Fine judgment between showing suffering and sugarcoating an image

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The photographer Marcus Bleasdale deserves praise for his persistence in drawing the West's attention back to places and people many would rather forget. He has spent much of his career documenting the hellholes of this world, and his photographs are featured in the latest edition of Nieman Reports.

In particular, he has gone back time and again to the Democratic Republic of Congo. And I particularly liked photographs he took to mark the tenth anniversary of the violence in East Timor.

However, I find I cannot look at his pictures of malnourished children in Djibouti, the first set in his current work: they are so bleak I turn my eyes away.

And we know that TV viewers will do the same if reporters don't choose their images carefully. Hilary Andersson and her cameraman Rob Magee, for instance, chose their shots for the BBC of Darfur's famine with extraordinary care.

I really don't think this is an issue as simple as 'compassion fatigue': I think, as humans, we automatically empathise with other humans in distress. But if there appears to be no measure of hope, if it looks as if nothing can be done, we turn away.

Of course there is always plenty that can be done - donating money, writing to your MP, joining a campaign, or even starting one, and that's why campaigning charities like Human Rights Watch or Progressio commission good photographers like Bleasdale time and time again.

Bleasdale is of course well aware of the need to reach out to audiences. He writes powerfully in Nieman Reports about finding ways to connect. He is experimenting all the time and he's now producing audio slideshows (above) which add the voices of the young women in the photographs - but they are still bleak.

It may sound as though I am arguing for sugarcoating and sanitisation of what is truly terrible. I am not. But, if our purpose is to connect, we need to think hard about how we make that connection.

I recently met a young British photographer who has a rather different lens to Bleasdale's. Caroline Irby has published a stunning book of photographs (website image below) and interviews with refugee children, from every country of the world, now living in the UK. And her pictures taken of women and children in the disaster and war zones have a different feel. She's just become a mother herself.

For me, her pictures show people with lives to live who can make scare resources stretch far and can also find joy and hope in the most difficult of circumstances. Perhaps Caroline's gentler photographs won't open people's purses, but they may help us to learn and understand more.

And finally - for an innovative approach that uses the latest graphic technology - look at this timeline of world development in Christian Aid's 'Poverty Now' campaign.


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