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Poor/ Not Poor

How many times have you looked at a picture of a forlorn or sick person in tattered clothing accompanying a news story or plea for aid funds, and wondered about the circumstances surrounding that particular shot? For me, these pictures often create a momentary feeling of intimacy—a privileged view into the most private details of someone’s life—that makes me wonder: What was this person doing a few moments before the photographer arrived? Or an hour later? Did the photographer exchange a few words with her subject, or just snap the shot on her way to somewhere else?

A fledgling photography project from Duncan McNicholl, an aid worker with Engineers without Borders Canada working on water and sanitation in Malawi, probes the familiar conventions of poverty porn. In the project he’s calling “Perspectives on Poverty,” Duncan presents two photos of the same subject side by side, “to show how an image can be carefully constructed to present the same person in very different ways.”

From Duncan’s blog post:

Edward [pictured above] 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 [not pictured here] 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.

Read his post for more context and check out other pictures here. Looking forward to more as the project progresses.

Hat tip to Owen (whom we’ve cited before for his posts on how PlayPumps are really being used in Malawi), blogging at Barefoot Economics.

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  1. Alanna wrote:

    Interesting also that not poor images are also more Westernized images.

    Posted May 14, 2010 at 2:51 am | Permalink
  2. Word_Bandit wrote:

    Great entry and questions.

    Well done.

    Posted May 14, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink
  3. and the Sundance Kid wrote:

    As for me, nothing makes me want to avert my attention from America’s Next Top Model and dig into my pockets more than photos of healthy happy people wearing business suits, dancing happily at weddings, and suggesting “I am empowered and dignified and not looking for your pity or hand-outs. All I’m asking for is a randomized controlled trial.”

    Posted May 14, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  4. Yan wrote:

    Reply to Alanna:

    Note that the “poor” image is Westernized too. He’s wearing a t-shirt, pants and flip-flops.

    People can wear whatever they want. It doesn’t mean they’re hopelessly mired in “Westernized culture”, whatever that means.

    Posted May 14, 2010 at 8:58 pm | Permalink
  5. Bob K. wrote:

    Great post. I think this helps clear up some of the poor picture controversy… i.e., it is obvious that certain pictures are chosen as being “representative” of Africa, when they very well might not be. A picture may tell a thousand words, but that does not mean it tells the truth.

    Posted May 14, 2010 at 11:58 pm | Permalink
  6. Rising Tides wrote:

    I love this idea. I think its interesting that his “not poor” photos show the subjects on the phone, dressed in business type attire. It’s not just that these subjects have money, but that he seems to show them in the process of running a business and making more – exactly the thing that aid and donors should aiming for.

    Posted May 15, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  7. MoreAltitude wrote:

    I love the comment

    “…community members shouting out helpful hints on how to “look more poor.” Neither had any trouble putting on their best and looking sharp.”

    My very first trip to the non-Western world was to Nairobi, and one of my overwhelming first impressions/memories that has remained with me over the years is of men who were sleeping on the banks of the highways and at the sides of roads, but who, when it was daytime and they were up on their feet, were dressed in button-down shirts and trouser-and-jacket suits, looking for all the world like they were off to the office. Yet another way in which image defies stereotype and is ever so deceiving.

    Posted May 16, 2010 at 6:44 am | Permalink
  8. Becca wrote:

    Want poverty porn? Look at this website ( which makes Lebanon, Kansas, the subject of a rather condescending photo shoot. For all those Coast-ers who want to pity the Middle, this will definitely get them there. Because any city that lets snow fill up their community pool MUST be pitied.

    Posted May 26, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink

5 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by LiberT. LiberT said: Poor/ Not Poor […]

  2. By Poor/ Not Poor « Daniel Joseph Smith on May 14, 2010 at 8:02 am

    […] Poor/ Not Poor By Daniel J. Smith […]

  3. […] Watch enters duckrabbit territory with a post about Duncan McNicholl’s project ‘Perspectives on […]

  4. […] A blog post exploring how to “look poor,” intended for the genre of development photography that has become known as “poverty porn.” More images here. […]

  5. […] can read more about Duncan’s project on his blog, on the popular Aid Watch blog, on the blog Poverty to Power by Duncan Green (Oxfam UK), or in an online New York Post […]

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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