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Neo-Colonialism and ‘Otherness’: Representational Issues in Field Exchange

By Dorrie Chetty

Dorrie Chetty is a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster UK. Her current research interests include gender, development, globalisation and media representations.

This brief review of photographs carried in Field Exchange was prompted by a criticism levelled at the publication in 2004 'that the gallery of pictures accompanying the articles and those presented at the end of each issue is testimony to "neo-colonialism" (Renzaho A, Issue 23, p17). As well as commenting on previous issues, the author makes some recommendations on images that should be considered by both ENN editors and those in the field.

Image 1. Breastfeeding in Sierra Leone (FEx 13)

Field Exchange (FEx) is unique in the humanitarian sector in that it uses a considerable amount of pictorial illustrations to support articles. Part of the rationale for reviewing past FEx photos was to consider the potential impact of images used by the publication on readers, as well as on those represented. In the fast moving world of global media, visual representations play an increasingly significant role. We are bombarded by images from the moment we wake up in advertising, film, news coverage, etc. In the latter, images are often used as an instantaneous and powerful means of evoking emotions in the viewer/reader instead of using reams of text, which may be more time-consuming to compile and have less of an impact. The criticism levelled at FEx - that "the majority of pictures imply a situation with westerners as the 'master' while portraying 'indigenous' as the 'starved', 'powerless' or 'helpless'" is one that the development world has been struggling with for over two decades. There was a code set up by the NGO-Liaison Committee regarding representation of the developing world as far back as 1985. However, there remain major difficulties in portraying the 'reality' of victims in any situation, let alone an emergency one where the impact and urgency of the message can be crucial to life saving action. 'Reality' is not easily definable, no picture has an objective meaning - this is achieved through negotiation between a reader and the producer/editor of the image. In the case of FEx, meaning is achieved via a relationship between the subjects photographed, the photographer, the editor, and the receiver of the message. To a great extent, the interpretation of a particular image is very complex and will vary from individual to individual, in that the reader will read a particular image by drawing references from her/his 'conceptual map'. This map of references will inevitably vary depending on the reader's 'positionality', e.g. gender, geographical location, political stance and various other personal factors. Whilst we may share the conceptual map of colonial discourse, our reading will inevitably be shaped by our positionality within that historical map. We may read against the grain of the dominant or the intended readings of the editor - negotiating our own meanings, or we may be so positioned within the conceptual map that we do not challenge the dominant readings.

Reading images in Field Exchange

We are concerned here with the extent to which FEx's use of pictorial support reinforces or challenges a neo-colonial reading. To this end, this piece of research has analysed a selection of imagery - a sample of one Field Exchange issue from each year, beginning with the inaugural issue in 1997, was selected in order to get a cross-section of images. Acknowledging my own positionality as a woman from an ex-colony, I've picked out two recurring imageries which I consider significant and which exemplify how we 'read' images.

Each FEx issue selected contains several images of a woman and child, the latter in most cases at her breast, although sometimes the child is attached to the woman's back (an example from FEx13 is given in image 1). From a Eurocentric reading, in the context of the religious imagery of Madonna and child, celebrated by European culture through paintings and sculpture, we would assume the woman to be the mother. Had the child been white and the woman rather plumper, someone from an ex-colony would have assumed the woman to be a nursing maid. These are only two possible readings of the same image, i.e. individuals 'negotiate' different readings depending on their 'positionality'. For an editor to ensure a 'preferred reading' of an image, s/he needs to have a clear understanding of the reader's conceptual map. There is an assumption that the editor and the readers would come to the same understanding, sharing references from the same conceptual map. Whilst the selection and production of an image may be consciously processed, much of the meaning eventually achieved by the reader occurs at a subconscious level and evokes emotions, using references available to her/him. As images are often used, not just to support writing, but sometimes as a code, imagery often uses easily identifiable 'signifiers'. In the development world, women and children have historically been identified as vulnerable groups with programmes focusing on maternal and child health. It's not surprising, therefore, that the imagery of a nursing mother has become a recognisable signifier of 'need' and 'vulnerability'. Furthermore, in European culture, women and children have traditionally been represented as potential victims, requiring the protection of their men, particularly against 'strangers'. When a message of victim needs to be conveyed, an image of a woman and child serves as a short-cut code. Given the focus of Field Exchange - nutritional emergencies and the fact that many interventions target this demographic group for 'good scientific' reasons, i.e. women and children are often physiologically most vulnerable in food crises, it is inevitable that there will be many photographs of these programme beneficiaries. At the same time, given the dominant meaning of the mother and child, such an image is an appealing and powerful one from which its readers can pull out their conceptual map and come to similar conclusions.

Image 3. Mugina market place, Rwanda (Cover of FEx 20)

Another recurring imagery in FEx which seems significant, particularly from a gender perspective, is that of food aid distributions. Interestingly, the pictures showing sacks of food aid are usually with males of the community seemingly in charge of distribution (e.g. in Issue 22, p17, see image 2). In contrast, the images relating to collection of fuel and local food production (e.g. cover of Issue 22) show women actively engaged in managing these resources. This 'phenomena' could be decoded as men are associated with the control of 'international/ global resources', whilst women are associated with local resources and affairs. There are resonances and parallels with the 'postcolonial' situation, whereby men were trained to operate mechanised agriculture for cash cropping whilst women contributed to the fluctuating, more insecure, local food production and consumption. This difference in gender imagery seemed to me far more striking than any picture in Field Exchange which may be read as 'westerners being masters and the indigenous as powerless'.

On balance, the variety and quantity of images used by FEx showing people from the developing world as active, including women (a striking example being the cover of Issue 20, image 3), go some way to countering the dominant reading of 'helpless victims from the developing world needing the help of westerners'. However, given the absence of varied representations of the developing world by the wider mass media, the dominant imagery and reading will remain that of 'Enlightened West' helping 'The Rest'.

With this in mind, it would be prudent for FEx to develop a policy regarding representational issues, in order to reduce the risk of perpetuating portrayals of the developing world as an undifferentiated homogeneous mass. Crucially, representations used could emphasise parallels of experiences with the West, thus preventing a reading which maintains people from developing countries as 'distant others'.

A consideration which is often neglected in a discussion of representations, is the wider impact they may have upon the subjects used in the photographs. Even if it is unlikely that the readership of FEx includes the subjects photographed, the way they 'could theoretically' read the images should be taken into account. This is more than just an issue of political correctness.

Image 2. Aid in Iraq (FEx 22)

International agency staff who furnish FEx with articles and accompanying photographs should consider these issues of representation. Furthermore, agency staff would do well to be aware of representational issues when 'reading' photographs or taking pictures of their programmes for either public relations or academic purposes. A final but important point is that similar care should be taken over accompanying captions and headlines, particularly when these are obtained from picture libraries rather than the authors writing the articles.

For further information, contact; Dorrie Chetty at University of Westminster, UK. Email:

The current ENN policy on using images is to source them from those that have written field articles/research pieces so that pictures are viewed within the context in which they were taken. We rely on the sensitivity of the authors and picture sources in doing this. Where other pictures are used not directly related to an article, then we seek to check with both the source and the article author that the image is appropriate to use in this context. Pictures included on the backpage 'People in Aid' are selected from what is sent into the ENN office by readers, and ENN staff snapshots during work overseas or attendance at meetings (contributions always welcome). (eds)

Show footnotes

1Renzaho, A, 2004. Field Exchange 23, p17.

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Reference this page

Dorrie Chetty (2005). Neo-Colonialism and ‘Otherness’: Representational Issues in Field Exchange. Field Exchange 26, November 2005. p7.