Starved for Attention: Photographer Documents Hunger in Djibouti

Photographer Marcus Bleasdale documents starvation in Djibouti.

Feb. 9, 2011 — -- "Starved for Attention" is a global multimedia campaign to fight childhood malnutrition, which claims the lives of millions of children each year.

A collaboration between the international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders and the VII photo agency, "Starved for Attention" is a seven-part mini-documentary series documenting the parents and health workers struggling to meet the needs of young, growing children around the world.

An estimated 195 million children are malnourished worldwide, and malnutrition contributes to at least one-third of the 8 million deaths of children under the age of five each year. The series highlights how childhood malnutrition can be prevented with the right kinds of nutritious food, and the policies around the world that prevent nutritious food from reaching the children who need it.

VII photographer Marcus Bleasdale traveled to Djibouti to document the frustrations of health workers caring for malnourished children in Djibouti City. Here, he answers questions about the experience. More from the series can be found on the Starved for Attention website.

Why did you choose to focus on Djibouti?

Djibouti chose me. [Doctors Without Borders] had a lot of projects in places that I'd been before. Both [Doctors Without Borders] and I thought that it was a much better opportunity for me to cover something different…You don't have any visual preconceptions, any preconceptions whatsoever. You come to a new place with fresh eyes, fresh thoughts.

You have expressed that it was important to break the stereotypical image of the starving African child for this campaign. How did you do that?

I was working in a 50-square-meter compound only with very sick, very thin African children. So it was very difficult not to point the camera in that direction. For me it was hard to focus on the larger picture, to focus on the why as opposed to the who, you know, why is this thing happening, why is malnutrition happening in Djibouti? What's behind it, what are the political ramifications of it?

And malnutrition in Djibouti is very political. It's not as if there's a war going on there, and it's not as if there's any shortage of food. That's not the case at all. It's purely an issue brought on by poverty, and to some extent, poverty brought on by government policy. And poverty brought on by international donor policy. All of that was going on in my mind whilst I was shooting. Additionally, I had to focus on the [health care workers] and the effect that this scene and this health devastation had on the people who were trying to provide the health care.

'Starved for Attention': A Photographer in Africa

Did you know when you went to Djibouti that you were going to want to photograph the health care workers? Or was that a natural progression from what you saw there?

We all [Doctors Without Borders and the VII photographers] talked about how we can address this issue of malnutrition without touching too much on the clichéd imagery that we'd all seen before. It was a strategy for us to concentrate specifically on certain things in certain countries. In Djibouti, because of the level of frustration there with treating malnutrition, it was a good opportunity for us to focus on the health care providers and find out how this kind of desperate malnourished emergency was playing out. They [the health care workers] couldn't bring it up politically because they might be thrown out of the country by the government if they addressed things on a political level. They couldn't change U.S. policy, and so they just had to deal with the consequences of this inadequate food policy both locally and internationally. And that was desperately frustrating when you're a nurse and you're seeing children die every day and you know that they are dying needlessly.

You're talking about concepts like malnutrition and poverty. How do you go about photographing that?

Well, it's very difficult to photograph. We started with one of the other projects, the project that Antonin [Kratchovil] did in the U.S. We touched on the U.S. food aid policy, the grains that go to the World Food Programme are grains that come from America. They aren't the most nutritious of grains, and the WFP, because of America's aid food policy, is forced to use food that isn't as nutritious as other available food stuffs at a cheaper price. American…agricultural subsidies force American governments to force UN aid agencies to take food products that are not of sufficient quality to do the job they're supposed to, which is feed malnourished kids. It is quite shocking, actually, when you see that on the ground and the kinds of effects that has on the ground.

One of the things you have mentioned is that there is not a war going on in Djibouti, yet children are starving there. A lot of your previous work focuses on war. How did this compare for you?

The Difference was that there's less urgency. It's a constant state, where as in conflict, sometimes it's the matter of a few moments, or a day, or a few hours, where things are happening, this situation in Djibouti it was a constant. It was from four in the morning until four in the morning. It just never stopped. And this crisis after crisis after crisis in the emergency ward, it just never stopped. Kids were just coming in again and again.

Because these issues are so endemic, it can be hard to bring attention to them. What are the plans going forward with "Starved for Attention?"

We are travelling around with it, and trying to take it to areas and events that mean we are not so much preaching to the converted, but educating people along the way. All of the photographers that embarked upon this project learned something quite significant throughout shooting. We're all quite aware and engaged people, and have been working in these areas for quite a long time, and we were all shocked and educated by the situations that we saw. If we can be educated, then I'm sure that we can take that project and educate people around the US and Europe. We're trying to do that by getting it into traditional art galleries and public spaces; spaces where people would normally consume this type of work, or be fed this sort of message.

Marcus Bleasdale has established himself as one of the world's leading documentary photographers. He increasingly uses his work to influence decision makers and policy makers around the world. His work on human rights and conflict have been shown to the U.S. Senate, The United Nations and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in France, Germany and the U.K.

Bleasdale's work has been published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Harper's, The Sunday Times Magazine, The Telegraph Magazine, Stern, Le Monde, TIME Magazine, Newsweek and National Geographic, amongst others. He has received numerous awards, and published two books: "One Hundred Years of Darkness," 2002, and "The Rape of a Nation," 2009.

Bleasdale lives in Oslo with his wife Karin Beate and is a member of VII photo.