Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Against Poverty Porn

There's a Calvin and Hobbes comic with Calvin taking pictures of himself with combed hair, room tidy, and everything idyllic. He informs Hobbes this will be used as proof one day that he was a model child because pictures don't lie. But they do tell only the stories you choose to shoot:
We’ve all seen it: the photo of a teary-eyed African child, dressed in rags, smothered in flies, with a look of desperation that the caption all too readily points out.  ... I reacted very strongly to these kinds of photos when I returned from Africa in 2008.  I compared these photos to my own memories of Malawian friends and felt lied to.  How had these photos failed so spectacularly to capture the intelligence, the laughter, the resilience, and the capabilities of so many incredible people?
The truth is that the development sector, just like any other business, needs revenue to survive.  Too frequently, this quest for funding uses these kind of dehumanizing images to draw pity, charity, and eventually donations from a largely unsuspecting public.  I found it outrageous that such an incomplete and often inaccurate story was being so widely perpetuated by the organizations on the ground – the very ones with the ability and the responsibility to communicate the realities of rural Africa accurately.
This is not to say that people do not struggle, far from it, but the photos I was seeing only told part of the story.  I thought that these images were robbing people of their dignity, and I felt that the rest of the story should be told as well.
So Duncan McNicholl decided to try his hand at photography. He told people to choose how they would dress for two pictures: "'wochena' (the Chichewa equivalent of 'dressed to kill') and another of him 'wosachena,' or 'dressed very poorly.'" The results are magnificent.

Here is a subsistence farmer

(Ahem, Watson, he does have a Name. He is a Person.)

Right. Bauleni Banda.The name won't mean anything to most readers while his occupation communicates additional information.

(It still dehumanizes him to only give an occupation, perpetuating thinking about individuals as masses and groups.)

Hat tip: Aid Watch

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