Beautiful urban cityscapes, peaceful sunsets, laughing friends, hot couture fashion, and memes filled with humor and social commentary: this is not what most of the world thinks of when they picture Africa. NPR recently highlighted an emerging hashtag trend that Twitter users are implementing as a counter-attack to widely accepted images of African suffering. #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou offers positive photos from Africa to combat the overdone and harmful stereotypes rife in international media.
This emerging trend is particularly interesting in relation to past, present, and prevalent images of what Arthur and Joan Kleinman call “cultural appropriations of suffering.”
With their satirical viral video Radi-Aid: Africa for Norway, The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund, pose the question, “If we say Africa, what do you think about? Hunger, poverty, crime or AIDS? No wonder, because in fundraising campaigns and media that’s mainly what you hear about.”
Between such campaign-driven media representations and the proliferation of predominantly white “voluntourism” photos abound in social media, Kleinman and Kleinman’s 1996 analysis of “the dismay of images” of suffering is more relevant than ever.
Suffering is one of the existential grounds of human experience; it is a defining quality, a limiting experience in human conditions. It is also a master subject of our mediatized times.
They continue, “[i]mages of suffering are appropriated to appeal emotionally and morally both to global audiences and to local populations. Indeed, those images have become an important part of the media. As ‘infotainment’ on the nightly news, images of victims are commercialized; they are taken up into processes of global marketing and business competition.”
Similarly though, American volunteers, students, and tourists often share images that have a similar effect. On the surface, their images may appear to be compelling, but are often culturally insensitive and deeply problematic. These photos usually depict an affluent, often white, American hugging, surrounded by, or holding hands with children of color in another country. Such photos are harmful in that they remove all context of what the traveler was doing, where the traveler was, why they were there, and instead visually enforce what Teju Cole terms the “white-savior industrial complex.”
These images suggest that this tourist was doing good work and affecting positive change abroad — all by simply being present; while they conversely reinforce stereotypes, suggesting that the children pictured are powerless, suffering victims to be helped and saved. (They are also overdone and mocked on sites as Gurl Goes to Africa and Humanitarians of Tinder.)
Kleinman and Kleinman assert, “[t]his globalization of suffering is one of the more troubling signs of the cultural transformations of the current era: troubling because experience is being used as a commodity, and through this cultural representation of suffering, experience is being remade, thinned out, and distorted.”
They note that these images are often laden with “moral and political assumptions” and they pose the following questions to help viewers to visually read and analyze them more critically:
To what uses are experiences of suffering put? What are the consequences of those cultural practices for understanding and responding to human problems? And what are the more general implications of the cultural appropriations of suffering for human experience, including human experiences of suffering?
Kleinman and Kleinman also point out that the issues fueling such images are rooted in the dark shadows of colonialism and the construction of race, used to justify colonial oppression. “This ‘consumption’ of suffering in an era of so-called ‘distorted capitalism’ is not so very different from the late nineteenth-century view that the savage barbarism in pagan lands justified the valuing of our own civilization at a higher level of development–a view that authorized colonial exploitation.”
As such, this kind of media is not reserved for images coming solely out of African countries alone. We see very similar Euro-American media images of Mexico, South America, India, and other former colonies.
So, what do readers think of when they picture “Africa”? What if that can be redefined, reframed, and rewritten — all with a hashtag? Take a moment to explore and contribute to #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou — it could expand your world and your own worldview without ever getting out of your chair.