Stereotypes and structural racism
A group of researchers at the University of Neuchâtel recently published a fundamental study on structural racism. They argue that "racial discrimination [...] does not presuppose an explicitly racist ideology or intention of a person or institution." It is experienced in everyday life nevertheless: when looking for housing, when looking for a job, during police checks. Even if such racism lacks intent: it exists. And it has an effect, it hurts and excludes. Stereotypical thinking plays a central role in sustaining these dynamics.
We create an idea of the world with the pictures we see and the stories we hear. If they are repeated often enough, they solidify into stereotypes that not only make it easier for us to individually find our way around a complex world, but also to use them as tools of power. This has always been the goal of successful propaganda and one of the basic mechanisms of structural racism.
The White Gaze
Like an iceberg, the real problem is hidden below the surface. The constant repetition of the White gaze on poverty in the Global South perpetuates the perception of deprivation. It fosters the attitude of a White paternalism deeply embedded in social knowledge structures that not only manifests itself in a Western sense of superiority, but also feeds a sense of inferiority. Or, as Felwine Sarr describes it in Afrotopia, "You agonise through comparative calculations and are doomed to constantly see yourself as the straggler who has to catch up and move up in the various rankings." Disenfranchised, needy, hopeless without the donation of Western organisations and grateful for any help – these stereotypical attributions illustrate Felwine Sarr's findings. It is not only fundraising that is caught up in such narratives, both through the images and words it relies on, because the market, conditioned to these stereotypes, supposedly “demands” it.
Breaking down stereotypes with ethical storytelling
Medinat Abdulazeez Malefakis is not the only one demanding that the future of development cooperation is shaped as a true co-creation of development partners and the affected population. Given the great importance of communication and fundraising in organisations, this new understanding should not simply be limited to the design of program work. To break harmful stereotypes, alternatives to existing narratives are needed. We require a new concept of how visual communication should be designed.
Fairpicture understands ethical storytelling as a co-creative process that enables different interests to be incorporated while acknowledging and challenging power differences. In other words, storytelling that includes the relationship between the photographer, the portrayed person, the client, and the audience that ultimately engages with the visuals. Mutual learning and trust, but also fair fees, are among the elements that characterise this relationship.
Storytelling is ethical when it does not endanger the people photographed and allows them control in the process. With ethical storytelling, photographed people have the right to know what happens to their photograph, to proactively agree with or decline being photographed or filmed and to withdraw their consent. And they have the right to be forgotten: their photograph has an expiration date.
Ethical storytelling does justice to the people, situations and realities photographed and offers readers and viewers a differentiated understanding of the world that is laid out before them.
Those who produce and publish visual material have a responsibility.
Visuals can reproduce negative stereotypes and stigmatise entire societies. But they can also break up stereotypes and contribute to a change in people's perception of the world and their relationship to each other. Visuals are instruments of power.
It is up to us how we use them.