Duncan McNicholl is a member of Engineers Without Borders Canada as African Programs Staff on the Water and Sanitation (WatSan) team, based in Malawi, in Southern Africa. Although he works mostly with water and sanitation issues, Duncan is also interested in good food, good people, Malawian culture, and a whole host of other topics related to human development and the development sector. He is also an avid photographer and musician.
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. I found it outrageous that such an incomplete and often inaccurate story was being so widely perpetuated by the organizations on the ground – the very ones with the ability and the responsibility to communicate the realities of rural Africa accurately.
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. I thought that these images were robbing people of their dignity, and I felt that the rest of the story should be told as well. Out of this came the idea for a photography project, which I am tentatively calling “Perspectives of Poverty”. 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. So far, I have finished two sets in the series and I want to share them with you to get reactions and hopefully generate some discussion around this in the early stages of this project.
Bauleni Banda – Chikandwe Village, Malawi
In 2008 I lived with Bauleni Banda and his family in Chikandwe village for 3 months. In many ways, the Bandas represent a fairly typical low-income rural household, who are dependent on subsistence maize farming for their livelihood.
Last month I was able to visit them for a wonderful, 5-day stay in the village. During this stay I decided to ask Bauleni about my proposed photography project. He only speaks Chichewa, so my explanation was probably muddled at best, but he reacted very strongly on the topic of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) taking photos and was keen to try something out.
I left the decisions about how Bauleni would present himself entirely up to him. I only told him that I wanted to take one photo of him “wochena” (the Chichewa equivalent of “dressed to kill”) and another of him “wosachena,” or “dressed very poorly.” Bauleni got right into character and we ended up having a lot of fun taking the photos.
As Bauleni went into his house to find his prized umbrella, I began to wonder how unique these photos might be. Do many organizations ask people how they want to be represented before the photographs start being taken?
Edward Kabzela – Chagunda Village, Malawi
Edward Kabzela is an area borehole maintenance mechanic who I had the privilege of staying with for five days to learn a bit about his work. As an area mechanic, he helps village committees keep their water points functioning by doing repairs and preventative maintenance.
Edward is quite successful, both as an area mechanic and through other business initiatives. He grows tobacco, works with a basket weaving business, collects rent from a shop he rents out in the market, and services over 60 water points in his area. Next year, he is thinking of investing in a truck to start a transportation business. He is a great example of how little a thatched roof says about someone’s livelihood.
Edward was pretty excited about the project, but he had a pretty hard time keeping a straight face for the photos of him trying to look "poor." He looked so ridiculous that I’ve included one of the photos in the set. The photos of Bauleni Banda had the same kind of hilarity, with community members shouting out helpful hints on how to "look more poor." Neither had any trouble putting on their best and looking sharp.
Edward trying (and failing) to put on a serious face while looking “poor”
Edward had this to say about NGO photos in his village of Chagunda [translated from Chichewa]:
"NGOs come to the village here to take pictures of people. At church, at the market, on the road, at meetings. Only people who are dressed poorly."
I’m still not sure of exactly what the final project will look like, but I think that there is valuable discussion to be had around these images and about the assumptions and inferences we make when we see images of rural Africa. Over the next year, I will continue to take photos and develop this idea, possibly towards some kind of exhibit.
In the meantime, I would love to hear what you think.
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