In your own way

Development Photography in ‘Africa’ – What’s with the dirty torn clothes?

Chimwemwe Manyozo*

In March 2015, I was at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol en route to Malawi. While at the airport I came across a big billboard by UNICEF of a dirty black child, possibly from ‘Africa’, and wearing tattered clothes. This picture took me back to the debate about representation of poor people in the development discourse. Is this image a representation of the state of this child’s life? Or is this a picture that might help the public to donate their money to support the region where this child comes from?

Throughout my childhood experience as a person born and bred in Malawi, I was troubled with this picture. Not only because it might not have represented the state of the child’s life, but also that it was at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, one of the busiest airports in the world. I am sure that whoever passes through this airport and has the chance to see this picture, might make the conclusion that this is the state of children in ‘Africa.’

When we were kids, we loved playing too much. Dirty, torn clothes were our friends. Not that our parents wanted us to dress in torn clothes, but our adventurous lives always found ourselves wearing some dirty torn clothes at one point or another. Our parents didn’t want us to wear torn clothes, but we were not such obedient children. We still had to wear torn clothes, but it was easier to play with sand and get dirty them. In short, the rags gave us more freedom when it comes to playing time.

If someone came at this moment and took a picture of my colleagues and I playing, would that be a representation of our state?

After a long day of playing, we would run home around 4pm, have a shower and wear decent clothes. By that time when our parents came home, we would look clean and neat. Again, if someone found us this time, and took a picture of us, would that be a representation of us?

Perhaps it is worth understanding how do the families take their pictures? When they want to take a family photo, what do they do? Which scenery do they pick?

When our parents wanted to get a family photo, we were told in advance that there would be a photographer coming to get family pictures. The night before, our parents would sort out which clothes they expect us to pick. Most of the times, we wore new clothes or the ones that were seen in the best clothes that time. We would take a bath and put on our ‘Sunday finest’ and photographer would then take the picture. One thing that you will notice is that a family picture doesn’t feature dirty children or tattered clothes. I am sure that, if development photographers took their time to go through the family photo of the beneficiaries, they would notice a big difference between the pictures that development practitioners captured, and the pictures that a ‘family photographer’ captures.

But why is there this difference? This goes to the issue of interests. On the one hand, the interest of the family is to get pictures to keep the family moments alive. They get to define how they want the memory to be captured. This is why there are many re-takes until when the photographer captures the memory in the way the family wants it to be recorded.

On the other hand, the interest of development organisations and practitioners is not keeping memories alive. The Interest is to capture pictures that will: a) prove to donors that the intervention they invested their funds in is working in the targeted area; b) help the organization raise more funds. This defines the scenery and expressions that will be featured in a ‘development photograph’. Unfortunately, the development agencies and practitioner photography have defined the image of ‘Children of Africa.’ This explains why when you Google Image ‘African children’, most of the time you are given the following categories: starving, happy, sad, poor, school and water.

There are movements that have started to restore the dignity of children of Africa. The question, however, is, how are they going to address the interests of organisations, whose lifeline is selling the story of a sad, starving and poor African child?

I end with an excerpt from ‘Leaving Microsoft to Change the World’ by John Wood, Founder of Room to Read, a global not-for-profit organisation that aims to improve literacy and gender equality in education. Here, John shares his opinion on why using demeaning photography as a marketing tool to raise funds will not work anymore:

“Everyone knows that there is poverty in the world, and almost all of us are saddened by it. Some charities find it effective to show photos of a child covered in flies, or a malnourished family lying in the dust….I think it demeans the world’s poor to use pity when soliciting donations. These images negate the inherent dignity of each human being. I might be wrong, but I think that guilt should not be used as marketing tool.

This is also in the financial interest of the charity, because potential donors want hope and optimism in their lives. They want to see solutions. If we accost them with images of a poor person, they are likely to be sad, but they may not take action. If you instead present a photo of a kid from the inner city in his graduation cap and gown, a little girl smiling as a result of a successful cleft palate operation, or farmers in Honduras using their new well, then people are more likely to share in that optimism by donation to the cause.

I realise, of course, that we need to make citizens aware of the terrible conditions in which much of humanity lives. But I leave that to CNN and BBC and assume my donors are smart enough to know about the state of the world today. I’d much rather lead with a solution and ask potential donors, employees, and volunteers to be a part of it” (Wood, 2006:96).


*Chimwemwe Manyozo is a Chevening Scholar and Social Media Ambassador from Malawi studying MA in Development Studies at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK. He is a Public Relations Officer of the Malawi Human Rights Commission, and a National Coordinator of the World Youth Network Malawi.



Wood, J. (2006). Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.


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