Stereotypical images of the developing world include overpopulated and underserved urban slums, backward agricultural and fishing communities, environmental abuse and degradation, and political and social instability. Although many of these portrayals are most certainly products of serious photojournalism or efforts to render explicit social ills around the world, numerous warnings have been issued against perpetuating these pictures in our heads and using them in development work, more generally.
News broadcasts, documentaries, and more recently, social media, often reduce developing countries into images of shanty towns, garbage dumps, denuded forests, dead coral reefs, and of course, people who have been beaten or killed through military and police brutality. Charitable fundraising efforts also use evocative images, from children suffering from cleft lip to those with distended bellies. Many have argued that these images take advantage of the poor and downtrodden, reify exclusion of subaltern groups, and raise awareness (and funds!) at the high cost of damaging the development process.
It is definitely the case that people need to know and should be urged to do something about these issues. And we also know that visuals are considered potent weapons in the arena of persuasive communication. Findings from communication studies suggest that evocative visuals tend to be more powerful than words, and that “visual-verbal redundancy” (when a picture and accompanying text, or vice-versa, reinforce each other) can be an effective component of attitude, opinion, and behavior change efforts.
But social scientific evidence also suggests that these efforts could have unintended negative consequences. For example, if over time, particular groups are depicted as helpless and in constant need of aid, those who have the means might help initially, but then develop “donor syndrome” rather quickly and eventually stop charitable giving. Alternatively, people might cultivate the belief that no matter what one does to help, nothing will really make a difference. Or worse -- which is a finding from some applied research -- media audiences might end up blaming the poor for their own plight as opposed to attributing responsibility to market failures and bad governance wherever these conditions exist. All of the possibilities mentioned above might even influence attitudes and opinions of the public and elites alike, turning them against policies that are meant to help those most in need at the individual or structural level.
Admittedly, we can’t really know for sure, although we can take measures to avoid being completely blindsided. Applied communication studies can help mitigate these unintended negative consequences by testing, through formative and evaluative research, the likely effects of using some types of images over others. And if we must resort to a rule of thumb, then I think we can reasonably argue that honest portrayals of victimization and destitution should be accompanied by images of genuine empowerment and human dignity.
Photo credit: Flickr user Findsiddiqui