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.


These days, people don’t talk much about Biafra. Many probably have never even heard of it before, let alone know which continent it’s on and what happened there. During the 1960s, however, the name Biafra was a synonym for the horrors of famine and civil war, as much as the names Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Rwanda or Darfur are synonyms for atrocities committed during our generation. In 1967, the Igbo — a people in the oil-rich south east part of Nigeria who were Christianized by missionaries (like many areas in coastal Western Africa) — unilaterally declared their independence from Nigeria.

The Republic of Biafra was doomed from the start; its independence was recognized by only five countries* but Biafra became a battleground on which dying imperial powers and their tumultuous successors fought one of the last proxy wars. France, which officially denied any involvement, sent arms to Biafra via Gabon and the Ivory Coast. France and Portugal, which controlled the nearby islands of Sao Tome and Principe, assumed that they could benefit from the break-up of Nigeria, a former British colony. Britain which had major oil contracts with Nigeria decided to back the Nigerian government. Meanwhile, Soviet Union, South Africa and Rhodesia all saw the conflict as a chance to increase their influence in the region.

After initial setbacks, Nigerian Army blockaded Biafra, cutting off food supplies. Western food aid was refused by the Biafra government, paranoid that it would have been poisoned, and the route for food aid would have opened a gap in the Biafran defence. What happened over the next three years was tragic, because it was all too preventable. It took a long time for the West to see pictures of Biafra; during the first six months of the fighting, few photographers managed to penetrate anywhere near the front lines. Yet, slowly reporters and photographers arrived, making Biafra the world’s first media famine. But the world could only sit and wait as more than one million people perished, mostly from starvation. With the pictures such as that of a hauntingly emaciated albino boy, Don McCullin introduced the world to the sight of children with stick-thin limbs and grotesquely distended stomachs, characteristic of protein deficiency — images which are to become all too tragically familiar in subsequent decades as famines happened in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Uganda, and the Sudan.

Biafra eventually collapsed. In 1970, its president, Lt. Col. Emeka Ojukwu fled the country with just one $100 bill, all that was left of the massive £7m personal fortune; the remainder having been spent on food supplies and arms to protect his country. Biafra seems to have faded into history, its dubious claim to fame now being ‘Jello Biafra’, the stage name of American punk rocker Eric Reed who thought it was ironic to juxtapose the concepts of mass starvation in Africa and the nutritionally worthless junk food of the West.


*(Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Zambia if you must know).

Famine in Uganda

Taken in Karamoja district, Uganda in April 1980, the contrasting hands of a starving boy and a missionary spoke louder than any world leader and any news story about the famine in Uganda. Karamoja region has the driest climate in Uganda and was prone to droughts. The 1980 famine in there where 21% of the population (and 60% of the infants) died was one of the worst in history. The worst recorded famine was the great Finn famine (1696), which killed a third of the population.

The photographer Mike Wells, who would later win the World Press Photo Award for this photo, admitted that he was ashamed to take the photo. The same publication that sat on his picture for five months without publishing it entered it into a competition. He was embarrassed to win as he never entered the competition himself, and was against winning prizes with pictures of people starving to death.

Famine, drought and ethnic violence continue to this day in Karamoja. The Karamojong are a nomadic people, but since Idi Amin years in the 1970s, their nomadic patterns were curtailed due to the increase of cross border security, internal raids, and influx of weapons which enabled them to lead raids.

Vulture Stalking a Child


In March 1993, photographer Kevin Carter made a trip to southern Sudan, where he took now iconic photo of a vulture preying upon an emaciated Sudanese toddler near the village of Ayod. Carter said he waited about 20 minutes, hoping that the vulture would spread its wings. It didn’t. Carter snapped the haunting photograph and chased the vulture away. (The parents of the girl were busy taking food from the same UN plane Carter took to Ayod).

The photograph was sold to The New York Times where it appeared for the first time on March 26, 1993 as ‘metaphor for Africa’s despair’. Practically overnight hundreds of people contacted the newspaper to ask whether the child had survived, leading the newspaper to run an unusual special editor’s note saying the girl had enough strength to walk away from the vulture, but that her ultimate fate was unknown. Journalists in the Sudan were told not to touch the famine victims, because of the risk of transmitting disease, but Carter came under criticism for not helping the girl. “The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene,” read one editorial.

Carter eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for this photo, but he couldn’t enjoy it. “I’m really, really sorry I didn’t pick the child up,” he confided in a friend. Consumed with the violence he’d witnessed, and haunted by the questions as to the little girl’s fate, he committed suicide three months later.





Now that you are here: I am doing something crassly commercial here. I just signed up for Patreon. Patreon is a fundraising platform. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.” As you may notice in last few years, I have been posting very infrequently. But I want IP to go on for a long time and be sustainable. Linking a monetary value to a new post (not a ‘monthly salary’ — which is another way of doing Patreon) should give me a marginal incentive to write more. As far as the blog is concerned, nothing will change. No paywalls. Patreon is more useful for YouTubers and podcasters, but let’s see how it goes for me: https://www.patreon.com/iconicphotos