Poverty Porn: The misuse of images from the developing world

by The Ethical Volunteer

I grew up in a semi-rural area in Ireland, around 3km from the town of Bray. My parents worked fulltime and a neighbour looked after me as a child. The regional buses then, as now, were painfully unreliable and so many of my afternoons were taken up by walking to the supermarket in town and back. We were not the only ones making the trip by foot to the shops, there were others from my area that we would pass on the road. One lady in particular, Nancy, passed us everyday day. She was a compact little woman, full of energy and always seemed to be running to the shops for something. I was five years old and she was fifty, which made her a very old woman to me, and so it never ceased to amaze me just how fast she could walk. But there was nothing strange in the sight of a woman walking a 6km round trip to do her shopping. It was the Eighties in Ireland, cars were still a relative luxury.
A few months ago I was driving along the narrow roads to my parents’ house when I saw a small figure, bent double under the weight of shopping bags, struggling against the hill and the wind. I slowed down the car and rolled down the passenger window.
“Nancy, would you like a lift?”

“Oh! Oh, aren’t you very good”. Nancy brought the cold March air with her into the car and, though still out of breath, gave me an appreciative grin.

“”Oh! Oh, who’s car is this? Isn’t it lovely now? Is this your car? Aren’t you very lucky? A lovely car. And look at you, aren’t you only beautiful, a gorgeous looking girl, I bet all the boys are mad after you!”

“How are you doing Nancy, is it cold enough out there for you?”

“Ah its fierce cold isn’t it? It was a nice enough morning , but it’s supposed to get colder again now this evening. Long winter, long winter. And how are you, where are you these days?”

“I’m still in Ireland Nancy, I’ve been back two years now. Though I am heading back to Malawi next month for a few weeks”

“Are you! Lovely! What are you doing out there? I’d say its fierce hot out there anyway”

“It sure is Nancy, hotter than here anyway. We are just doing a bit of filming.”
“Isn’t that lovely? Where is it you said?”

Malawi, Nancy, its South East Africa?”

“Oh! Isn’t it terrible out there, the poor little guys, you see them on the telly, little babies with flies in their eyes, all sick and skinny and everything. God it’s terrible, the poor fellas. Do you ever see that thing, what do they call it, when the fingers fall off?”

I thought about that one for a moment as I turned right onto the hill where Nancy lived.

“Do you mean Leprosy Nancy?”

“That’s it! Do you see much of that. There was an ad on the telly, Trocaire or Goal or one of those, looking for money for those people, I was thinking of sending them something. Ah it’s terrible”

I wondered how far I should go with explaining what was wrong with those images Nancy was seeing so regularly on the television.

“Not really Nancy. I don’t think I’ve really seen a lot of Leprosy. I’m not even sure where you would have to go to find it. It’s not that common anyway, as far as I know. And they are not all that sick either, not all the children are dying or have flies around there faces. Most of the kids I know are quite happy and well looked after”

“Ah, but you see them on the tv all the time, and sure they look miserable”

I pulled the car up beside Nancy’s house. A rusted gate held up by a length of rope led the way to a small cottage half hidden by trees. The cottage is nestled into the corner of a couple of acres of farmland and a large electricity pylon, which was erected in the last twenty years, towers menacingly above the little house. She has lived there all her life with her sister. By all accounts the house is old, bordering on dilapidation, with the toilets still located in an outhouse at the back of the garden. Nancy’s sister hasn’t left the house in years and Nancy cares for her. They get by on a social welfare.

“Well don’t believe everything you see on the telly Nancy. Not everyone in Africa is miserable or starving or unhappy. Besides, it’s not like we are without our problems here”

“Oh, don’t start, sure they are looking for a tax for the house now! Where am I supposed to find that?”

With that, Nancy took her bags and almost took the door off the hinges as she slammed it shut behind her and turned her face towards the freshly falling rain.

I thought about Nancy over the coming weeks as I travelled Malawi and encountered much to be inspired by. Nancy’s image of the continent of Africa was extremely narrow and, in the grand scheme of things, wrong. Yet Nancy had made a very reasonable assumption from the information she has been given through the media: that everyone in Africa in poor, sick, starving, unhappy. “And they are the lucky ones” as one recent charity advert suggested. The message constantly relayed to the western audience is that Africa is a place of no hope, filled with helpless people, each country indistinguishable from the next with each and every pitiful black person incapable of looking after themselves. And with year after year of endless famines, wars and disasters beamed to us in the comfort of our living rooms, compassion fatigue sets in along with the largely unconsidered conviction that Africa is desperate and hopeless and has nothing to offer the world.

A Tanzanian friend of mine, a knowledgeable safari guide and successful business owner, recently accompanied his heavily pregnant Australian wife to her homeland to give birth to their first child. It was his first time to visit a “western” country, a dream-come-true for many Tanzanians that often equate moving overseas with success. He had left for Australia nervous but excited. He came back somewhat subdued. He told me how he had been shocked and offended by the Australians gross ignorance of his country. Questions such as “Do they have hospitals in Tanzania?” and “Is it very dangerous there?” along with the constant barrage of charity advertisements portraying Africa, and by association Tanzania, as a place of misery and hopelessness, had revealed to him the casual lack of respect and dignity afforded to his country and his people.

In some ways, the beliefs Richard encountered, the beliefs born of numerous similar images, bore an element of truth. By Australian standards, Tanzania is poor. More women die in childbirth in Tanzania than in Australia. With no social welfare system, more people live in dire poverty, grow sick and die of curable diseases or go hungry when the rains fail to come. Materially speaking, people have less and therefore when things go wrong, they can go really wrong. The typical image used during a fundraising drive aims to tell this story of pain and suffering, to convince the viewer of the vast need for immediate support. The images used in these campaigns are, therefore, framed in a way to convey the suffering and need. But the image is nothing without the framing.

In 2007 I visited Zanzibar with some Irish friends. We wandered around the markets of Stone Town as tourists tend to do, browsing through crafts and paintings. My friends took photos of the vibrant colours and streets so narrow you could touch the stone washed buildings that pushed and shoved each other for space along both sides. At one stall, a Muslim woman in multi-coloured robes was chatting to the owner as he worked on cobbling leather shoes. A young child, perhaps one years old, with chubby arms and hair bunched into little balls around her head, was fidgeting at her hip. Her mother smiled at me as I held out my arms to the child and, unconcerned, let me take her and walk about the stalls with her for a few minutes. The child was equally unconcerned, fascinated by my white skin (and probably my strange smell). She was very pretty and clearly a well-loved and cared for child. My friend took a photo before I handed her back and we moved on.

When my friends returned to Ireland they set up a fundraiser in support of the work my organisation was carrying out in a children’s centre in Northern Tanzania. ‘A picture tells a thousand words’ and my friends wanted people to give generously. They put together a poster with images from the time they had spent in Tanzania, along with pictures I had acquired during the previous year. They needed to tell a story: There once was a children’s centre in Tanzania filled with children that were sick, malnourished, desperate. Along came an organisation that wanted to help and began to buy food for the children, to build bedrooms, to install running water and electricity….. much had been done, but there was more to do.
To tell this story, they needed photos of sick, desperate looking children, of which there were many, along with more positive photos, ones that showed the progress at the centre and the new found good health and happiness of the children. My friend found the picture she had taken of me holding a plump, clean, contented looking baby and used this as the main image: Sarah, helping the poor children of Tanzania.

My friend meant no harm by using the photo she had taken in the market to represent a needy orphan. She needed a photo that could represent my story and the photo of the child in the market could be used to tell this story. And it worked, she raised money and my organisation, in turn, used those funds to support the needy children of the centre. But it was, in essence, a lie. A “white lie” as my Mum would say, but a lie none-the-less, and one that adds to the fear and misconceptions of life and poverty in Africa.

“The camera never lies” is a lie. It’s all about framing. It’s all about context.

What if the context had been a more joyful one? Well yes, that image could equally have been used in a story relaying the successful, fulfilled and joyful lives of Tanzanian people, but that was not the story being told. And unfortunately, it rarely is. Happy stories do not sell newspapers. Average people leading average lives are not of interest. Smiling babies do not often catch the eye.

It is the misuse of images that leads to the misunderstanding of African people and their lives and Richard is right to be offended on behalf of his nation. The ubiquitous, overused photograph of the helpless starving child represents Africa to the outside world as an infantile continent of peoples incapable of developing without western interference. It is patronising at best and can be dangerous. It robs a continent of their respect and dignity.
Unquestionably, there is poverty in Tanzania, but there is also opportunity. There is a lack of education but there is also an industrious, entrepreneurial spirit. There is hardship but there is also laughter and great joy. Unfortunately, the western world rarely gets to see all the sides of the story.

Had Richard met Nancy he may have been endeared, he may have been offended, he may have been amused. But I have a suspicion that the image of an old woman, living with her elderly infirmed sister, with no close-knit community around her for support, walking 6 km in the Irish winter to the shops and worrying about how to pay the new property tax would have filled my Tanzanian friend with sadness and pity, and possibly the feeling that though things may be bad at home from time to time, at least he was not an old woman living in Ireland.

by The Ethical Volunteer

4 comments on “Poverty Porn: The misuse of images from the developing world

  1. louise on said:

    Interesting one, thanks.- I also share your concern, and what you said about Tanzania is so true. My parents actually came to visit me here recently and were SO surprised, there are nice houses, the kids go to school, people in the street are happy! They take time to stop and have a chat… It could not have been more different to their idea of Africa. By the end of their stay they said they felt even they- who love their comforts, could live here and they look forward to returning. Living here is a pleasure and hard in different ways to home that’s all. Here maybe the electricity goes out a more. but I have a cold and my boss went to the shops to buy me lemons to make tea, and asks me if I am getting enough sleep! My boss at home would never have done that.

  2. Richard on said:

    Nicely written, ethical volunteer. I couldn’t agree more

  3. Reema on said:

    Good read and def agree. When I first got to Kenya a few girls were cutting short their trip after just a few weeks as Africa was not how they ‘thought it would be’ and it shattered their illusion of wanting to ‘save it’. They pictured it to be poverty-stricken, everybody miserable, starving and whatnot and yes admittedly you do have those pocket areas, but overall it is a continent that, take away the corruption of the government and the theft of it’s natural resources from the West, has the potential to truly thrive as it’s people value education and strive to work hard.

  4. Mariah on said:

    A great article! Thanks for posting. Unfortunately, this is so true of how the Western world views African countries.

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