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.