MSF’s Jason Cone and VII’s Ron Haviv discuss “Starved for Attention”

I’ve enjoyed watching Starved for Attention unfold after I first heard about it. The campaign is a multimedia partnership between VII and Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders). The project aims to raise awareness about the global malnutrition crisis. It’s an ambitious and far-reaching project, and the website is substantial: video and photos by Marcus Bleasdale, Jessica Dimmock, Ron Haviv, Antonin Kratochvil, Franco Pagetti, Stephanie Sinclair, and John Stanmeyer; calls to action; and a blog with periodic updates on the campaign and additional information about malnutrition.

I managed to snag a few moments (over email) with Jason Cone, executive producer of the Starved for Attention films and MSF’s Communications Director based out of New York, and Ron Haviv, one of VII’s founding members. I wanted to ask the two about how NGOs and photographers work together, how a campaign such as this is produced, and how NGOs and journalists work to get stories out to a wide audience within such a fractured media environment.

First, could you tell us a bit about the project. We’ve seen the website, but what other components does it have?

Jason Cone/MSF: Besides the websites, there have been multimedia exhibits of the documentaries as well as still images slideshows in New York City, Toronto, and Milan. We are planning additional exhibits in the coming months in Washington, DC; France; Switzerland; Greece; Italy, Belgium; Canada; and the UK. Other countries may be added as well. We are also making plans to present some of the films in several West African countries in the Sahel region, a major malnutrition hotspot. These showings will take the form of conventional museum exhibits along with presentations in major public spaces or even mobile trucks displaying the films. We recently created an “Action Kit” that allows the general public, students, and others to screen the films on their own and put on a Starved for Attention event to spread the word about malnutrition and join our international petition drive to rewrite food aid policy. The kit can be ordered at the Starved for Attention website here:

MSF has been commissioning documentary photography for some time. How does documentary photography fit into the organization mission and goals?
MSF: MSF has been working with photographers almost since our inception in 1971. Some of the most significant and planned earlier collaborations took place with the photographer Sebastiao Salgado in Ethiopia during the 1984 famine, and with the late French photographer Didier Lefevre, who embedded with our clandestine medical teams crossing over from Pakistan into Afghanistan in the 1980s. Lefevre’s work resulted in several photo books, and the graphic novel trilogy the Photographer, which Lefevre co-authored with Emmanuel Guibert and Frederic Lemercier. ( We have worked with hundreds of other photographers over the years.

The impetus for our collaborations with photographers is that while our main priority as an organization is providing direct medical care and assistance to people struggling to survive amid conflicts, natural disasters, and epidemics in more than 60 countries around the world, we aren’t so bold to believe that our response alone is sufficient to alleviate the suffering inflicted by conflict and disease. When assistance is not enough to save lives or we face obstacle to providing aid to these populations, MSF speaks out from the perspective of what our medical teams are witnessing on the ground. Often it is photographs of an emergency that act as a catalyst for action. And the best photographers can open the eyes of the world to the suffering of people languishing in the shadows of forgotten wars and neglected diseases. This is definitely the case with a largely invisible crisis like childhood malnutrition.

I know VII and MSF have worked together before. Where did the impetus for this project come, from VII or from MSF?

MSF: Malnutrition is medical priority for MSF. We treat hundreds of thousands of children every year. Over the past few decades, the image of emaciated, fly-ridden children on the brink of death from famines and other catastrophe has come to define the visual representation of childhood malnutrition. And in this media saturated world, flush with information documenting the daily toll of human suffering, it is understandable that a visual immunity has developed as a line of defense against this clichéd imagery provoking any kind of an emotional response to tackle the crisis of childhood malnutrition head on. It was in this context that we challenged VII to capture a new visual identity for malnutrition. We had the strong experience of working together in Congo, and this offered another compelling opportunity for collaboration between VII and MSF.

Who was driving the editorial message behind it?

MSF: This was true collaboration with VII in the sense that we identified together the places to send the photographers. It was up to the photographers to find the stories. They worked alongside MSF teams in Djibouti, Burkina Faso, Congo, and India. In Mexico, US, and Bangladesh, the photographers were going after the story through other contacts and we really relied on them to find the images and footage that would bring the story home.

At the same time, I see each film as a chapter in a book. With Marcus Bleasdale piece from Djibouti, you see through the eyes of an MSF team the frustration that no matter how many children they treat this crisis is so much bigger than the response of one organization. Then we go to Burkina Faso with Jessica Dimmock to see the malnutrition through the experience of one mother, and to Bangladesh and India with Ron Haviv, and Stephanie Sinclair, respectively, to the heart of the malnutrition crisis in South Asia, and then the war zones of Congo, and finally to Mexico and the US where we see how early childhood malnutrition has been virtually wiped out with national level programs.

Bangladesh – Terrifying Normalcy / Ron Haviv and MSF

Ron Haviv, how did you get involved in the project?

Ron Haviv: Several VII photographers including myself had been looking for a follow up to our Congo project.

How does a project like this get put together? Where does the funding come from? I see LG is a sponsor–what does that mean (money, technology, staff, distribution?)?

MSF: LG’s support for Starved for Attention came after the project had already entered development in terms of the field work. Their willingness to not only support Starved for Attention but also provide funds for MSF’s malnutrition field programs bridges the two critical aspects of our work—providing assistance and speaking out. LG provided a $500,000 grant to this end, and also television screens to make the exhibits possible. Their support opened the doors to the multimedia exhibits, which was not in the original conception of the project. The project was originally solely intended for online distribution.

How does an NGO/photojournalist work with corporate sponsorship?

MSF: LG has been very easy to work with in the sense that they have been responsive to our requests for additional TV screens and other technology to support exhibits as opportunities have arisen.

Haviv: I don’t think that there is large differentiation between working for traditional media which is solely based on advertising and direct sponsorship. In actuality projects such as these give us more control over who we are funded by.

Who is involved in the production? How long did it take from the first ideas to the final product?

MSF: MSF and VII worked together with a production called Herzliya Films. The photographers and MSF project staff were in the editing rooms with Herzliya throughout the process. The project was first discussed with Ron and Stephen Mayes, managing director of VII, in January 2009. It took us about 9 months to identify all the locations, make the appropriate contacts, and schedule the photographer visits. The field work was completed in early January 2010, and the film production ran from early March and the project was launched online and in an exhibit in New York City on June 2.

Who is the intended audience for this project?
MSF: The audience ranges from the general public to policymakers. As mentioned, we will be screening the films in West Africa during a meeting of the West African Health Organization in Ivory Coast. We have sent the films to policymakers and key decision-makers at the World Food Program, World Bank, and other important players in the field of malnutrition programming.

What is the goal of the project?
MSF: The project aims are awareness raising about the issue of malnutrition—the scope of the problem but also how it is a preventable and treatable conditions with existing tools and strategies—and the petition to pressure the top food aid donor countries to ensure they provide food assistance that meets the nutritional standards and needs of young children.

Is the goal of the project to get donors, and if so which kinds? People off the streets? How do you know that the intended audience has been reached?
This project is not driven by an ambition to increase donors or fundraising. It is purely meant to advocate on behalf of the children affected by this crisis. We know we will reach the public through the website, media coverage, and events over the coming the months. We also know through direct feedback from policymakers that they are hearing our message from the project.

Where are you marketing the project? How are you getting people to know about it?
MSF: We are marketing the project in the various cities and regions where exhibits are being held. We are doing direct outreach to our donors and supporters online through email newsletters, Facebook postings, and a concerted social media campaign through Twitter (MSF-USA, MSF-UK, MSF_canada, and MSF_Australia). The more grassroots efforts with the Action Kit will take hold in the coming weeks as supporters of Starved for Attention put on their own events.

Is the general public tired of stories of starving people in far-off places? If so, how do you combat this indifference and disinterest as an organization/photographer?
MSF: I think we have tried to combat this fatigue with compelling stories about the problem but also real solutions that exist today. We are not talking about a condition requiring a new vaccine to prevent it. We know if we can find ways to get nutritious foods in the hands of mothers and the mouths of young children who need it most we can save lives right now.

Haviv: Successful stories, messages and communication occur when the photographer is able to humanize the people in the images. When someone is able to digest a statistic like 195 million and relate it to a story that touches them we are able to succeed.

Trailer for A Double Standard / Antonin Kratochvil and MSF

How are the stories chosen and produced? Does VII drive the stories? The communications team at MSF? What about the final pieces? How does the final presentation get put together? How is the editorial tone decided on (I’m talking particularly about the US Double Standards piece here)?

MSF: The other questions should be answered with my earlier responses. But to be specific, we collaborated together to identify the best locations, finding local contacts, and the image and film editing process with the directors from Herzliya Films. With respect to the film tone, it really depended on the context. In India, we wanted to focus on the MSF project as an example of an approach to combating severe malnutrition but also to illustrate the invisibility of the problem given its pervasiveness in the country. Stephanie Sinclair was able to combine these dual elements of the assignment; the more classic documentary photography of MSF’s programs with the more symbolic and impressionistic imagery you see in her piece. With the Double Standard, the tone was really driven by Dr. Susan Shepherd’s narrative about her frustration with the US food aid system’s provision of a nutritionally inadequate food for malnourished against the backdrop of Antonin Kratochvil’s stark images of an agricultural system churning out hundreds of thousands of tons of corn-soy blend flour for international food aid.

How are the photographers and photo agency involved in developing the stories, the scripts and the final presentations? How is MSF involved in developing the stories, the scripts and the final presentations?

MSF: The scripting was done through the interview process with the photographers and MSF staff about the stories. This process was driven by the Herzilya Films team working with the MSF staff and the photographers during the editing. In some cases, MSF staff traveled with the photographers to the regions to help facilitate the editing process back in New York.

What is the lifespan of a project such as this? There’s a big splash when the project is unveiled, but do you believe the project will be relevant a year from now? 10 years from now? Is that important?

MSF: We hope the project will remain relevant as a body of work on this neglected issue carried out by some of the best photographers working today. The images and stories should remain timeless, and if we are successful in impacting policy changes the project will stand on its own.

Djibouti – Frustration / Marcus Bleasdale and MSF

Why use a documentary/photojournalistic approach for the project?

MSF: I think the blending of still and moving images with sound offers a very powerful storytelling method. Marcus Bleadsdale and Antonin Kratochvil’s pieces are completely composed of still images, and with the steady hand of Herzliya Films came to life like flip book.

Haviv: There are numerous ways that this project could have been done. VII’s skill set lies in the ability to tell stories with images. Today we are supplementing those stories with audio, text and video that enable people to have a full connection with the subject.

Has the project been successful?
MSF: We think it has gotten off to a successful start. Time will tell though whether we are able to impact policies to improve the global response to malnutrition.

Has any of the project been shown in traditional media (magazines, newspapers, tv)?
MSF: The project has been featured in a number of photographic blogs, the PBS “Need to Know” television magazine program, Newsweek Japan, a host of Italian and French publications, Mint newspaper in India, among others.

If not, does it matter? Is traditional media coverage a useful strategy for getting these issues known?
MSF: Absolutely, traditional media still has a very important reach and influence. The combination of the online and offline media remains critical to advancing our work on malnutrition and other issues.

Why have MSF and VII moved outside of the traditional media to get stories out? For MSF, I’m thinking of projects such as this.

MSF: For us, it is the chance to tell the story of malnutrition, and spark wider interest in the issue.

Haviv: Today’s media and way to get stories to the public is completely fragmented. It is imperative that we as authors reach across the different venues to reach audiences that would normally not see work like this.

There’ve been many pieces recently declaring photojournalism dead. It seems to me that Starved for Attention is just the sort of evidence to declare that photojournalism is not dead. Is the project photojournalism? Advocacy journalism? PR material for an NGO? Do these different names for photography matter?

Haviv: I am not interested in labels of the work that I do. Some people refer to it as art, others as news images or photojournalism. As far as I am concerned whatever will help have the stories reach the people-via a wall, book, website, tv or other traditional media, is the only concern I have.

Burkina Faso – A Mother’s Devotion / Jessica Dimmock and MSF

As a photojournalist, how do you approach work with an NGO? Is there a concern that the work you produce will not serve as documentary work because it serves some message determined by the NGO? Is that a valid concern? How do you address it? What sort of guidelines do you lay down about editorial control, the final presentation, story selection, the editing process? Should viewers approach photography produced by an NGO differently than photography produced by a magazine? Why or why not?

Haviv: Quite simply my approach and the approach by VII in working with NGO’s is absolutely not to work as an advocate of the message or design of the NGO. We start from the outset and tell the NGO that we will cover the project/idea exactly as we would if on assignment. Numerous times in the field we have all reached out to MSF for access or transportation without any promise of making sure there is a logo or line item included in our pieces. This continues when working for UNICEF or MSF.

For Haviv and MSF: Is NGO-funded documentary work a sustainable model for the future of journalism?
MSF It is not sustainable. We need journalists working independently and uncovering the important stories of the day. NGOs can’t subsidize this work, and even though in the case of MSF, we want to facilitate the work of photojournalists as freely as possible, the reality is that security and others constraints still prevent complete and total independence for the photojournalists.

Haviv: It is not a sustainable model as the only way to survive. As our means of distribution and support have fragmented so have the different ways of funding.

What upcoming projects do you have planned that we should keep an eye out for?
MSF: Right now we are focused on the Starved for Attention campaign, but continue to work with photojournalists in major humanitarian emergencies and other important stories such as drug-resistant TB.

Haviv: I am currently creating work related to Gold Mining in Peru that will be incorporated in a documentary, mixed media piece and exhibition to open at the climate conference in Mexico this year.

Note from dvafoto:Be sure also to check out: PDN’s interview with Jason Cone about how NGOs work with photographers; Ron Haviv’s other work; Our World at War produced by VII and the International Committee of the Red Cross; Democratic Republic of the Congo: Forgotten War, a previous collaboration between VII and MSF, and the MSF photo blog.

Also, a big thanks goes out to Marine in the Paris MSF office who helped set up the conversation.

5 Responses to “MSF’s Jason Cone and VII’s Ron Haviv discuss “Starved for Attention””

  1. Starved for Attention. « ModernityBlog

    […] Here’s a discussion of one of MSF’s latest campaigns, Starved for Attention: “Malnutrition is medical priority for MSF. We treat hundreds of thousands of children every year. Over the past few decades, the image of emaciated, fly-ridden children on the brink of death from famines and other catastrophe has come to define the visual representation of childhood malnutrition. And in this media saturated world, flush with information documenting the daily toll of human suffering, it is understandable that a visual immunity has developed as a line of defense against this clichéd imagery provoking any kind of an emotional response to tackle the crisis of childhood malnutrition head on. It was in this context that we challenged VII to capture a new visual identity for malnutrition. We had the strong experience of working together in Congo, and this offered another compelling opportunity for collaboration between VII and MSF.” […]

  2. Anonymous

    I think that the real problem is not starvetion but obesity!!!! The new world that is created with this kind if zombies that sre threating our lives due rhe intoxication from our food and the increasngly high number of same look, size, thoght, ideeas, tend to send us to a dark area of our history where nobody is having real fealings (food _hungry, love_joy,babies_future..). Technologie just start thnking for us and I will say something heard morenand more often this days: don’t play with love!

  3. Print auction to benefit VII and MSF | dvafoto

    […] a followup to our discussion with MSF’s Jason Cone and VII’s Ron Haviv, consider bidding for a print to benefit VII and MSF. The auction is live until Dec. 9 and there […]

  4. Upcoming – VII’s free online Visual Journey Seminars | dvafoto

    […] work and recent videos for PJ Harvey. Other seminars, scheduled for 2012, will feature Ron Haviv (previously interviewed on dvafoto), Jessica Dimmock, Venetia Dearden, and Christopher Morris (also previously interviewed on […]

  5. Berry Welti

    I revelled reading it. I need to read more on this matter…I am admiring the time and effort you put in your blog, because it is apparently one great place where I can find lot of reusable info..

Comments are closed.