• Wednesday, Oct 27, 2021
  • Last Update : 05:21 am

When photography commodifies poverty

  • Published at 03:25 pm July 13th, 2021
lens
Photo: Pixabay

While it is essential to illustrate the challenges of a population, one must strive to tell stories that honours the subjects' circumstances, preserves the agency and dignity

You have surely seen this woman: coming out of a pit latrine, walking toward her makeshift house that looks like it might collapse at any moment. You must have seen this child: covered in dirt and lifting a meagre handful of food toward his mouth with flies in his eyes. 

Maybe you have photographed these subjects. With the intention to show the world their sufferings, and to direct aid and attention their way. Perhaps you have asked for consent, and printed these photos in a research paper, report, or news article, alongside a story about the needs of the poor and vulnerable. But have you ever thought about what purpose your photograph serves? And at what cost to the persons depicted? Do we as development campaigners (ie researchers and development practitioners) need to reconsider how we depict these subjects beyond our organizations' existing standards? Being a part of this community, we argue that we have a moral responsibility to ensure the subject's dignity.

Let's turn to the moment of capturing such a photo. When travelling to communities at the development or climate adaptation project implementation sites, we document our projects' needs and accomplishments. This may include photographing an element of the subject that often represents an outsider view of what the community or the situation is like. However, such an image might have significant appeal to the viewers, particularly donors and potential benefactors.

Even if we, the visitors, ask permission before taking a photo, we have to consider the power relations between "us" and "them", the prospective subject. The person will likely agree to be photographed because we have more power in the social hierarchy than they do. We may be more educated, a foreigner, or we may be the one bringing resources to the person and their community. Thus, they may feel obligated to say "yes", whether out of respect, hospitality, or powerlessness. However, they do not know how their image will eventually be used or how they will be depicted.

Once the photograph is taken, the image becomes an object, disconnected from its subject. Its meaning is shaped by the agenda of the person or organization displaying the picture, the words that contextualize it, and the gaze of those who look upon it. In different contexts, the photo can mean different things. The subject can be characterized as resilient or destitute.


Once the photograph is taken, the image becomes an object, disconnected from its subject


Organizations often use such images to tell stories for their marketing. They help portray the organisation in a positive light and may help them with fundraising.  But in the process, consciously or unconsciously, this storytelling may exploit its subject's plight. While organizations adhere to visual ethical standards, there are morally grey areas in which we should tread cautiously.  

In many instances, as outsiders, we approach a rural community or an informal settlement in the Global South with a deficit mindset that focuses on subjects' deficiencies and failures. Such a framing ignores local resources and knowledge. Hence, the locale is perceived as a problem laden space that needs to be rescued. Such discourse thus undermines and nullifies local efficacy, agency, and local people's autonomous problem-solving capacity, which could hamper locals' creativity and capabilities in the long run. Moreover, commodifying individuals' sufferings might bring support to a cause, but at the cost of compromised dignity of the subject. Such an act is deplorable and ethically intolerable. 

Such commodification of an issue is often referred to as 'poverty pornography' of sufferings, stress and vulnerabilities. Because, through triggering specific elements of organic excitement, this could distort local practicalities of the problem and thereby cultivating a culture of paternalism. While it is essential to illustrate the challenges of a population, one must strive to tell stories that honours the subjects' circumstances, preserves the agency and dignity of all, and (ideally) illustrates hope for their plight.

The imaging policies (typically available online) from major donors and development agencies articulate very simplistic notions of privacy, consent and political sensitivity. They outline checkboxes that must be ticked. They fall short of the critical aspects of power relations and recipients' dependence on resources. These policies ensure development agencies' freedom to photograph their project beneficiaries without invoking empathy.     

Thus, careful ethical consideration should be given to the various stages of the photography supply chain from its planning to distribution. Ethical practices need critical reflection on the content, empathy for the cause and clarity in understanding the problem. However, these cannot be used as excuses to remain oblivious to the rigour of ethical practices; instead, as researchers and practitioners, we are morally responsible for ensuring the dignity of everyone unanimously.

Photos understandably can inform hardships of a particular community to the world and thereby indirectly contribute to empowering them to address the challenges. But the hardships that people face in difficult circumstances should not define who they are and how they are seen. 


Such commodification of an issue is often referred to as 'poverty pornography' of sufferings, stress and vulnerabilities


So, should we not be using photos to share stories of communities or locales? Of course, we can. But we should do so with empathy to celebrate people and preserve their dignity.

Towards that end, organizations need to train staff to handle ethical nuances, make sound ethical decisions based on the information at hand, and understand how context can change the ethics of a situation. At the same time, development campaigners should communicate with employers and seek their cooperation to improve ethical practices in development photography. 

Photos help us convey stories and understand those who are different from us. As those in a position of privilege in development contexts, we must recognize our power to represent those with less privilege in a way that visualizes their capacity, represents their full humanity, and ensures their dignity. 


M Feisal Rahman is a postdoctoral researcher with the Living Deltas Research Hub in the Department of Geography at Durham University. He can be reached at [email protected] 

Danielle Falzon is a PhD Candidate at Brown University (USA) and a Visiting Researcher at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Dhaka. She can be contacted at [email protected] 

MD Nadiruzzaman is a Research Fellow at CLISEC Research Group, Centre for Earth System and Sustainability (CEN), Hamburg University, Germany. He has keen interests in climate change adaptation, politics and governance. He could be reached at [email protected] 


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