they want to take a family photo, what do they do? Which scenery do they pick?

When our parents, wanted to get family photos, we were told in advance that there would be a photographer coming to get family pictures. The night before, our parents would sort out which clothes they expect us to pick. Most of the times, we wore new clothes or the ones that were seen to be the best clothes of that time. We would take a bath and put on our ‘Sunday finest’ and a photographer would then take the picture. You will see these photos in family albums or in living rooms of these homes. One thing that you will notice is a family picture doesn’t dirty children or tattered clothes.

I can bet, that if development photographers took their time, to go through the family photo’s of the people, they would notice a big difference between the pictures development practitioners capture, and the pictures that a ‘family photographer’ captures.

But why is there this difference?  This goes to the issue of interests. On one hand, the interest of the family is to get pictures to keep the family moments alive. They get to define how they want the memory to be captured. This is why they are many re-takes until when the photographer captures the memory in the way the family wants it to be captured.

On the other hand, the interests of development organizations and practitioners is not keeping memories alive. The Interest is to capture pictures that will: a.) prove to donors/development partners that the intervention they invested their money in is working in the targeted area; b) to capture images that will help the organization raise more funds. This defines the scenery and expressions that will be in a development picture. Unfortunately, the development agencies and practitioner photography have defined the image of ‘Children of Africa.’ This explains why when you Google Image ‘African children’ you are given the following categories: starving, happy, sad, poor, school and water.  These are categories that are not present when you Google ‘ American Children, European Children, and Asian Children.’

They are movements that have started to restore the dignity of children of Africa. The question, however, is, how are they going to address the interests of organizations, whose lifeline is selling the story of a sad, starving and poor african child?