By Duncan McNicholl
Last year, I began the Perspectives of Poverty photography project to demonstrate how carefully constructed images can lead us to very different conclusions about someone living in poverty. I was, and continue to be, outraged by how charities and the Western media will often stoop to using undignified photos of people to evoke feelings of shock and pity, particularly when representing sub-Saharan Africa. The effects are incredibly damaging. They manipulate our perceptions to see people and issues from a very narrow perspective. Before I came to work in Malawi, I knew little more about rural poverty in Africa than what I had learned from the media, which was largely a portrait of hopelessness and despair.
The portrait could not have been more misleading. I met people who endured incredible challenges with a resilience and an ingenuity that I had never before seen through the media, and it was a difficult thing to reconcile. Seeing two things simultaneously – both dignity and despair – is incredibly challenging to communicate, especially through a single image. But instead of embracing this multitude of perspectives, far too frequently it is only the images of despair that emerge from the media. The perspective that is lost is the one of dignity.
When discussing development, dignity cannot be sacrificed for the sake of messaging or convenience. Everyone is worthy of equal respect, regardless of his or her economic status. Yet presenting only images of helplessness creates a certain “otherness” that erodes our common humanity. The implications of this go far beyond the images themselves. Our perceptions are our precursors to action, and misinformed perceptions can lead to misguided or even dangerous action. The surge of “DIY Aid” in the past few years is a good example of this: well-intentioned people with misperceptions about what is needed and how they can help, running projects that may do more harm than good.
What, then, does dignified development look like? It is essential that such a discussion transcends pure rhetoric to influence the way projects are implemented. I’ve written before on how the ends do not justify the means when using provocative images of pity to fundraise for projects ultimately aimed at benefitting communities. My thinking on this was recently tested when I returned to the village of Chikandwe, Malawi, where I used to live. After relying on a contaminated open well for years – one that had made me very sick –a brand new water pump was installed by an INGO with a history of using undignified images in their fundraising material. Some community members of Chikandwe had even been photographed in the past. Certainly the new pump hugely benefits the community. However, if the source of funds was indeed provided through images of despair, is an undignified presentation of the community justified, or even necessary? Is pity the only way to procure funds?
I don’t believe it is, and it is thrilling to see the number of organizations who are responding with a more nuanced approach to messaging that engages the public while preserving the dignities of those living in poverty. There are two challenges to this front: the need for the public to grow in their maturity of understanding of global issues, and the need for organizations and the media to message the issues with sufficient sophistication to foster greater public understanding. Images of despair do not serve this purpose, nor do overly positive messages that mislead the public to believe that aid easily facilitates change. The challenges of balanced messaging are not insurmountable, but they do require a firm understanding, from the outset, the need for a deeper public understanding of the issues and the essential role that dignity plays in development. It is both a means and an end. We can reclaim dignity through the conscious representation of people as capable individuals facing challenges. This is an essential aspect of work for those striving to create change.