Define Necessity: Reporting or Exploitation?

Besides displaying photos of starving children, "Define Necessity" uses this graphic in its campaign to raise awareness about hunger and human rights in Africa.

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.

Thomas Mugeni, bottom left, and Rebecca Hosani, upper right, share a happy moment near their home in Kenya.

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.)

About gseger

Ginnie Seger is a Masters Candidate in the International Media program at American University. She graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in broadcast journalism. During her undergraduate education, she studied abroad in both Ghana and China. Ginnie worked for WCVE PBS Richmond, as a production technician in the Virginia House of Representatives. After completing her degree in 2008, she joined the Peace Corps where she served in Kenya as a deaf education volunteer until 2011. While in the Peace Corps, she worked to create a strategic health campaign for the Kenyan deaf population. In the future she hopes to work for a non-profit organization, and is interested in the use of social media and technology in the developing world.
This entry was posted in Africa, Books, Charity Websites, Facebook, Kenya, Meme, Photography, Twitter and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Define Necessity: Reporting or Exploitation?

  1. Megan H says:

    Well said. Would it be too ironic if I just “liked” this post?

  2. gseger says:

    Ha Meg! I’ll make an exception for this post! I am sure this annoys you too! Another point that annoys me about this meme is that all of those things are available in Africa as well, albeit by a small population, but it’s not as if excess doesn’t exist. This is a great post about another popular meme #firstworldproblems that sums up this notion well. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/11/whats-wrong-with-firstworldproblems/248829/

  3. gseger says:

    Carrie thanks for your comment. I think you are not alone in expressing skepticism regarding Western writers perspective on Africa, although I feel the Uncle Tom comparison is applying a cultural norm of race relations in the United States to a completely foreign context…that is a whole other discussion. I will just say, I acknowledge that I lived for nearly 3 years in a rural Kenyan community, does it make me an expert on suffering in Africa? No, not even close. Do I have an understanding of daily life in a Kenyan community, maybe a little, and that is the perspective I am sharing. Although there are plenty of African writers who share the same frustration over the portrayal of Africa by the West this being an example http://www.granta.com/Magazine/92/How-to-Write-about-Africa/Page-1

    I do agree with you, sometimes images that shock do produce charitable giving. My problem with the Define Necessity campaign is there is not even attribution as to where in Africa these pictures are from (although I suspect Somalia), nor is there a “call to action”, no website linking to donate to Ox-Fam or any organization working in Africa ( in what we can presume is Somalia). The images are just used to shock, and I believe give a skewed representation of Africa.

    I think you raise an excellent question, ” if the people whose images are being use would have issue with it” the problem with this campaign is that they do not even provide information about where these images are from, so I am making the assumption that the people in these images were never asked about the use of their image.

    As far as statistical evidence regarding Define Necessity, since it is not affiliated with charities, I am assuming that they don’t collect data. Although there has been scholarly research done on transnational media. An article written by Lillie Chouliaraki, from the London School of Economics and Political Science wrote an article entitled “The Symbolic Power of Transnational Media: Managing the Visibility of Suffering” abstract available here http://gmc.sagepub.com/content/4/3/329. In the article she examines aspects of infotainment perspective on distant suffering, one of them is de-contextualization she writes “de-contextualization, where suffering is rarely explained as a complex event so as not to appear demanding on the cognitive capabilities of media audiences.” She goes on to write “News on suffering is not represented in accordance to its political or humanitarian magnitude but on the basis of its relevance to, and the infotainment capacity for, Western publics.”

    I believe juxtaposing unattributed pictures of unknown suffering African children, with pictures of sports utility vehicles, does little to explain the complexities of famine, or even invite people to find out more about those complexities. That is my issue with Define Necessity.

  4. Lynn says:

    Hi Ginnnie,
    I found your site because I saw a “Define Necessity” shocking image shared by a “slacktivist” on Facebook, and it did, indeed, shock and appall me. It was an image of a few naked, starving children juxtaposed next to shoppers buggies full of Christmas presents. I then Googled “define necessity”, because I was wondering what country those children were in, and the first site I came to was your blog.
    I guess that makes me one of the ones Carrie just mentioned: “Sometimes, one simply shocking image (whether its perceived as infotainment or not) is enough to encourage those who know little about it to move forward into a deeper understanding of what THEY can do to provide meaningful assistance”, except that I think calling an image of starving children “infotainment” is revolting.

    Ginnie, I’m glad to have read your perspective, and I think it has some merit. However, you said, “They [Define Necessity images] give an inaccurate picture of Africa, and do nothing to promote social change.” A couple of thoughts…
    – Interestingly, my mind didn’t go straight to Africa, as yours did – it went to Haiti. You have a personal investment of life experience in Africa – and I loved seeing the happy photo you shared – so it makes sense that your mind went there. But is it fair to assume that everyone else will think the same thing?
    – Do you have a child? I have a 3 year old son. If he were starving, I would beg anyone with a camera to take and use the horrific image of his skeletal frame if I thought it would help him get some food, shelter, or anything else. Meeting his basic needs would be so much more important to me than whether or not his sense of pride was violated, all the more so because the children in that photo are so young. Without aid, he might not live long enough to know what it means to have his sense of pride violated by that photo.
    – That image stopped me in my tracks, made me think, and has prompted me not only to stop doing any more Christmas shopping, but do something else (beyond the charitable things we’ve already done) to help my child understand more about the imbalance in our society’s wants vs needs. I think I am probably even *more* inclined to do something because the image wasn’t associated with one specific place or one specific organization – it leaves it up to me to do what I want. I also shared it on FB, hoping that it might prompt someone else to have a similar reaction. Doesn’t that constitute positive “social change”, even if on the smallest of planes?

    Just some thoughts from a random passerby… 🙂

  5. I just added this blog site to my google reader, great stuff. Can’t get enough!

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