Images, poverty, and development: why context matters

Images are just as powerful, if not more powerful than words. A photograph can capture in two seconds what even the most expert prose writer might need a few hundred words to say. Photos often remain etched in people’s minds when they read articles, reports, or look at any type of information coming from Aid organizations.

Photographs play a role in shaping our understanding of history, poverty, and culture. Because images are so powerful, a photo removed from context can be a dangerous thing.

Before we dive into how this plays out in the international development industry, let’s look at an important lesson from history.

Lessons from a photographer and ethnographic enthusiast

In the early 1900s, Edward S. Curtis embarked on a journey to document ‘the vanishing people:’ Native Americans in the western United States. He created thousands of photographs of 80 tribes over a period of 20 years. It was a remarkable feat that, for better or for worse, has shaped the public perception of Native Americans.

The collection truly is stunning. However, although he made sure to photograph people with dignity and with reverence, his own prejudices still shaped the way he composed these images. This collection is often credited with perpetuating the idea of the ‘noble savage,’ and other unhelpful stereotypes about American Indians. In fact, Curtis created studios, paid his subjects to pose according to his direction, and even manipulated the images to suit his own ideas of what was ‘authentic’ to Native American culture.

For many non-Indians, this was the first contact they had with Native Americans.

And today American Indians are still trying to shirk a myriad of stereotypes.

Critics have also pointed out that because these images removed American Indians from the realities of life on reservation, they avoided dealing with the negative impacts that US policies were having on the wellbeing and survival of Native Americans.

So what does this have to do with visual storytelling for international development?

Ethnography, images, and international development

In the same way that these photos still shape contemporary concepts of Native Americans, photos of the developing world without context spread damaging stereotypes and can manipulate our understanding of humanitarian crises and global poverty reduction challenges. By now, most of us understand why poverty porn is a bad idea. Although these images still exist, most NGOs are changing the way they tell their stories.  More organizations are “replacing misery with opportunity.”

And that’s a good thing.

However, as Curtis’ photos and their criticism teach us, we must also be careful not to romanticize poverty. Romanticizing poverty creates a convenient excuse for inaction. It is impossible to say whether or not showing a more nuanced representation of life on reservations would have altered US policy towards American Indians. Nonetheless, romanticizing these diverse groups of people in the face of varying forms of persecution did not help them.

This is why context matters.

Context shows how a person smiles in the face of adversity, not because of it. Context shows that poverty sucks, but that people are not helpless victims waiting for a white savior. Context can break down the barriers that divide people into “us” and “them,” and help us connect as humans. Context shows that all people have hopes, worries, dreams, fears, goals, and desires no matter who they are, where they are, or what income level they have achieved. Context reveals the opportunities that exist amidst the challenges.

We can give context through the camera lens and through the words that go with these images. What is left out of the frame is just as important as what is in the frame. I am not arguing for poorly composed photos that do not offer a focus point or a subject. I am saying, however, that we really need to think about the message these images are sending.

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Poverty porn (no context, child in war, and over-edited). Photo by Zoriah. Some Rights Reserved.
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Not poverty porn (gives context and shows resilience. Yes, this is to promote the Gates Foundation, but it is a dignified portrayal). Photo by the Gates Foundation. Some Rights Reserved
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8 Comments

  1. Edward Curtis was an incredibly complex man who embarked on an equally complex project. His goal was not to present the American Indian as an oddity, but to document vanishing ways of life before they disappeared altogether. For many tribes, he was too late, so he made some bad choices.

    Some of the criticisms of Curtis are fair. Should he have eliminated the alarm clock? No. Should he have used non-tribal clothing and items? No.

    But other criticisms are off the mark. They say…

    – He was not a schooled ethnographer. He didn’t claim to be, but he did argue that he understood the Indians and spent more time with them than most ethnographers of his time. And he photographed ceremonies that few if any non-natives had ever seen.

    – He posed his subjects. He had to. Curtis worked in the day of large-format camera, glass negatives and long exposures. 35mm Leicas and street photography hadn’t yet been invented.

    – He should have focused on the treatment of Indians at the time. Actually, he did. He wrote and spoke against what he saw as injustice against the Indians. But that was not the point of his project.

    To equate his work with poverty porn is unfair. His 20-volume set included not only images, but text describing tribal customs, history, ceremonies, language, etc. I doubt this contributed to stereotyping (that was the job of Wild West shows, dime-store novels, and cowboy and Indian movies), because most people didn’t see his work. It was not for public sale. Although he toured the country with his slideshows, he sold only a few hundred subscriptions and died with JP Morgan owning everything he produced.

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    1. Thanks for the input. Some very good points. And I’m sure you’re right about the broader popular media contributing more to stereotyping than anything else. My intent was not to paint Curtis as a bad person or to equate his work with poverty porn (I do think the work he did was remarkable. In fact, I mention that he captured his subjects with dignity), but to reflect on whether or not good intentions in photography are enough. It’s not a perfect parallel – after all, Curtis was an ethnographer, not a policy maker. And international development didn’t even exist a field/profession at that point. Thanks again for the input!

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      1. Yes, good point. Images alone (or any abstract communication for that matter) are subject to interpretation that may be unintended or change over time. For nonprofits to stay on message, careful framing, editing and sequencing is important. Also pairing images with words, either written text or voice, helps keep the focus. That is one of the concerns I have with organizations that put too much emphasis on Instagram, Flikr, or non-curated photo libraries on their sites. Untended, they can generate a lot of white noise.

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