Tuesday, 11 September 2012

How Poverty In Africa Is Portrayed

An interesting photo project by Duncan McNicholl shows how the mainstream media often portrays poverty in Africa. Frustrated by what he saw at home in Canada, he decided to take pictures of his acquaintances in Malawi "dressed to kill" and "dressed very poorly".

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 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…

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… [To contribute to correcting this,] 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. I want to bring to light some of the different assumptions we make about a person, especially when we see an image of "poverty" from rural Africa.

McNicholl's acquaintances participating with their own choice of clothes and posing as they like:

It is not uncommon to see similar depictions made by charities for other purposes as well, be it for providing education to women in rural areas, financial assistance to persons with disabilities who need them, etc. The idea is to appeal to the better off groups by presenting those in need as objects of pity and completely at the mercy of donors. This is not only denying of dignity and highly dehumanizing for those at the receiving end, but it often also serves to remove a sense of responsibility those making the donations may have to take. Such representations tend to go in line with the just-world hypothesis where conditions like these are seen as simply matters of circumstance or cases of exception and often restrict identifying the reasons why these condition continue to exist or challenging oppressive systems that may be at work. Perhaps the worst thing is, whatever it is that these people are in need of, it is rarely shown that they have a RIGHT to get it. Not as an act of mercy from others or as a given.

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