Let’s Talk About International Development Photography

By Leah Erica Chung

Leah Erica Chung
8 min readApr 21, 2016

The “Poverty Porn” Debate

YYou’ve seen “poverty porn” before — a top down shot of a poor kid with ragged clothes, sitting in the dirt with flies in his/her face. It’s probably on an NGO pamphlet or aid website banner, accompanied by a “donate” button. And if you work in international development, you might have attended a panel or involved yourself in a Twitter debate about whether it’s ethical or not.

AidThoughts.com defines it quite nicely:

Any type of media, be it written, photographed, or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.

It’s so common that there are very distinct tropes to categorize “poverty porn” images:

Top Down Shot of Sad Child

This kind of photograph depicts a child, usually with a sad expression, looking up at the camera (viewer) with tearful eyes. It is often shown as high-contrast black and white photography. These elements together illustrate the power dynamic between the helpless child and photographer.

Lone Savior in Crowd of Children

This kind of photograph depicts a lone westerner (male or female) amid a crowd of children who are holding his/her hands or following from behind. The attention of the viewer is drawn to the lone westerner as the savior and the children as the backdrop. It’s important to note here that it’s not necessarily about sad images. It’s about the power dynamic between the “helper” and the “helped” as highlighted by the dramatic composition of the photograph.

The localworks philosophy centers around the belief that local actors, whether government or civil society organizations, are autonomous actors with the capacity to solve their own problems. And we know that there are inherent power dynamics within the donor and constituent relationship. That’s why when we came to talk to about photography, we knew it had to align with the localworks philosophy and spirit. We strongly felt that “poverty porn” images weren’t aligned with our values. But the question was — what’s the alternative? What kind of photos do we use? Do we use photos at all? Was photography even the right medium?

The development community (mostly from the west), was very vocal about the “poverty porn” debate around 2009, and countless articles were published, many speaking up against the pity-inducing imagery. Many were saying these photographs were offensive to the subjects in it, and didn’t respect their dignity at all. Others said it was okay, as long as it helped raise money for a good cause. If the ends mean well, the means don’t matter. And so on.

In response to the uproar, more and more organizations began to slowly switch the narrative of their media campaigns. Crying children with flies on their faces became laughing children with school bags on their backs. Some NGOs went out of their way to make a point that they were using more positive photography. Mama Hope, one NGO located in San Francisco, started a campaign called “Stop the Pity,” and created several viral videos, one of which included young African men talking about the negative stereotypes of Africans in Hollywood movies.

The videos are great and show another side of “Africa” and “Africans” that we usually don’t see in media.

Are “Happy” Photos The Answer?

However, simply changing pity-inducing photos to happier ones isn’t enough.”What’s needed even more, and what the “poverty porn” outrage really talks about, is an acknowledgement that the people development organizations mean to help are more than powerless recipients of aid; that the people homogenized by the same sad-faced photos are, in reality, multifaceted people with different circumstances and personalities.

Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” is an excellent piece that talks about the power dynamics of storytelling, and the effect it has on people’s perception of her, and people like her. An excerpt from her talk is telling:

“I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called “American Psycho” and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.

Now, obviously I said this in a fit of mild irritation.

But it would never have occurred to me to think that just because I had read a novel in which a character was a serial killer that he was somehow representative of all Americans. This is not because I am a better person than that student, but because of America’s cultural and economic power, I had many stories of America. I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskill. I did not have a single story of America.”

Is Photography The Right Medium?

Diversifying narratives and shifting editorial control of photographs may be great improvements to the way development stories are told. But Susan Sontag, in her book “On Photography,” emphasizes the inherent power dynamic within photography itself.

“…it is named without subtlety whenever we talk about “loading” and “aiming” a camera, about “shooting” a film…To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder — a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”

Yes, some of the analogies can seem hyperbolic. But there is truth to her anthropological view of photography, where she notes the “photographic safari that is replacing the gun safari in East Africa. The hunters have Hasselblads instead of Winchesters; instead of looking through a telescopic sight to aim a rifle, they look through a viewfinder to frame a picture.” During a research project I conducted in Uganda on the very topic of poverty porn, I found moments where I felt so strange walking into the Kikaramoja slums in Jinja with a $2000 Canon DSLR in my bag. Even when I got explicit permission from my interviewees to photograph them, I felt uncomfortable even taking out my camera.

While many agencies have ethical photography guidelines, many photographs are taken and distributed without the explicit permission of the subject, and too often, while the photographer’s name is credited, the people in the photos are left nameless. And when this happens, the photograph’s subjects become props.

Some organizations have tried to do something different — IDEO.org, for example, uses a listening method called “Photo Voice,” which entails providing constituents with disposable cameras to take photos of whatever they see as valuable in their community. This method helps gather insights straight from the end-user. Can development agencies and organizations work with more local photographers to document projects and programs?

Launched in 2013, an Al Jazeera documentary series, “Artscape: The New African Photography” highlights the work of six African photographers, telling the story of their respective countries from their points of view. The diverse imagery created by a Kenyan fashion photographer or Nigerian photojournalist (among others) counters the Afro-pessimism so often found in Western media. The imagery from these African photographers are not meant to downplay the tragedy in some countries but it’s to diversify the current single story of Africa that much too many still believe in as the only story of Africa.

First row, left to right: Mario Macilau “The Zionists”; Emeka Okereke “Dilemma of the New Age”; Emeka Okereke. Second row, left to right: Barbara Minishi; George Osoki “The Monarchs”

Are There Better Options?

What if we stopped using photographs altogether? Can we have local artists illustrate images? Could we pay more attention to typography and organize the information better and do away with photographs? The tragic (Pultzer Prize winning) photo of a starving child and vulture that Kevin Carter took told the rest of the world about the story of Sudan’s famine in the 90s. Had he, along with fellow photojournalists, not taken this photo and many like it, the rest of the world may not have known just how bad the situation was in the Horn of Africa at the time. So it’s hard to say that we should stop using photographs altogether.

Kevin Carter’s Pulizter Prize winning photograph of a young girl struggling to reach a food center while a vulture lingered in the back.

If we switch out the sad, pity-inducing photos with “happy” ones, it might be that we’re simply replacing one single story with yet another. According to Adichie, diversifying the stories of constituents in the development context may be one answer, but it’s just as important to understand who is telling the story. Could our constituents tell their own stories with their own words — in their own language? Could we have a range of constituents tell their own stories? Is it possible for us to restrain our own voices so that constituent voices can shine?

There is no clear answer, but we, in the development community, must acknowledge the inherent editorial bias within our own viewfinders.

Note: If you have any methods you or your organization use to address the photography issue, let us know!