There’s been a terrible indifference to the tragic unravelling of safety and stability in the Darfur region of Sudan. There is conflict, yet one that has little effect on the stability of the West. There are acts of atrocity, debasement and the displacement of generations to the limbo of refugee camps at the edges of the country. There have, of course, been those who have campaigned, lobbied and attempted to re-align the news agenda. But it would seem we’re not in the era of unity or revolution, and we seem particularly sedentary when asked to act to assuage crises elsewhere.
The tone, then, of the book published under the wing of Proof (an organisation set up “to encourage social change through the use of photography”) is one of a call to action. It’s a recent publication from the eclectic powerHouse organisation, itself becoming better known for its confident and dynamic use of design. In its directness, Darfur is a consistent (if not subtle) addition to the catalogue.
The cold statistics are awful: the region holds 3.5 million starving and 2.5 million violently displaced people. Inaction seems to proliferate amongst politicians too, with George Bush putting his name to a bill to end the violence only recently, in 2006. Amnesty International have voiced frustration at such lethargy, and use this book to offer succinct and emotive suggestions about how world powers can act to make an immediate difference (and because the webs of financial engagement, military hardware and arms trading have been suspended, we presume).
It’s a call that the reader hears too – in the form of leaflets dropped inside the book that encourage them to hold an event, contact an MP or do something else… anything.
Darfur lays out a thorough and awful timeline, tracing over the events of two decades, an era of unrest that entered a new and troubling phase in 2003. At that point, in response to the marginalisation of the region, the Sudan Liberation Army took up arms against the government. The government’s reaction was unmeasured and heartless. By allowing the Arab Janjaweed militia to turn their horses and guns on the region’s villages, a sustained period of killing, abduction and defilement began.
Drawing upon diverse practitioners from Agence Vu, Magnum, VII and other agencies, a number of seasoned photographers and dedicated support workers offer their accounts through half-page testimonies throughout the book. They are earnest and evocative texts. Colin Finlay, for example, hints at the emotional challenges encountered while in the region. His account of the stillness, of the dignity and silence among those too weak to cry is written with an eloquence that lingers beyond the pictures.
The pictures chosen to illustrate the book are the most immediate kind of photojournalism – rich in gesture and the solutions that have become so familiar to us. They are the motifs of famine and civil unrest, rife with emaciation and exhaustion. They touch upon the hopeless waiting through the hours that drag in the emergency settlements of Chad and at the edge of Darfur. Another rib-lined baby is latched to a mother’s withered breast, and families attempt to maintain dignity while moving through the landscape. It seems indecent to look at these pictures and feel nonchalant, unmoved – but the regular devices of the genre clog any spark in me.
I should be ashamed perhaps, as these situations are heartbreaking, yet there’s something about this familiarity and the bold design that I find difficult to reconcile in the book. There are few surprises: black and white images bleed with colour and reach the gutter of the book, binding disparate images or in echoing repetition. Such a design binds the work together, draining a frame of its individual discretion. If there is space on the page beyond the picture it is a black, varnished void or the space for the frail and haunted accounts of those who have witnessed or endured atrocity.
Yet within the book, there are pictures that seem to reach deeper. A picture of a soldier standing watchful as a woman chops wood stays with me. He has turned his back, almost as if awarding privacy to a woman who has little else left. Through sharp eyes he watches the horizon and does little, remaining still yet preoccupied, very clearly knowing this war is far from over.