How photography can construct poverty

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Posted 23 Jun 2010 in Alternative visuals, Conventional imagery

Duncan McNicholl, a member of Engineers Without Borders Canada  — as African Programs Staff on the Water and Sanitation (WatSan) team, based in Malawi — has started an interesting project that highlights how photography constructs poverty.

He explains the context:

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?

And he outlines his approach:

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.

As one of the commenters on McNichol’s blog noted, we have to recognise that both the images of poverty and relative prosperity in this project are ‘staged’. We might also want to ask whether this contrast is simply replicating the simple negative vs. positive frame for understanding images that in the end doesn’t escape the power of stereotypes. However, the contrast between the two constructions is still something worth thinking about.


  1. Very interesting! I arrived in Nakuru in the Kenyan Rift Valley to work with a small NGO and they had built themselves a terrible reputation in the area for taking photographs of dying people and insisting that they look ill and poor.

    There was one ‘professional’ photographer, said to have had a background in fashion photography, who made it quite clear that he wanted to see visible signs of illness, emaciation and deprivation. He treated people very rudely and some volunteers subsequently asked people not to take photographs.

    But it was what this NGO had been doing for a long time, their websites were full of the photographs, they even sold them and exhibited them around the world. From what I’ve heard, all the photographs involving people, especially sick and dying people, involved stage managing.

    The guided tour I was given seems to have been the same as that given to other new volunteers and even another visiting photographer, who repeated (on his blog) everything he was told, pretty much the same things that I was told.

    I’m sure many people working in development have their photograph related stories. And I’m sure many people who have any connection with NGOs also have stories about how they are told to behave in front of certain visitors and how they are to respond to a request for photographs.

  2. David Campbell

    Simon; many thanks for your informative comment. You might be interested in some work I have done on the photography of HIV/AIDS, at

  3. Thanks David. It is actually through your work on HIV/Aids that I found this blog. I have been reading and looking at the photographs on the visual economy of Aids and have been fascinated because you steer clear of the behavioral paradigm that the Aids industry is based on. I notice some familiar names in your bibliography. When I was studying for my MA I realised that differences between high and low prevalence countries could not be explained by sexual behaviour and that sexual behaviour alone could not explain such high rates that are found in Swaziland, Botswana and several other countries, and even in pockets in other countries. It is only more recently that I have become interested in non-sexual HIV transmission, through medical and cosmetic treatment and maybe some other phenomena, such as traditional healing. Here in Kenya and in other countries, the frightening thing is that international institutions are well aware that HIV is not just transmitted sexually, they just refuse to discuss it with people who have to live in countries with terrible health facilities. Anyhow, I’ll read the rest of the Visual Economy of Aids. All the best. Simon

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