The misguided focus of advocacy photography

Meredith Hutchison shares her vision for a different kind of advocacy photography

By Start Empathy

July 10, 2012


You see them constantly – on the news, in commercials, on pamphlets and emails from charities and non-profits. They are the typical and standard images of people living in the developing world: the emaciated, fly-ridden child looking forlornly at the camera, the weary mother carrying a barely-clothed child in a desolate landscape, the group of orphans squatting in the squalor of a hot slum.

I know you’ve seen them because the majority of advocacy campaigns rely on these images to generate much-needed funding and create a sense of urgency and awareness. These images are designed to evoke sympathy in the viewer.  They are meant to make you feel sorry for the starving child or impoverished woman, with the goal that out of pity, you’ll give money to a worthy cause. The people in these photographs are defined uniquely by their relationship to a disaster or conflict, and because their identity in the image is only that of dependent victim sympathy is the most viewer's most powerful reaction.

What if such photographs aimed for an empathic response instead? What if campaigns replaced images that emphasize destitution and dependence with photographs that highlight the aspirations and agency of the people they depict? Can we use images to try to better understand the feelings, thoughts and goals of others living in poverty, and could such images spur the global community to meaningful action?

To explore these questions, I’m embarking on a yearlong endeavor, an adventure in arts and advocacy and empathy called the Vision not Victim Project.

Collaborating with women’s organizations in northern and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), I will be photographing young women acting as their future selves. Using props, costumes, sets and working with community members, each portrait will capture an inspiring scene of these young women achieving their goals: a middle school girl as the first female Congolese president delivering a speech; another as a professor teaching a university class; another as an attorney delivering closing arguments in a courtroom.

The aim? To produce images that both inform and transform; images that highlight the power, abilities, and vision of people living in situations of conflict and poverty; images that humanize rather than victimize.

Photographs are a powerful tool in changing public perception. In DRC, women are marginalized, objectified, and often abused.  Indeed, rape is a prominent weapon of the country’s conflicts. I hope these images will transform how both the Congolese and the international community perceive women.

A photograph conveys so much information in an instant. My goal is that each image weaves together memory, identity, and the future, showcasing women who are and will be their own role models.  This could be the tipping point, and my hope is that in the next few years when you open that brochure, magazine, or email, you will see the image of an ambitious and sharp woman leading her community in establishing peace, a young girl fighting for her rights and the rights of others; a partner in change, not a recipient.

Meredith Hutchison is a freelance photographer and media consultant based in New York City. A recent graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of International and Public Affairs, she has worked at the intersection of media, governance and development in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and in the US over the past five years.  She is currently raising money for Vision not Victim and plans to begin the projet in the fall.  Learn more on the project's IndieGoGo campaign and facebook page.


Reprinted with permission

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