There’s an outbreak of monkeypox, a simian relative of smallpox, in western Europe, North America, and Australia. There’s no monkeypox outbreak in Africa. Yet, if all you had to go by were the images initially used to illustrate news articles about the outbreak in the mainstream corporate press, you’d be excused to think that Africa was the blazing epicentre of the outbreak.
From the BBC to the New York Times, the Guardian to Reuters, coverage of the outbreak came with pictures of people of African descent, their exposed skin pocked with festering blisters. Crucially, the pictures were all old file photos, with some being from as far back as the 1990s. The only major news sites that didn’t use these photos were those not based in the West, like Qatari Al Jazeera.
Naturally, many Africans online have been blasting Western media houses for this usage and sharing recent photos of white people suffering from the disease. When the Twitter handle of a Kenyan broadcaster illustrated a post about the disease with one such picture, the comments section erupted in cheers. Even the association of foreign journalists working in Africa weighed in with a formal condemnation.
Following the backlash, many of the offending pictures have been taken down and replaced with electron micrographs of the virus that causes the disease or, in a few cases, pictures of white victims.
Why, you may ask, do Africans care so much about this? Isn’t the disease endemic to the continent, after all? Until recently, weren’t most photos depicting the disease taken in African countries, so that they were the only ones available at the outset of the outbreak? And, even if this hadn’t been the case, what’s wrong with using the images? Aren’t there black people in the West?
Well, part of the answer comes from the offending news organisations themselves. Just two years ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in Wuhan, these same institutions worked up a whole kerfuffle about keeping their coverage of the disease respectful to the Chinese people. Convinced that it was their duty to spare them the stigma associated with the disease, they contorted themselves into all kinds of shapes and forwent some of the thrills of photojournalism.
Instead of dramatic photos of intubated patients struggling for air, they elected to use images and artistic impressions of the virus in their stories. When the WHO conjured up a clumsy name for the disease that had nothing to do with its place of origin, they fell in line and carried it to all corners of the earth. And when a certain bad orange man insisted on calling it the China virus, they added it to the ledger in support of their allegation that he was a white supremacist.
Why then have they, who acted so sanctimoniously in a case where they would have been excused for using photos of victims (Covid-19 did break out in Wuhan, after all) not only not been as careful, but turned into the perpetrators of an arguably worse offense? Were they even sincere the first time? Or have two years been too long for them to keep up the act?
Many commentators have attributed malice and neo-colonialist attitudes to the journalists and editors clearing the use of the images featuring Africans. It fits into a macabre pattern of thought about Africa that Western media organisations just can’t seem to wean themselves off of. Western media, the charge goes, considers Africa to be a backward place filled with sub-human people, whose suffering can be safely ogled at by sympathetic Westerners, who have no dignity to be defended.
Though broad, this accusation isn’t spurious. It’s hard to find other reasons for the tendency of Western media to gravitate to the lens of disaster porn in their treatment of Africa. Not even in their Covid-19 coverage, when they were ostentatious about being respectful everywhere else, could they shake it off.
Instead, they were overly enthusiastic every time it seemed as though Africa was about to take a turn for the worse, and palpably disappointed with every implosion of that expectation.
To give the devil his due, though, maybe we should look for other reasons. After all, no one in the West talks louder about decolonisation, and no one wants to be thought of as an ally of marginalised groups more, than these organisations. Is it possible that Africa is just such a small part of their constituency that they don’t think about it as much, or as carefully, as they do about the rest of their readers, and so are in the dark about Africans’ perception of their attitudes?
Or maybe they do, but this is the only angle for effective storytelling about the continent. Maybe it even comes from a good place, a sympathetic posture towards a continent that’s still bottom of the global healthcare system ranks. Maybe, by using photos of Africans to illustrate a disease outbreak in the West, they are trying to get ahead of the curve, so that when the disease resurges on the continent, the spigots of assistance can flow unimpeded.
If these excuses sound unconvincing, it’s because they are. Try as I might, I cannot find any compelling alternative reasons. In a world where information is so easy to come by, it isn’t reasonable to excuse well-resourced media organisations for being too lazy to use accurate photos for their stories. They are taking photos from a literal warzone in Europe right now, for crying out loud!
And so we are left with the initial accusation. Mainstream Western news organisations have been falling into this pattern in their African coverage for far too long for it to be merely circumstantial. It is inexcusable, even by their own standards, and it’s high time they tried dealing with it.