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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4 Responses to “The Image of Poverty”

  1. ElysaHogg

    These photos made me laugh- I thought of one of one of my tita’s in the Philippines jokingly yelling to her daughter to take off a donated Nike jacket because she “didn’t look poor enough to send a picture to Canada.”

    The perpetuated image of poverty is not a simple one to counteract- the poor as helpless, vulnerable beings to pity is an image reinforced as far back as the Bible. In particular with aid agencies, the problem here is with motivation and interest. The post is absolutely right, would you send money to an NGO with pictures on their website of Edward sporting his watch and charming smile? Unfortunately, probably not. Would an NGO be successful if they did this? Nope. We all buy into this stereotypical image- so how do we shift the paradigm? In general, the discourse within development has to recognize the importance of empowerment, and the insufficiencies in superficial judgements based on generalizations. I think the biggest component needs to be education.

  2. Dominika Ziemczonek

    So many things to say here. Firstly, congrats to Duncan for coming up with such an innovative and important project. I’m really glad this project is getting attention – this discussion needs to take place both in the aid/development sectors, and the public arena. It was featured on one of my favourite blogs – Aid Watch! http://aidwatchers.com/2010/05/poor-not-poor/

    I love this post – it touches on something that I feel strongly about, though it is often accepted and exploited in order to produce “good results” for the benefit of the people in the photos.

    I used to be just as touched when I saw pictures and videos of malnourished children flashing across the screen during a World Vision infomercial, demanding that I give to save this poor child’s life. It was these types of images and portrayals that made me interested in poverty reduction and development early in my teens. Over time with travel and education, I’ve started to resent this portrayal of people in the developing world – “poverty porn.” (http://aidwatchers.com/2010/04/famine-africa-stereotype-porn-shows-no-letup/)

    These images perpetuate imperialist attitudes of “these people cannot help themselves, therefore we must jump in and save them.” I agree with Elysa – this is an extremely complicated issue, and it is understandable why this portrayal has been so prevalent in the aid/development field for so long. The question is: how can we alter our societal attitudes to change this colonialist mentality and preserve the dignity of those we intend to help?

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