Single mother Natasha begins chopping wood to sell under a berating African sun at 5:30 a.m, with son Alexi on her back. Later, she is forced to decide between buying food and saving money in case Alexi, whose bones are clearly visible underneath his thin skin, gets sick. The little food she does have she gives to her children, confiding that she can go a week before needing to eat. When Natasha goes to sleep, on a straw mat laid over a dirt ground, she often wonders how life will end.
It is stories like Natasha’s that are told in “Starved for Attention,” an exhibit presented in a joint effort by Doctors Without Borders and VII Photo. The exhibit is a multimedia presentation made up of photos and video clips presented in a “mini-documentary style” to bring attention to the problem of malnutrition, which is predicted to affect over 195 million children just this year.
Featuring projects done in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, India, Mexico and the United States, the exhibit shows projects from a number of acclaimed photographers, who embody their own personal style and creativity into their individual presentations on the issue of child malnutrition. VII photojournalists include Marcus Bleasdale, Jessica Dimmock, Ron Haviv, Antonin Kratochvil, Franco Pagetti, Stephanie Sinclair and John Stanmeyer, who traveled to locations ranging from war zones to busy capitals to document malnutrition’s widespread force.
According to the exhibit’s communications director, Jason Cone, “Starved for Attention” utilizes multimedia not only to show us the images of these children suffering, but, more importantly, to let us hear their stories first-hand.
“Most people have an idea in their mind of what malnutrition looks like,” Cone said. “People have been desensitized with this image of the starving African child, and we wanted to find a way to resensitize people in this issue. People are saturated with all sorts of imagery and media these days and the only way to cut through that noise is with engaging storytelling, and you need great visual storytellers to do that.”
The exhibit tells a number of stories like Natasha’s, using both the voices of the doctors working in the field and those of their patients, to illustrate the devastating effects of malnutrition on children. Jason Prystowsky, a current emergency physician and a former Doctors Without Borders worker who currently gives talks to promote “Starved for Attention,” likewise hopes these stories will touch people.
“As a physician and as a human being and as a member of the global community, I’m already sold. I’ve been there and I’ve seen it; you only have to watch one malnutritioned kid die to know that it’s an injustice,” Prystowsky said. “But for people who haven’t been there, it’s an amazing vector for communication to provide people a glimpse of this world. We live in a world with excessive nutrition, we’ve become “calorie toxic” and obese, but [this exhibit] shows’ other parts of the world that don’t have enough calories and they starve.”
“Starved for Attention” utilizes these vivid pictures and stories of devastation to raise awareness and education on the issue. This is what Dr. Michael Wilkes, who helped bring the exhibit to UC Davis, hopes the exhibit will achieve.
“While the exhibit has the potential of making the viewer feel guilty, that is not its purpose. My hope is that for some it triggers a desire to help through volunteer work, research, or donations,” he said. “For others it may merely serve an educational purpose of reminding us that tiny things we never even consider like zinc or vitamin A can have devastating consequences when they are absent.”
Prystowsky hopes the chilling stories and images will inspire the kind of emotion that makes people really want to bring change.
“I hope that people become aware and that they get pissed off, it should piss you off that this many kids die from malnutrition. If people become educated and aware they will start being part of the solution rather than being a bystander as really horrible things happen to these kids,” he said.
One of the exhibit’s main purposes is not only to show these people’s stories, but to show that malnutrition is something that can actually be fixed.
“We are trying to raise awareness of this issue,” Cone said. “Unlike some of the diseases in the world, we know exactly what we need to do to prevent a child from dying of malnutrition. This is not a disease for which we are continuing to search for a vaccine. It’s really just about food and giving people access to that.”
According to Prystowsky, “Starved for Attention” shows how the global community has been mishandling the issue of malnutrition, and how these children can be saved if people are better educated on the issue.
“We actually have the tools we need to intervene very inexpensively and ineffectively. We know where the hot spots are, we know during what weeks of the year where malnutrition is the worse, we know where it’s going to occur and when, and we have the tools necessary to intervene,” Prystowsky said. “What we don’t have is any interest to do it, or the political and social will to intervene. Hopefully with campaigns like ‘Starved for Attention,’ students will become aware and will want to act.”
This desire to inspire students is the main reason “Starved for Attention” has been brought to the UC Davis campus. Featured internationally in galleries in New York and exhibits in Paris and Rome, as well as a number of countries in Africa, the Doctors Without Borders organization hopes that bringing the exhibit to college campuses will incite a whole new type of passion and activism. Prystowsky hopes this passion reaches students across the nation, and that they understand how powerful their voices really are.
“You may think you’re just a student, but you have a voice. Whether or not you choose to use that voice is up to you. When you get a group of students together and use a voice, that’s how governments are toppled and policies are changed and movements are made. You get a group of students who are angry and want to make change, [and] that’s a movement, and movements are what make positive sustainable change,” he said.
Students can begin getting involved by visiting the exhibit, which is on display in the Student Commons of the UC Davis Medical School Education Building in Sacramento. Doctors Without Borders have also created a petition to help bring awareness and incite change in how the global community has handled malnutrition. It can be found at www.starvedforattention.org.
Cone hopes that “Starved for Attention” will raise the awareness it needs to help children like Alexi, because bringing them to health is an amazing thing.
“The most amazing thing with malnutrition is that you can see a child who literally in days can go from looking like they’re about to die, and with small interventions you can basically turn the corner for the child and watch them go back to being full of life, energetic and smiling again, being what a child should be.”
ANNETA KONSTANTINIDES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.