Food crisis

by World Press Photo

In April 1980, photojournalist Mike Wells traveled to Swaziland and Malawi for the British Save the Children Fund, to cover their campaign against polio.

During a quick trip to Uganda, he visited a Roman Catholic seminary in the Karamoja district that had been struck by food shortages following recurrent drought, crop failures, and violence following the overthrow of Idi Amin’s rule. Against this background, Wells visited the region, where he photographed the hand of a malnourished boy resting in the hand of one of the priests.

In the summer of 1980, Ugandan and Western media began covering the famine. But Mike Wells found it hard to get attention for his story. When his picture had become World Press Photo of the Year the following year, he told Holland Herald magazine: “No one was especially interested in the photographs. Life was the worst. They sat on that photograph for five months before they used it. […] I think to wait with a photograph for five months, while people are dying, is wrong. That little boy in the photograph is undoubtedly dead by now.” Although he was not a staff photographer, Life had entered the picture in the contest, without informing Wells beforehand, making him a reluctant winner. “It doesn’t seem very clever to be winning prizes with pictures of people starving to death,” he told Holland Herald.

Mike Wells’ photograph is one of many depicting food crises in the World Press Photo collection. The majority of them have been made in Sub-Saharan African countries, where both political instability and natural factors, such as long periods of drought, have created a situation prone to food crises. Since the late 1960s, ongoing civil wars have often led to governments spending more on arms than on food relief, preventing relief organizations and media to enter the affected areas.

“The Faces of Hunger”

In 1967, German photographer Thomas Hoepker traveled through northern India to cover the famine and smallpox epidemic in Bihar, a double calamity that had struck the state in December 1966. That year, four million people were expected to die from starvation in Bihar alone, Hoepker wrote in Stern magazine. The world’s eyes were upon India, the catastrophic Bengal famine of 1943, in which 3 million people perished, and were not forgotten. In the end, a large-scale famine was averted thanks to various measures taken by the Indian government, including importing grain from the US, improving transportation and running public information campaigns. Indian economist and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen believed that India was able to contain this famine and subsequent ones, because it had become a functioning democracy with a free press.

Nevertheless, India kept struggling with widespread poverty and hunger, and it also featured in a series of articles, entitled “The Faces of Hunger”, and published in the Chicago Tribune in October 1974. To report on famine that threatened the lives of nearly half a billion people, staff photographer Ovie Carter and reporter William Mullen had traveled through Africa and India over the course of three months. After publication, readers of the Tribune responded by sending thousands of dollars in contribution to relief organizations. To accommodate readers’ requests, the Tribune Company published the story also as a booklet.


The great famine of 1984-85 in Ethiopia became the archetypal media famine. It was the worst famine to hit the country in a century, leading to more than 400,000 deaths. Drought and two decades of civil war had brought millions of Ethiopians on the brink of starvation in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1973-1974, Emperor Haile Selassie’s government tried unsuccessfully to suppress news of a famine in the Wollo province, that would eventually kill between 80,000-200,000 people. Swedish photojournalist Lars Åström reported on their plight. In 1980, Andrew Hosie photographed starving refugees in overcrowded camps, driven out of their homelands by the Ethiopian-Somali conflict over the disputed Ogaden region.

On 23 October 1984, both BBC and NBC broadcasted a 7-minute news item filmed by reporter Michael Buerk and cameraman Mohammed Amin in Korem refugee camp in northern Ethiopia. Although Save the Children Fund had opened the camp in December 1982, early warnings of an impending catastrophe had not been sufficient to persuade Western governments to send assistance. The fact that the Ethiopian government was spending 46 percent of its national budget on arms to fight northern separatists rather than on food did not help. The government was also reluctant to grant travel permits and visas to foreign diplomats and journalists. For nearly two years, news trickled out of the affected area, but, without compelling images, the public remained largely indifferent.

The 1984 broadcast changed all that: eventually an estimated 470 million people saw it, and the alarming situation in Ethiopia became a political priority worldwide. Donations to charities started to pour in and most Western news organizations sent reporters and crews, among them photojournalists David Burnett (for Time), Hans-Olav Forsang (Verdens Gang), Carol Ann Guzy (Miami Herald), Alain Keler (Sygma), Mary Ellen Mark (Time/Life) and Larry Price (Philadelphia Inquirer). In graphic black-and-white, sometimes in color, they recorded death and deprivation among mainly women and children.

Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado ventured to Ethiopia without a specific assignment, embarking on what would become a 15-month project. Working with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), his pictures were later published in two books, sold for the benefit of MSF, and in the French newspaper Libération. Most American magazines, including Life, turned them down because they were considered too close, too painful, and too harrowing. At the same time, some critics argued that his photographs were too beautiful, and that his luminous aesthetic and epic compositions were inappropriate for the subject matter, eliciting admiration rather than action. By focusing on dignity instead of pity, Salgado aimed at provoking contemplation, understanding and debate. Nevertheless, his pictures struck a chord with a large audience.

Awareness and motivation

Equally remarkable for its distinct style were the photos James Nachtwey made in Somalia during the famine in 1992. Nachtwey, who had followed reporting on the situation, decided to go there even though he could not get an assignment. The pictures he brought back from his trip convinced Libération to commission him for a second one. In Bardera, where he stayed for five days, he made his winning pictures. “This was not an exercise in journalism,” he told World Press Photo, “I wanted to motivate people to help.”

Raising awareness and motivating people to help was also the driving force behind Tom Stoddart’s coverage of the famine in Sudan in 1998, a result of the civil war that had kept the country in its grip since 1983. With the assistance of MSF and UNICEF, he made an uncompromising story about the desperate situation in the village of Ajiep. Stoddart insisted that the contact details of both aid organizations accompany publication. First published in the British newspaper The Guardian, and followed by international publications, the pictures prompted generous donations from readers.

Many memorable famine pictures have shown only one side—the acute suffering, mostly of women and children—of a complex political and economical story. While shocking images of victims have helped increase awareness and raise funds for relief efforts, they have been criticized for lacking context and contributing towards a one-dimensional perception of whole regions of the world.

In later years, other aspects of food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa came to the fore and, within the photojournalistic community, a debate about the ethics of representation is taking place. In 2009, David Chancellor photographed how starving villagers in Zimbabwe reduced the huge body of a dead elephant to bones in less than two hours. The elephant came from an area where Campfire, a local conservation program, encourages local communities in dry areas to use wildlife as an important natural resource that includes the consumption of meat.

Mike Wells

Thomas Hoepker

Ovie Carter

Lars Aström

Andrew Hosie

David Burnett

Alain Keler

Mary Ellen Mark

Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado

Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado

James Nachtwey

James Nachtwey

Tom Stoddart

David Chancellor