Food for Thought

World Press Photo has given control of their Instagram account to Alessio Mamo. Mamo won an award in the last contest and the image he posted is from a new project looking at poverty and food issues in India. This was sent to me by Katy Culver, director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics and it raised my eyebrows significantly.

First, I’m not sure this falls into the realm of journalism (or at least our American vision of journalism). This segment of the description was really troubling to me:

These pictures are taken in rural areas where conditions are worse than in the cities and where close to 70% of India’s population reside today. Statistics show that 2.1 million children under 5 years old die of malnutrition annually. The idea of this project was born after reading the statistics of how much food is thrown away in the West, especially during Christmas time. I brought with me a table and some fake food, and I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table.

That last phrase – “I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table” – that’s not journalism. That’s staging, that’s giving direction. Do we pose people in portraits? Yes, we do, to help them tell their story. But this is going a step further – it is not an image about these particular people, they are being used as props.

The comments, both on the World Press Photo feed and Mamo’s original posting, are telling. As of my writing, the post has more than 15,000 likes on Instagram but the written comments use phrases like shameful, horribly offensive, repulsive, exploitive and “completely devoid of any sort of sensitivity or understanding.”

That dichotomy – 15,000 likes and highly critical comments – are one place to start a discussion on the value of social media. Are all those likes because people like the image/execution/idea? Or because it was posted on the World Press Photo feed? Do they like what several commenters referred to as “poverty porn?”

There’s also the question of how we balance the ability to illustrate a story and the need to document an issue. Is this image being used to tell the story of the people in it? Or are they being used as an example of a larger issue? Are they aware of how they are being portrayed?

I have many thoughts on the purpose of visual journalism and many ways of discussing them, but let’s use this version:

  • Journalism is specific, journalism is not generic.
  • Journalism is precise, journalism is not vague.
  • Journalism illuminates, journalism does not decorate.

Is this specific? That’s unknown as there’s no additional information about these specific children. By hiding their faces, they become generic props like the fake food displayed in front of them.

Is it precise? No, as there’s no sense of why (or even if) these two struggle with food insecurity.

Does it illuminate? No, it’s a decorative image – propped, staged and controlled.

As journalists, it’s our responsibility to accurately and truthfully portray the lives of those we document. This image does not do that, it feeds stereotypes not the hungry.

These photographs are from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh two of the poorest states of India. From the series "Dreaming Food", a conceptual project about hunger issue in India. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ My name is Alessio Mamo (@alessio_mamo) an Italian freelance photographer based in Catania, Sicily. In 2008 I began my career in photojournalism focusing on contemporary social, political and economic issues. I extensively cover issues related to refugee displacement and migration starting in Sicily, and extending most recently to the Middle East. I was awarded 2nd prize in the People Singles category of #WPPh2018 and this week I’m taking over World Press Photo's Instagram account. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Despite economic growth, a majority of the Indian population still lives in extreme poverty and disease. Behind India’s new-found economic strength are 300 million poor people who live on less than $1 per day. Government figures may indicate a reduction in poverty. But the truth is, with increasing global food prices, poverty is spreading everywhere like a swarm of locusts. These pictures are taken in rural areas where conditions are worse than in the cities and where close to 70% of India’s population reside today. Statistics show that 2.1 million children under 5 years old die of malnutrition annually. The idea of this project was born after reading the statistics of how much food is thrown away in the West, especially during Christmas time. I brought with me a table and some fake food, and I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #WPPh2018#asia #dreamingfood #india

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