The Image of Poverty

My good friend Duncan McNicholl is currently working in Malawi with Engineers Without Borders (Canada). He’s been working hard to set up a photography project called Perspectives of Poverty that has recently gone viral on the interwebs:

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.  Some organization has made a poster that tells you about the realities of poverty, what they are doing about it, and how your donation will change things.

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?

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.  Out of this came the idea for a photography project, which I am tentatively calling “Perspectives of Poverty”.  I am taking two photos of the same person; one photo with the typical symbols of poverty (dejected look, ripped clothes, etc.), and another of this person looking their very finest, to show how an image can be carefully constructed to present the same person in very different ways.

Bauleni Banda – Chikandwe Village, Malawi

In 2008 I lived with Bauleni Banda and his family in Chikandwe village for 3 months. In many ways, the Bandas represent a fairly typical low-income rural household, who are dependent on subsistence maize farming for their livelihood.

As Bauleni went into his house to find his prized umbrella, I began to wonder how unique these photos might be.  Do many organizations ask people how they want to be represented before the photographs start being taken?

Edward Kabzela – Chagunda Village, Malawi

Edward is quite successful, both as an area mechanic and through other business initiatives. He grows tobacco, works with a basket weaving business, collects rent from a shop he rents out in the market, and services over 60 water points in his area. Next year, he is thinking of investing in a truck to start a transportation business. He is a great example of how little a thatched roof says about someone’s livelihood.

Edward was pretty excited about the project, but he had a pretty hard time keeping a straight face for the photos of him trying to look “poor.” He looked so ridiculous that I’ve included one of the photos in the set. The photos of Bauleni Banda had the same kind of hilarity, with community members shouting out helpful hints on how to “look more poor.” Neither had any trouble putting on their best and looking sharp.

I can understand why the Aid industry and media have constructed and perpetuated this image of poverty – it would be hard to get donations if your ads  showed Edward or Bauleni as happy, healthy, and smiling Malawians with dignity. I understand it, but it doesn’t do them justice.

There are more awesome photos and further discussion that I highly recommend checking out on his blog, Water Wellness.

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