Accepted paper:

A Humanitarian Imaginary: Photography, Imagination, and Aid in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo


Aubrey Graham (Emory University)

Paper short abstract:

Local perception of aid photography in the DRC reflects a history of durable tropes and local means of imagining exactly what constitutes a humanitarian image. This paper examines the historical continuity of such imagined photographic topics in contrast to current goals of aid agency photography.

Paper long abstract:

In Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo there appears to be a shift in exactly what a 'desired' aid agency photograph looks like. Tropes of starving children, suffering women, dirty spaces, and disorganization have given way to the desired photograph that shows both 'need' and 'dignity'. Despite aid agency photographer's insistences on these new visual priorities, for the population of the provincial capital of Goma humanitarian aid images have changed little over the years. The genre of the 'humanitarian aid image' has been locally learned to include extreme victimization, dirty children, burned houses, and massacres. Yet, one is sometimes hard pressed to find such images represented in the Congo by resident aid agencies. This paper investigates the disconnection between the actual image policy and practice in humanitarian agencies in Goma, and the Gomatricien's belief of what constitutes such photographs. In so doing, I investigate the historical roots of the Congolese 'humanitarian imaginary' tracking back to the atrocity images of missing limbs of the early 20th century. Equally, I highlight the current loophole in aid agency communications bureaucracy, where journalists and visitors are able to perpetuate the negative imaginary, while aid agency staff photographers work shed a new positive visual light on the situations. Overall, the paper examines the continuities and disconnections that contribute to a vibrant local imagination of what humanitarians take pictures of, and what that means for the interactions between the Goma-based population and the camera-toting expatriates that they encounter.

panel P14
Constructing and Contesting Imaginaries: Anthropology, Photography, and the Histories of Durable Visual Tropes