Commuters and shoppers passing through New York’s Union Square on Tuesday were presented with information on the fight against malnutrition in an unusual way: At an outdoor exhibit of photographs displayed around a field hospital set up by Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The photos, as wells as videos shown on monitors inside the hospital tents, were created by photographers with VII Photo Agency as part of Starved for Attention, the global multimedia and online campaign created in association with MSF.
MSF doctors and nurses gave tours of the hospital and describe their work in the field; VII photographers Jessica Dimmock and Ron Haviv were on hand to answer questions about their photo projects. Union Square was the first stop on an exhibition tour that includes Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.
None of the photos in the exhibit, taken in Burkina Faso, India, Bangladesh, Congo and elsewhere, show the now familiar images of starving children with bloated bellies, Haviv notes.
“Most people hear ‘malnutrition’ and their minds go to ‘famine,’” he says. “The larger tragedy of malnutrition is that kids can’t go to school, or they’re fainting in class. More importantly, kids who are malnourished cannot grow up to be productive citizens.” The outdoor exhibition “makes people stop,” says Dimmock. Passers-by can then learn more about each of the stories told in the photos by viewing videos or reading the text displayed inside the field hospital.
Jason Cone, director of communications for Doctors without Borders conceived the Starved for Attention presentation with photographer Ron Haviv and VII managing director Stephen Mayes. “The photos are a way to bring people back into a story that people think they already know,” he says.
Cone notes that there’s been a revolution in the treatment of acute malnutrition, thanks to the production of easily stored, easily transported, ready-to-eat nutritional supplements such as Plumpy Nut. Now, Cone notes, mothers are given the supplements so they can treat their children at home, and only the most severely malnourished or dehydrated need hospitalization.
As a result, the numbers that MSF can treat in the field have grown exponentially. However, the US, the world’s largest food aid donor, supplies nutrition programs around the world with bags of fortified flours made of corn and soy, which is inadequate for infants and children. The MSF field hospital replica offers visitors the chance to sign a petition urging governments of the largest donor nations to make sure their food aid meets certain nutritional standards.
Not all the photos in the exhibition feature the work of MSF. In Mexico, for example, where the government has made childhood nutrition a part of its anti-poverty programs, John Stanmeyer photographed mothers in a remote rural area receiving ready-to-eat food products during an annual checkup. In Pennsylvania, Dimmock photographed mothers enrolled in the federal Women and Infant Children program (WIC), which provides mothers with vouchers to purchase certain nutritious foods, such as eggs, fruit, and milk, in contrast to the unnourishing food the US sends to mothers in developing countries.
Viewers can get an Action Kit, which includes a classroom curriculum and slide show, and sign the MSF petition, which can be found at www.starvedforattention.org/take-action.php.
The exhibition and feeding station will next be staged in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza September 14-16 and September 21-23, then move to Philadelphia’s Independence National Park September 30 to October 2, followed by Baltimore’s Pulaski Monument Area and Washington’s John Marshall Park.
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