The Insomnia of the Image

Mark Sealy


In early October 2022, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) transmitted a prime-time news special report on the effect of decades of conflict and climate change on Somalia. The focus was a small district hospital located at the border town of Dollow. The report informed us that people desperately needed help, and many small, malnourished children were fighting for life.

Close your eyes. This image is etched on your mind. How and why? Because it gets disseminated across the Global North as a restless and agitating visual trope that will not allow those whom Frantz Fanon called “the Wretched of the Earth” a time, a history, or a place to rest. 

For those who look with more than eyes, there lies in wait the insomnia of the image. Western epistemes and news media cynically reproduce broken black bodies with a relentless extracting force. Throughout the broadcast, people arrived at Dollow exhausted, starving, and traumatized. Decades of wars, drought, and famine have ripped the heart out of the Somalian nation. When aligned so perfectly, these soul-destroying and colonizing conditions are all-consuming. In this state, everything in life, including hope, gets turned to dust. 

Having made the arduous journey to Dollow, walking nine days or more across the desert, now exhausted and bewildered, many arrive to be greeted by yet another aggressive presence: the colonizing lens. It surveys the people working to erect their makeshift forms of shelter. These dome-like structures patched together from cloth, plastic, and wood offer precarious protection and function as reminders of how vulnerable life across the Somali Peninsula is.   

Here in these visual moments, all colonial history is denied. The media machine has consumed the past and presents the present as an unrelated reality. The BBC reporter introduces the audience to Abdiwali Abdi a two-year-old boy suffering from severe malnutrition. He is in an awful condition. The report focuses on Abdiwali, lying on a hospital bed, weakened, and hanging on to the edge of life. His horizonless stare informs us that he is trapped in a dark colonial abyss he is powerless to resist; he is too young, too weak.  

As the camera pans out from the scene, we are shown a small team of doctors and nurses working to save Abdiwali. His core temperature has dropped rapidly, and this development is now a significant concern for doctors. A small, foil-like, silver thermal blanket is all the medical team has to work with, and they carefully wrap it around the child in the hope that this will save his life. It fails. The death of Abdiwali was prescribed long before his birth by the imperial geopolitics at work across the region. The colonizing conditions that caused Abdiwali’s death, of course, arrived long before his birth, but they linger, and they kill.  

In the foreground, Abdiwali’s mother, Hawa, is now the focus. She is seated on a nearby bed, helpless, distressed, slumped in tears. Her child has just died of what the senior doctor on the ward would later describe as “something that can be prevented and corrected very easily.” As the camera pans out further, we can see Abdiwali’s father, Karad Adan, pacing up and down, distraught; we are informed that he was on the phone with relatives arranging the funeral for later that day. Within a few hours, Abdiwali Abdi was buried in the hard-baked, dusty grounds on the outskirts of Dollow. 

Outside of the Western news media’s tragic, observational, “empathic” frames of reference, we can, if we pause to reflect, draw direct timelines of death and devastation back through the centuries of violent imperial encounters that lead us to the single moment of Abdiwali’s passing. Like many others, this innocent child was trapped in what Walter Mignolo describes as the “colonial matrix of power.”1 The colonial matrix of power makes possible all the conditions that create the geopolitical death camps situated throughout the Global South. These places have a unique binding quality. They turn hope into a distant memory. But the photographer Aïda Muluneh refuses to let hope die. Based in Ethiopia, she produces images that interrogate the politics of comfort. In discussing her series from 2017 titled Memory of Hope, she states, “We are the witnesses who stand at the side of the road, shackled by comfort and conformity. We are the consumers of the pain of others, and we are the supporters of a distorted future.”imConsidering what lies beyond the frames of news journalism, the abyss of our dark, imperial, colonizing world opens an image space occupied by armies of ghosts that haunt our time. If we investigate the dark image-time of history, all that remains is the dense matter of colonial horror. This core visual matter is an essentializing substance formed through colonizing legacies and foreign presences that are genocidal in nature and extractive in purpose. These legacies stretch back to a time before the massacre at Omdurman/Sudan in 1898, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, and the Cold War policies that have been played out across the Somali Peninsula from1945 onward. In what I refer to as racial time, these acts place strategic imperial military positionalities as forever being of higher value than human lives. The outcome of these imperial forms of violence has led to what seems like a forever-unsustainable human existence.

In watching the BBCs broadcast, a photographic space-time wormhole opened, linking drought/famine/conflict/death/Africa into a representational field of knowledge that constructs conflict and climate crisis across the Global South as an acceptable, inevitable, and distant concern for those who manage the universal order or truth code of things. 

Let me emphasize the role of imperial temporality in the enterprise of imperial destruction. The latter produces asymmetrical conditions: poor, assetless, and dependent peoples, on the one hand, monopoly over resources, capacities for accumulation, and modes of circulation on the other. Under imperial temporality, the violent processes of impoverishment and dispossessing people (mainly, but not only nonwhite people) are obscured by the ideology that poverty is a state, an attribute of such people, who require, at best, rescue.3

The rescue equation of imperial temporality or racial time signals an underlying imperial presence as a paradox – a myth – that states we improve and preserve. Distorted modes of empathy politically dislocate and cloak the oppressive colonizing violence that has historically worked across the Somali Peninsula and throughout the Global South as a phenomenon organic to a region. Admas Habteslasie’s series Limbo (2000–2007) also draws on the fragility and divergent temporalities of human rights and conflict across the Somali Peninsula. The calm, reflective colour in his images collectively relays an atmosphere of deep malaise, as the impact of decades of war and famine that Eritreans have endured has, over time, sucked the life out of a people and their capacity to imagine a future. The thirty-year War of Independence with Ethiopia destroyed any hope for generations of Eritreans and has left a hard-fought-for country smashed through both conflict and environmental disaster. Habteslasie’s photographs move the viewer to a space of contemplation and an understanding that the Global South cannot be left as a place where memory and history are suspended or locked out of our time. 

This representational field forms part of a well-established visual episteme that works to fix what gets framed as part of the natural world order. To communicate the geopolitical complexities across the Somali Peninsula, imperial news channels, working through empathy, revert to offering up the broken African subject and their environment for further consumption. The effect of the dark colonial time is not messaged. Within the context of this form of news media, conflict and climate crisis stand as isolated moments disconnected from colonizing time. The colonizing camera is most dangerous when it works through the lens of empathy. When the colonizing world pays attention through its news-gathering institutions to the disastrous conditions it has created over different temporal regimes of control, it negates, ignores, and denies its own role in the devastation of colonized lives in our present. 

Best, then, we reset time to 1992, as this can be our now, when photographer Fazal Sheikh visited Nairobi, the home of his Father’s family. At the time, Kenya was dealing with a massive humanitarian crisis as thousands of Somalian refugees fleeing the deadly combination of war and famine were entering the country. Sheikh’s project titled A Camel for the Son (1992–2000) is a complex journey through the horror of political and cultural identity formations. His work engages deeply with the condition of those living with death as a companion. He worked in dialogue for eight years with those who sought sanctuary within refugee camps. The radical nature of what Sheikh produced during his involvement with Somalian refugees comes from his breaking down of the objectifying distance and simplistic narratives that often accompany the representation of the “African” as a refugee. This work expands not only in time but through the question of rights, as the work evolved from within to focus primarily on the critical question of the rights of women and young girls, who are exposed and vulnerable to sexual assault while living in the camps. Sheikh’s works from the refugee camps in Kenya are time travellers. Thirty years ago, this body of photographs called out for change, demanding that the humanitarian disasters at work across the Somali Peninsula be addressed and that we rethink through the insomnia of the image so that we, as human subjects, can relocate our imaginations to a place of rest. 

1. Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh, On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 111.
2. Aïda Muluneh, “The Memory of Hope,” Aïda Muluneh artist website, accessed January 9, 2022,
3. Nils Bubandt and Rane Willerslev,. “The Dark Side of Empathy: Mimesis, Deception, and the Magic of Alterity,” Comparative Studies in
Society and History 57
, no. 1 (January 2015), 14.

4. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (London: Verso Books, 2019), 77.
Fazal Sheikh, Fatuma Abdi Hussein and her son Abdullai, Somali refugee camp, Mandera, Kenya, 1992, gelatin silver print, 40.64 x 50.8 cm. Courtesy of the Artist ©

My Itinerary

My Itinerary

Type Image Title Date Location

You Have No Items in Your Itinerary

Add programming to your Capture Photography Festival Itinerary now: