Representing relief, development and peacebuilding (Fall 2018)

[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Intersections MCC logo

Much of the world we encounter comes to us mediated by representations. From complex arrangements of images and stories to the subtleties of typography, color and form, representations inform our understandings of people and places that we cannot access directly.

The topic of representation inevitably raises questions of perception, intention and power. This is especially true when representation is guided by a communications strategy, which is, by definition, constructed to convey particular messages to specific audiences. This issue of Intersections explores MCC’s approach to representation and some of the ethical questions that organizations like MCC confront in their communications and fundraising efforts.

Representations of individuals and communities—particularly in the form of images and narratives—sometimes diverge from how the subjects of these representations understand themselves. In reporting on its work with partners, MCC positions itself as source for reliable information about underrepresented parts of the world communities recovering from disasters, living through difficult conditions or facing injustice. MCC therefore bears a clear responsibility to provide accurate and trustworthy accounts to its audience.

Everything that MCC produces contributes to narratives about MCC, its partners in program, the people who benefit from this collaborative work and the people who support MCC in multiple ways. Different communications initiatives have different emphases—the impact of a project, the agency of project participants, the values and commitments of supporters and the systemic factors and ways in which MCC’s audiences might be implicated in a problem (and how they might be part of a solution).

A major task of MCC’s communications and donor relations staff has always been to determine what kind of stories to tell. Photographs can quickly convey complex meaning and can reinforce values of trust and transparency. For these reasons, photography has been a key element of MCC’s storytelling strategy since the organization’s earliest days.

But communication is never simply an act of transmission and photography has never been neutral. Not only has the camera been a valuable tool in the creation of state propaganda, it also played a key role in European colonial expansion. By representing non-European lands as blank slates and by cataloguing non-European peoples according to racial hierarchies, colonizers convinced themselves of their own ethno-cultural superiority and their right to land and resources. Colonial photography represented Indigenous peoples as less developed, exotic or depraved. The stillness of the photograph also lent a fixed quality to constructions of non-Western peoples, allowing Europeans to position such populations in contrast to a narrative of development (with colonized peoples presented as static, homogenous and infant-like in contrast to the supposedly dynamic, diverse and advanced West).

For international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) based in Europe and North America, the 1980s were a pivotal time of education and awareness around power and representation in communications and fundraising. Photography’s problematic history was an essential part of the conversation. MCC’s own internal discussions of communications practices, with a heavy emphasis on photography, date back at least to
1983. From the beginning of these discussions, MCC appears to recognize that photography “in the field” brings with it questions of power, dilemmas of cultural difference and opportunities for peaceful collaboration. Photographers like Howard Zehr regularly cited their medium’s potential for meaningful cultural exchange and collaboration, while acknowledging image-gathering as a potential source of exploitation and conflict.

However, conversations about how to portray an organization’s work generally stop short of asking a more fundamental question about power: to whom are communicators and fundraisers accountable? Historically, those portrayed by INGOs have often had limited agency in decisions around their representation, and organizations have not typically been accountable to subjects for the use of their stories and images. The communications preferences of INGOs and their implicit beliefs about fundraising efficacy have long been the primary determining factors for decisions about representation.

To an extent, MCC has distinguished itself among INGOs through a long history of critical reflection about photography and representation. But questions about the ethics of representation remain active as MCC adjusts to new forms of communication and to new contexts and challenges for communications and fundraising. As MCC approaches its centennial year, this issue of Intersections seeks to root itself in an ongoing legacy of self-reflection and continue this conversation by asking how ethical considerations about representation interact practically with various aspects of our work.

Jonathan Dyck is a graphic designer for MCC Canada. David Turner is MCC Manitoba communications coordinator.

Learn More

Azoulay, Ariella. Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography. New York: Verso, 2009.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1979.

Cole, Teju. “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic. March 21, 2012.

Kennedy, Denis. “Selling the Distant Other: Humanitarianism and Imagery—Ethical Dilemmas of Humanitarian Action.” The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. February 28, 2009. Available at

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. London: Picador, 2001.

Wehbi, Samantha and Deane Taylor. “Photographs Speak Louder than Words: The Language of International Development Images.” Community Development Journal 48/4 (October 2013): 525–539.

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