by Ginnie Seger
I want you to remember a time you were very sick; maybe it was the flu, or a stomach bug, an accident, or injury. I want you to place yourself in that moment, when you felt vulnerable, perhaps even scared. Now, imagine someone took your picture in that moment. Do you think it would be an accurate reflection of you? Your culture? Or your life? Would you want this image, when you were at your most weak, to be seen by the world. This is the reality of many of the images coming out of Africa, and the recent meme and website to go viral Define Necessity.
The popular internet meme Define Necessity juxtaposes images of emaciated children next to items, which include sports utility vehicles, Christmas trees, and iPads. The image is intended to shock, but is the message clear? The problem with these images is really two-fold, the general lack of understanding of Africa, and slacktivism.
Africa consists of 54 different countries, countless languages, and a multitude of complex cultures. Kenya alone has 42 major tribes and languages, it also has many different people from different socioeconomic classes, and that is just one country out of 54. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, writes in her book New News Out of Africa, “I encounter people from all walks and stations in life, still think of Africa as the ‘dark continent,’ made darker still by the ravages of AIDS and ongoing conflicts that occasionally produce enough carnage to merit a minute or two on a television newscast.” The images that come out of Africa, are not an accurate reflection of life on the continent. I have lived in two African countries, and most recently taught at a school for the deaf, in Kenya. I was always amazed by the happiness that existed there, and while there were struggles, no one is telling the stories of triumph. Very few pictures of happy African children ever go viral. (Despite that, you can see a good example of such a happy photo bordering this paragraph.)
Images like Define Necessity may call attention to the excess surrounding the holidays, but they do nothing to promote change. The notion of slacktivism, that “liking” a status on Facebook, or sharing a picture, makes participants feel good, but those actions have no impact on populations that need help. This may also give an inflated sense of activism, and translate to less action in the form of campaigning, or charitable giving.
Define Necessity’s intention, I believe, was to call attention to the excess of the holidays and American culture, but campaigns like these are irresponsible. They give an inaccurate picture of Africa, and do nothing to promote social change. Remember the power you hold by sharing a picture on Facebook, or Twitter; take yourself back to those vulnerable moments of sickness, and define the necessity of that decision.
Editor’s Note: Due to the high interest in this posting we have returned this item to the front page of the blog, as of Dec. 13.
(The graphic is from Define Necessity; as Define Necessity posts this material on Myspace and freely shares it with no notation about rights, the material is in the public domain. The photo is © copyright Ginnie Seger and used with permission.)