W. Willoughby Hooper on Famine

With controversies and debates again bubble up over famine photography, Iconic Photos look back as one of its earliest practitioners.

William Willoughby Hooper (1837–1912) was a British Army lieutenant stationed in Madras during its great monsoon famine of 1876-78. An amateur photographer who also documented the social and economical institutions of the Raj, Hooper had the skeletal sufferers brought to his studio in groups, and took careful documentary photos of them, after meticulously sorting them by age, gender and caste.

One memorable photo showed a tree shielding within its roots two skeletal children, with a frightening bird scarcely visible on the left. The photo (which I couldn’t find a copy of) seems an eerie precursor of Kevin Carter’s award-winning and career-ending photo of the Ethiopian famine. But if Hopper’s emaciated bodies look very familiar to modern reader, the controversy that ensued also had a modern feel.

The Victorians debated whether taking these pictures was an exploitation of people’s suffering and whether detachment created by cameras is a craven excuse for apathy. Others maintained that the photographs raised awareness; a contemporary paper reported:

People who still delude themselves with the idea that the famine, if it has any existence at all, has been greatly exaggerated, could see [the photos], and they would lay aside that notion for good … Their knowledge will enable them to testify that these photographs are not representations of exceptional cases of suffering, but are typical of the actual conditions of immense numbers of people in the Madras Presidency.

But soon, news came out that after taking such photos, Hooper would sent the famine victims back to the countryside without giving them food, treatment or help. For this astonishing cruelty that Hooper was roundly skewered in the British press — another portent perhaps of our modern times.

16 thoughts on “W. Willoughby Hooper on Famine

  1. Those who criticise ‘famine photography’ have absolutely no understanding of the scale of famine in this world of seven billion people. The so-called failure of a photographer to give food to a famine victim is no different to the failure of the photographer’s critic, sat at home with their TV dinner, to act. It’s time we woke up to the continuing scourge of widespread hunger. ‘Famine photography’ may just assist. Their critics achieve nothing.

    • That’s completely wrong. Firstly, because the famine photographer was physically present, while the critic was far away having his/her tv dinner. Not giving food when u are so closely associated with the situation reeks of cruelty (and it’s completely hypocritical to say that the photographer has ‘done his bit’ by raising awareness in the outside world – if he was so concerned he could have given the starving people a simple meal). U may argue saying that the photographer went all the way to take the picture, but he/she makes a living out of taking those photographs. A painter would pay their model to sit for them (I’m guessing photographers would do the same). In this case, the least u could do is provide food…

    • Totally agree with you. Not too long before in Ireland there was an enforced starvation like the one in India resulting in the death of over a million died and another million were force to leave the country. Not one photograph exists of these dark days where tousands died daily on the side of roads, although photography was nearly 20 years old as a medium.
      Photographers and journalists and a necessity for these situtations, they are not the cause or solution. Without them we’d all live in ignorance.

  2. In the early 1970’s, a film titled “Medium Cool” explored the issue of photojournalists standing behind an
    invisible curtain to insulate themselves from emotional contact with the subject of their photos. It created much discussion among those of us in J-school and starting our experiences with facing, photographing and moving on emotionally from subject matter. I don’t doubt that we/they too have experienced PTSD and
    did not have a word for what they felt.
    Today, photojournalist/documentarians must not walk away, but seek and direct help to those who have been photographed. However, the involvement still can claim the ultimate cost, that of the photographers life when someone else does not share their empathy for the plight of the afflicted.

  3. just read the article. it’s friday, february 24, 2012, 12:47 p.m. Eastern time. at the end of the article was an ad from H&R Blcok reading : «INSTANT CA$H BACK». i found it out of place….

  4. The image of the “tree shielding within its roots two skeletal children, with a frightening bird scarcely visible on the left” wasn’t a photo; it was an engraving. Wikipedia has a copy of that image on its article on the Great Famine of 1876–1878. I’ve linked to the image on Wikipedia:

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