…before my blog fades back into internet obscurity. People are asking a lot of great questions, and yesterday’s blog post went kinda viral because of that (also because of a link from Visible Children). I’m aware of the nature of viral sharing, which means I have approximately two seconds to communicate anything I want while I’m still standing in the spotlight’s shadow. I think I’ll say this:
I am not an authority on Uganda. This guy is. The only authority I have to even write about Invisible Children as a nonprofit is that I care a lot about transparency and nonprofit behavior. A lot of people who consider themselves advocates choose a focus and then become knowledgable enough to fight for it, and my focus is on disability rights. My sister has spent years and years teaching me about it, so it comes naturally (and if you’re playing along at home, yes, I’m applying metonymy to my sister and me).
What I do have a solid grasp on, though, is film, pop culture, and marketing. It’s sort of what I do when I’m not trying to start a nonprofit. I would like to believe I do it responsibly, but I’ve also taken a series of wacky “test paths” as I tried to figure out how to make a positive impact. I’ll be honest; I was never able to put enough time or energy into film to reach a place where I could use it to make a difference, and I really admire the people who can.
The side effect of spending a long time thinking that filmmaking would be my path, though, is spending about five years studying all the how’s and why’s of film and impact: how is it beautiful, how is it dangerous, how can we allow ourselves to be deeply moved while also trying to consider the people who sit just outside the frame of a movie or a YouTube video?
So again, I am not qualified to speak to the issues surrounding Joseph Kony. I am, however, qualified to think critically about the abundance of sensory input I receive each day. We all are. The Kony 2012 campaign was the lens of the conversation because from an activism and advocacy standpoint, it is probably the biggest viral social media campaign we have ever seen. People are scrambling for for a way to interpret what just happened because there is no precedent for this. But do you know what does have a precedent?
This type of image.
Taken by Kevin Carter, Sudan, 1993 was a quintessentially iconic image that circled the world. People saw it and became rightfully horrified. The child in the photo, of indeterminate sex, suddenly represented every child not just in Sudan, but in the entire continent (also, she’s a girl). People instinctively drew a “predator v. prey” inference because of their natural reversion to archetypes, and the photo became a widespread symbol of starvation.
The Save the Children Foundation appropriated the photo and used it on their donor brochures accompanied by the headline, “Stop a Different Kind of Child Abuse.” Save The Children’s use of the photo suggested a “starving Africa” in need of aid, which was not simply offensive; it was also an incorrect interpretation of the photo. David Perlmutter later noted in his book Photojournalism and Foreign Policy: Icons of Outrage in International Crises that the famine the photo reflected was most likely the result of a civil war that raged in the region at the time. Further, in 1993, Save The Children had no outposts in Sudan.
For good measure, I’m going to throw in one more image that sets a precedent:
This is a spider. With the exception of a small, brave subset of the human population (myself not included), do you know what we do when we see one of these guys? Our pulse quickens; we abandon whatever we’re doing; and we look for the fastest way to get it the hell out of our vicinity. This is no doubt evolutionary; our biologically constructed reality is such that when we see a threatening thing or animal, we react instantaneously. We don’t have to think. It doesn’t matter if most of the spiders we encounter every day are harmless; once the fear seed is planted, the reaction prevails.
What does this have to do with film and the media? Well, the visual and emotional medium draws upon the same receptors, and we react in the same way: instantaneously. But in this case, unlike that of our reaction to a potential threat, we do have to think. And the questions I raised, with regards to a campaign designed to produce an emotional, knee-jerk reaction, are good ones to start with as we think past our immediate responses.
Always seek the bigger context. Always, always, always. That’s the message I’d like to impart, as a tiny blogger who has a bigger platform than usual for a couple of seconds. Oh, and go check out The Great Exchange. I think you’ll like it.