What do you do when your personal experience of living and working with people in Africa is so different than what is portrayed in the western media or by many charitable organizations? Confronted with this, Duncan McNicholl, an Engineers Without Borders Canada worker living in Malawi, decided in early 2010 to begin exploring these perceptions of poverty. He took pictures of friends and neighbors in his community as both poor and rich, and then posted them on his blog, Water Wellness.
Photos by Duncan McNicholl

The posts went viral, featured by the New York Post, the Boston Globe, National Public Radio, the Australian Broadcasting Company, Maclean’s Magazine, Aid Watch, and numerous other blogs on photography and poverty around the world.

Duncan feels strongly, as I do, that a new public discourse and relationship with "Africa" is critical to building sustainable livelihoods and a bright future on the continent. In response to his project however, several people argued that organizations raising funds by utilizing dehumanizing images are justified, provided that they use the money effectively. Duncan’s rebuttal to this line of reasoning is included in the guest post below.

Also to note, “Perspectives of Poverty” is now eligible for a 2010 YouTopia Grant offered by Free Range Studios. I invite you to help Duncan spread this initiative with an even wider audience. Please vote for it here daily!

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The Case Against Pictures of Pity

By Duncan McNicholl

The issue of “poverty porn” – as it is often called – is not a new one, but the importance of humanizing those living in poverty remains essential. Several months ago I began a photo project called “Perspectives of Poverty” to highlight the way in which media images often provide a single, dehumanizing perspective of rural Africa. The project is a series that presents individuals from two different perspectives, demonstrating how an image can be carefully constructed to suggest very different things about a person.

I have received several comments on the project arguing in support of images of pity. There exists the belief that development charities ‘just trying to help’ are justified in the use of ‘sad’ images, especially if those images are raising funds that might not otherwise reach those in need.

I couldn’t disagree more.

How we portray those living in poverty is more important that what we give, precisely because this directly influences what we give. How we perceive precedes how we act. There are several things wrong with the argument supporting fundraising through pity. It presumes that money, or material flows, is the key element in poverty alleviation. Although money plays a role, the belief that “only $1 per day” solutions can create lasting change is a gross and even dangerous oversimplification. It leads us to believe we can throw money at problems that money alone might not be equipped to solve.

Dollars generated from pity to sustain hand-outs are not being directed at the root causes of poverty, and should not be confused with genuine efforts to change the status quo. Pity sustains the paternalistic relationship of ‘us’ giving to ‘them,’ which perpetuates a dependency on foreign aid. This undermines efforts to empower capable people and support them in achieving their own goals – the real focus of what development should be. If we see people as incapable through images portraying them as ‘needy,’ ‘pitiful,’ or ‘wretched,’ our efforts will continue to bypass, and even undermine, opportunities for driving systemic change.

Arop Lual Two is a Sudanese refugee from Darfur who I met last month at a camp in Malawi. His story of fleeing conflict is one that I will never fully understand; it is a reality so utterly distant from my own. Yet I was immediately struck by the similarities between Arop and myself, since Arop studied telecommunications engineering. I too studied engineering, and meeting Arop made me picture my own life in a completely different way. I envisioned what my life could have been had I been born in a different time or place. I saw a refugee as someone no different than myself.

But reflections of ourselves are not images often offered by the media when it presents us with portraits of refugees or of rural African poverty. Intelligence, humour, and capabilities are obscured beneath blankets of pity and oversimplifying slogans. Arop doesn’t need pity, he needs a job. He needs a future.

There is a tragedy here that needs rectifying. This must be done, not in the light of charity, but in a spirit of solidarity. Pity will not advance us towards this, and neither will images of perennial sadness used to solicit funding. How we see affects how we act, and change begins with seeing others as fully human.

You can contact Duncan at: drmcnicholl (at) gmail (dot) com

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This post originally appeared at: http://www.how-matters.org/2010/10/24/pity-pictures-and-poverty/

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Comment by Achan on October 25, 2010 at 9:22pm
Enough has been said, written and publications made. its good to raise funds for the suffering people but what has been eveident is that when these funds are raised it does not really reach the very people or person whom the funds was raised for. the trickle down effect is an area that should be addressed
Comment by Lucius Malembo on October 25, 2010 at 9:07pm
This poverty will still be seen if the leaders in Africa will stop looking at their own benefit and concentrate on the people who put them in power, looking at these pictures the government can do something to the kind of this living, it is not easy to survive in this stuation atlest these leaders should look into this critically. They can buid free houses for the poorests.
Comment by Richard Close on October 25, 2010 at 8:27pm
I have written three positive photo donation books for mission groups that raise funds and awareness, They are integrated to powerpoints, social communities and a Gallery.
You absolutely can tell the right story
See them below
http://www.scribd.com/richardcclose
We also have grant from UNESCO to do video story telling in Africa
Keep the faith
Richard
Comment by RAMPUR VISWANATH on October 25, 2010 at 8:13pm
Sarah, your comments are understood. I see your point of view very clearly. In opinion, it is very difficult to answer the question "WHY" to the satisfaction of everyone involved. I think that we should all focus on looking forward, given what we are today, rather than looking back. I fully appreciate and believe that Gandhi's quote is still true today. But what is the path forward? We have to be realistic and plan to get out of the situation by directing the resources to educate the public and reframe the issue from help to enable. This is within the control of every African involved. History can be written to enable rather help. You may know by now that I am one of those who likes to support your point of view but at this time what is needed is a realistic approach to change the society's thinking, it may not happen overnight but needs to begin sometime and it could be now. Time is now to begin that process!
Comment by Sarah Henkeman on October 25, 2010 at 7:51pm
The sad thing is that the impact of having others 'depict' us as Africans - is the same. We need to find our own agency to decide for ourselves - as equal human beings. We could start by educating ourselves about why the world is organised in a way that we need to be 'helped' rather than 'enabled'; why it is necessary for anyone to need to speak on behalf of the most downtrodden amongst us; why in fact they are downtrodden; why there's '...enough resources in the world for human need but not for human greed' (Ghandi)

The unfortunate truth is, as long as the unjust world order is left intact, it does not matter if the person is smiling in hand-me-down gucci or sad in rags.
Comment by RAMPUR VISWANATH on October 25, 2010 at 7:34pm
Vivian's comments are very touching and at the same time very reflective of the perceptions in the West. It is essential that all of us need to reframe the way we look at things in Africa and the other developing nations in the world. A new way of thinking will certainly help appreciate the talent that Africa can offer.

However, I would also like to mention that West is genuinely interested in helping Africa as well as other countries (rest!). Just because some people in the West look at things in a strange way, it does not mean that the entire Western community looks at that way. In a way, it is a disservice to lump everyone in that category and say West is just throwing money to solve fundamental issues! We need to examine every case and hold the individuals portraying a narrow view of the situation responsible for that particular view. I know for a fact that thousands of individuals go to Africa paying their own airfare and expenses to address the needs of the local people in Africa and other countries. Rotary has completed many thousands of projects in the areas of water, sanitation, health, hunger, polio, and education to address the real needs of people in Africa. Majority of them are from the West! Take a look at what Bill Gates and Melinda Gates doing in Africa. Can anyone in the world ignore what their effort is? We all need to appreciate their efforts. Therefore, I would like to caution everyone to be realistic when making generalized comments.
Comment by Vivian Ochanda on October 25, 2010 at 4:10pm
Thanks for the excellent contribution....the role of images in shaping perceptions is an underestimated governance form... the spectatorship of suffering as Chouliaraki called it is indeed one of the factors sustaining the 'West' and 'the rest' paradigms...further, by representing rural Africa merely within context of poverty and suffering, you also delimit their potential, in the minds of the 'Western consumer'. The 'African' is thus refrained from being anything more than what the image shows--Images not ónly de-humanize, they also exclude 'the sufferors' from the realm of legitimate, capable political actors...there is an overriding perception in the West that the Rest is innately incapable of development (and this explains a great deal of foregn policy initiatives) and it is only as such political actors, that they will be able to engage in the construction of sustainable development in their nations. Throwing money at a problem never made it go away!
Comment by Lucy Titilayo Emechete on October 25, 2010 at 3:55pm
I can't agree less. We need to look beyond what Money alone cannot solve....nice work!!!!
Comment by peace on October 25, 2010 at 2:47pm
Great Work

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