Posted by: dmcnicholl | April 28, 2010

Perspectives of Poverty

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

poor Bauleni I lo res       rich Bauleni I lo res

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. 

 poor Bauleni II        rich Bauleni II lo res

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

Poor Edward lo res

Rich Edward lo res 

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.

poor Edward smirk lo resEdward 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.



  1. Once again you astound me Duncan 🙂
    I think this is a fantastic idea and really important. When(/if!) it gets to that stage I would love to push for getting an exhibit shown wherever I happen to be in the UK.

    I wondered what your ultimate aims were with the photography project, other than highlighting how easily ‘assumptions’ can be manipulated from a carefully constructed image and the other aspects you mentioned?

    In trying to supress my laughter in the silent computer labs at Edward’s fantastic ‘poor’ face I have tears running down my cheeks.

    rozzy xx

    Ps. That is one stunning umbrella!!

  2. Duncan this is awesome! Really really interested in the project… I can already tell you that we (I) would love to use any pictures you take in our “Changing Perspectives of Africa” outreach. Let me know what you think!

    Community members yelling out advice is priceless!

  3. Incredible idea and I love that you’re doing this, and how willing your friends/coworkers were to play along. Your values of respect, honesty, collaboration, humour, and humanity all shine through in this project.

  4. Here at pre-dep, seeing Sophia’s drawing on the wall. Damn, that’s a neat feeling.

  5. These pictures are wonderful. My son spent 4 months in Ghana and when he returned he explained to me about what I was seeing on those ads I watch on television. The ads affected me so much I now have 2 foster children. My son told me about the pride of the people, the hard work they do, the kindness and the smiles he saw on the childrens’ faces. It changed my perspective so I no longer dread the faces of the children on the screen that looked so sad and so lost. I see beyond that to a country full of pride and potential.

  6. […] and learning from.  Development workers who are open to learning write blog posts like this or this. A facilitator open to learning adjusts to what participants bring to the room, and brings a […]

  7. […] these questions are at all interesting to you, please check out this post on the subject by my colleague Duncan McNicholl (of Playpump video fame). As a side project, Duncan […]

  8. this is a fantastic idea. and beautiful photos on the “wochena” side.
    i look forward following the progress of this project.

  9. I love the last picture – it looks like he’s about to laugh from the silliness of play-acting. It seems like his eyes are getting wide just before he breaks out a smile.

    I work for an international charity and we try to be really careful not to use photos that are dehumanizing. It is good to have posts like these to remind us and other organizations why this is important. Our guidline is, imagine if the child in the picture was your own child; would you be happy with this portrayal. In fact, most of the pictures that I send to my donors in appeals and reports show smiling or laughing children, or pictures of children concentrating on something (like a blackboard) and looking off camera.

  10. Your project is a great idea. I had a lot of fun looking at the pictures and comparing them. I also recommended your post to my family and friends who are strongly influenced by the “poor” photo’s that we constantly see in the media. thanks for sharing them.

  11. Great post. I worked in Western Kenya for 6 months and I share your perspective. There are too many images depicting a “single story” of poverty, where ingenuity and hospitability are overlooked.

    A native Nigerian explains this type of miscommunication brilliantly:

  12. I think this is a great project, but I think staging the “poor” shots rather defeats the purpose. I think you could communicate your message much better if you were to use only real shots that were selectively chosen and framed, so in the “poor” shots the person appears alone, destitute, and without belongings through the cropping of the photo and the choice of an uncharacteristic moment, while in the “rich” photo you can see everything they have around them and their true personality. I think that does a better job of communicating how photographers can always find the photo they want to find, even without staging a shot.

  13. What a great idea. This project is necessary and hopefully will be enlightening for many people!

  14. […] Perspectives of poverty, a visual experiment. (Water Wellness) […]

  15. What you’re doing is good… but be careful. The people you’ve chosen are people who have an income, a choice. The sad faces of poor ‘African’ children shown on TV may sometimes be similar people, but you cannot escape the fact that severe poverty, disease, malnutrition causes the deaths of children all day every day. I could take photos of myself looking rich and poor – but really what’s the point? No, we shouldn’t manipulate anyone or paint pictures that do not reflect the reality, but children are dying – sad, lonely, starving children – they don’t have a choice about what to wear or whether to look happy or sad, they are literally dying.
    So be careful about the ‘everyone is happy, no-one is struggling’ attitude because it’s simply not true for many people. It sounds like you’ve seen poor rural communities first-hand, but you have not seen genuinely starving people who have nothing.

  16. what you should do is anonymously donate the “poor looking africans” series of pictures to a large, US-based NGO, and then, sometime next year, on behalf of the people in the pictures sue and settle out of court.

    The money can be then spent on founding a company that specializes in tracking down poor looking people in NGO photograph and hiring a full time lawyer and you already have everything you need for a class action suit that should generate enough funding to buy you several thousands overpriced PlayPumps, for example.

  17. Kudos Duncan, Ive just stumbled on your blog and I’m glad I did, nobody is suggesting its all rosy in Africa,what kills me though,is how in the UK celebrities use Africa to redeem their media value,off to do some charity work with some poor Africans, raise some money, and then come to a TV/radio show…it breaks my heart!!! As African who does work with companies on the continent I know this story is not true, just as there people living in abject poverty in the UK, only kept off the street by the welfare state, there are poor people also in Africa minus the welfare state…

    If you want to make a difference in Africa, look for an African company that makes a product you like and purchase it and get your friends to purchase it as well..that will probably more difference then building schools or digging wellls..not saying they are not needed, but TRADE is the ONLY route out of poverty…

  18. Awesome idea and brilliant pictures!! I am looking forward more on your project and hope you will go for a proper exhibition! People need to see this.

    These photos reflects so well my first experiences 4 years ago when I moved from North to South Africa. The shock of experiencing fully furnished shacks (oh! they not filthy and there is a tv…) and realising that poverty does not equal depression, ugliness and despair. Awesome!

  19. Totally brilliant! I love the hearing the stories behind the pictures.
    Kudos for the shoutout on ‘Aidwatch’ as well.

  20. I absolutely agree about the way photos can be misleading and steal someones dignity in a sense. However, having worked in DR Congo, I see people who wear tattered clothing and broken flip flops all the time and have nothing more than that…I think it’s not necessarily the clothes that matter or are important here.
    I think it would be a more interesting and challenging photography project to take a picture of someone wearing the same clothes, but shoot the photo in different ways, one that shows dignity, pride, strength against another that does not and would maybe be a picture that someone did not want taken of them, was probably taken without their permission, and places them in a context that is more depressing or pathetic than reality.

  21. […] Engineer, aid worker and blogger Duncan McNicholl‘s new project (tentatively called “Perspectives on Poverty“) shows the artificial nature of these images.  Duncan has teamed up with friends in Malawi […]

  22. […] Deconstructing “poverty porn”- Perspectives of Poverty […]

  23. […] Watch enters duckrabbit territory with a post about Duncan McNicholl’s project ‘Perspectives on […]

  24. I think your project is a great idea! I look forward to more pictures. And be sure to include the bloopers, they give the people a lot of personality!

  25. […] is why Duncan McNicholl’s photo experiment over at Water Wellness is so refreshing. For years, McNicholls — who’s based in Malawi with […]

  26. It’s awesome to see Edward was excited for this project! It’s pretty cool to see his photo on Aid Watch too!

  27. […] Posted by laurenhockin in Uncategorized. Leave a Comment This is a slight detour from the three-part series to consider how Africa is viewed as a continent and how we view Africans. One of EWB’s volunteer’s recently posted an incredible article outlining the power of images and how they represent Africans. Please check out the link : […]

  28. This is absolutely brilliant, what a great idea.

  29. Very well put! Funny thing, I never thought of this problem before, but will surely do from now on. Thank you.

  30. This project is great. What about another angle. You take pictures of the same people in their real life situations and see how that creates the same impression. With many people who are not poor within their context, they may seem poor from certain vantage points, as you said living in a reed hut or cooking outside. It might be harder to get the participants to have fun with it (i.e. “look normal doing your regular thing and I am going to show how you look poor at this moment.” But still, could be interesting. Thanks for the creativity.

  31. This is a great idea! I worked for an International NGO (only as an intern though) and this organization had a strong belief that they only use pictures of children smiling for promotion of their projects.
    At the moment I live in Mozambique and when I told my people that I was going to Africa they’d be like “oh…” People around me tend to have negative images about Africa, and I often thought it was because of ignorance but after reading this entry I guess we are all so influcenced by what we see in the media. I’m really looking forward to seeing your project, I think it will change the way people see Africa. Good luck!

    PS: I would love to know what the whole project is like, please keep us updated!

  32. Saw a shout out to you on aid watchers. this is an excellent project Duncan. Hope that you are very well!

  33. Great project. I also think that the cultural tendency of people to not smile in photographs also gives agencies lots of meaty photos for people elsewhere who may not realize that not every culture smiles when having their picture taken.

  34. […] the exercise), but that villagers value other non-consumption factors in determining who is poor. Perspectives of Poverty I am taking two photos of the same person; one photo with the typical symbols of poverty (dejected […]

  35. Thank you for this post and the photos. It’s an excellent point.

  36. I love it! Please keep posting these.

  37. Powerful message here. Manipulating images of people for development (or any other) purposes has the side effect of stripping that person and their circumstances, including ethnicity and culture, of their humanity. Surely we can do better.

    I think it would be very educational if NGOs and NPOs trained some of the people they provide support to in photography and then have those people become the agency’s photographers and capture mission related images from their perspective.

    At any rate, this is a great project. I’ll be following your progress with interest.

    • Undignified portrayal of people who need help has been the norm for far too long, within the United States as well as in US communication about other countries. People should get help without having their potential ignored and their characters assassinated.

      I’d like to see more of this project.

  38. […] based aid worker Duncan McNicholl subverts the aid agency and media stereotypes by taking photos of people he meets in two different poses ‘miserable victim asking for help’ […]

  39. brilliant idea–imaybe with projects like yours we can begin to reverse the deeply embedded negativity about a plundered continent that has made (and continues to make) everybody rich except those who truly call it home..and im not talking about the leaders and politicians and some so called development workers..

    i especially liked that you honestly mentioned that the people laughed and had to get hints from others on “how to look poor”. goes to show how very different we regard our states of being..
    i also liked that you left them to make the decision as to how to look “wochena” and “wosachena” and did not make the decision for them–as almost always the case.

    wishing you all the best in this and other future endevours..

  40. Duncan – so neat to see your blog shared so widely. I love your description of the project – hope to see it continue! All the best to you.

  41. […] Without Borders (Canada). He’s been working hard to set up a photography project called Perspectives of Poverty that has recently gone viral on the […]

  42. All i have to say is “C’est Ne Pas Une Pipe”.

    Good luck on this project it sounds amazing man!

  43. Brilliant Duncan. This project could go worldwide.

  44. Duncan!!!!
    This is a really wicked idea and the photographs you have up here are phenomenal! I laughed out loud at your “Edward trying to look poor” picture. Hope you are doing well and I look forward to seeing more pictures!
    Miss you!

  45. Sir.
    I was directed here through Lauren’s and Owen’s blog. What a great project, and excellent idea. This is extremely impressive and motivating for me to see the very thoughtful and smart work my fellow EWBers are doing.


  46. Hi, I see my earlier comment is still awaiting moderation although you’ve publlished all the other comments. Accept some criticism otherwise what’s the point of allowing comments? You can’t just filter out any negative voices; have the discussion, open the debate, get peoples’ views. Publish my earlier comment!

  47. Excellent project! I have been having similar thoughts – and many NGOs say that they are being blamed for showing “un-realistic” picture of poor countries if they have photos of smiling people (and that it will not bring in as much money as with starving children). It’s a very complex topic, but you have a great angle to it. I especially like the role play idea, brilliant!

  48. Duncan!

    nice photosets. I especially like that photo of Edward in his finest. Its always nice to be reminded that they’re actual people, not just case studies.

  49. This is a great contribution to the debate about photos and portraying poverty and victimisation vs. empowered agents of change. I have seen some posters in Europe (France and NL) that play on these stereotypes…

    It would be especially interesting (and I think challening) to work with children as you carry on this work. Not only portraying children as agents (rather than simple victims) but also placing them in the context of their families and communities – rather than the lost, abandoned child we tend to see protrayed so often.

    A gender-based analysis of the reactions you get to these different pics would also be really interesting! How much does the fact that the photo is of a man or a woman impact our reactions to each of the photos?

  50. I’ve always thought how upset I would be to have a picture taken of me in my tracksuit pants and my shapeless jumper with holes in it and then to see that picture on the media materials of an organisation being beamed around the world!

    Inspiring solidarity and pride in would-be supporters rather than pity and guilt is absolutely the way to go.

    A question I have is, will the pictures depicting the pride, resilience and hope of humanity elicit the same response from the wealthy donors? If not, then what is wrong with us and what more do we need to do?

    Interesting project, well done and thank you!

  51. […] to the website called Perspecives of Poverty, with interesting blog discussions of photography, aid, poverty, etc. Not a new discussion for […]

  52. […] A blog post exploring how to “look poor,” intended for the genre of development photography that has become known as “poverty porn.” More images here. […]

  53. […] McNicholl’s working on a photo project inspired by the standard photos we see of poor people in Africa — torn clothes, look of despair, etc. He asks people if he can take one photo of them dressed up, and another of them dressed very poorly. Read more about it on his blog, Water Wellness. […]

  54. What a fantastic, thought-provoking project. I lived in Lusaka, Zambia for 15 years and like you, was frequently incensed at the choices the media made as far as “photographically capturing” the average Zambian. All of my Zambian friends, however economically challenged, were kind, caring, quick-witted (often darkly funny) and very generous. I wish I were in Lusaka now to organize a Pespectives of Poverty project there. I know my Zambian pals would get as much of kick out of it as your Malawian friends did. Thank you so much for sharing.

  55. This is very interesting! I find it fascinating as someone who cares about people – as a future psychologist (currently a student) and as a photographer. Thanks for sharing.

  56. Thank you for this great idea and post! I’m very much looking forward to the whole project.

  57. I like this positive project! Truth is never one-sided, it would be a shame to label all ‘under-developed countries’ as such and stay with stereotype images in our minds. I have been living for some months in India, I have gone there with the intention of helping especially children who don’t have access to education to have a brighter future. And the brightness of their smiles made me change totally perspective on my role and their situation. The very first time I arrived in the rural village where I have started to help an organization I thought that I actually had arrived in paradise :-).

    take care and good luck!


  58. Duncan,

    Back in the day, I always knew it was going to be a good party when I heard about it from two independent sources.

    Same applies to this project. Caught it through my Twitter feed, and then in an email from a good friend. Love it. I’ll try to find the time to profile on Cashewman so we can drive even more attention.

    Rock on,

  59. This is a brilliant project. I feel exactly the same way about all the fundraising images we see versus actual life in Malawi (amongs other countries) with all its facets.

  60. […] or sharing these posts with friends. (The first post on “Perspectives of Poverty” can be found here)  Your thoughts help both myself and others to think critically about how we perceive people […]

  61. […] can read more about Duncan’s project on his blog, on the popular Aid Watch blog, on the blog Poverty to Power by Duncan Green (Oxfam UK), or in an […]

  62. Wish someone would come to Arizona and take pictures of what illegal aliens look like….:sigh:::

  63. This is a brilliant project! I look forward to seeing future editions of this. Very cool.

  64. Thank you for your very insightful and useful/helpful perspective!! I too am embarrassed to say I hadn’t thought of the media in quite that way. In spite of the fact that I am already KEEENLY aware of how beautiful, intelligent, even fabulously amazingly inspirational African or for that matter anyone can be. I just want to share about a Malawi Woman I met some 15+ years ago at a conference in LA of the NAEYC (National association for the education of Young Children). She and I were sitting in the lobby of the hotel where the conference was held and she remarked (as an observation, not in a judgmental tone at all), that the marble the bench, fountain and entire grand lobby was made of was worth enough to like build a whole community in her country. I asked her to expand and we ended up on the topic of homelessness, which she remarked was not the same in her country… she went on to describe a very different concept of how to deal with people who are without their own shelter.. She said there were these places built like a community hut with a cement slab floor with some kind of roof, that had a place for washing and cooking. She said that homeless people still liked to be clean and people worked together to provide for each other. I wish I had kept in contact with her, she was a beautiful woman. There were other very impressive, intelligent women there, some from South Africa who were concerned about the education of their children and the racism that exists in the education system there; not allowing the “Black-African” women in as (more qualified) credentialed teachers while the “White-South African” women were given the job of teaching Swahili not their own native tongue to the black children. Again, imposing the Western Anglo way on a culture perfectly capable of teaching their own children. Anyway there are many things that are soooo backwards. African people or any people for that matter that have lived and live closer the to the earth, more directly connected to the earth and their God are beautiful teachers of many incredibly valuable lessons. You are right the media is horrible, even the charities, at portraying a sullen, helpless people, when in fact they are incredibly strong, resourceful, hopeful, jovial, God fearing, beautiful people. Thanks for letting me share my 2 cents. Best Regards, Alicia H. of Santa Barbara California

  65. Hi Duncan,

    Found your project through FH’s Facebook post, and as I browsed through the images, a truth that I experienced in Kenya began to emerge. When I traveled to Kenya in 2006 with FH, I was surprised by the joy and hope of those we were working with. I didn’t see the despair that I’ve seen in images that are stereotypical.

    I began to realize that I had gone over with the idea that we were the “rescuers” that had swooped in to try and lift them out of poverty one step at a time. But after working with families and children for 10 days over there, my own spiritual and personal poverty became apparent. Suddenly I was examining my own western culture that was so hectic and busy that we as a society don’t have time, for anything. I realized I didn’t see the look of hope and joy in my own country that I saw with the people we worked with.

    What your images of a “dressed to kill” Malawian do is show us a side that we don’t often get to see, a very joyful side. I think right now when we’re bombarded with images of despair, we react by putting ourselves in a “one up” position of rescuer and healer, and it puts us in a precarious position of not realizing how much these people have to offer us and how much they can teach us to slow down and make people a priority. It’s too easy for us to look at images of despair and forget that these people have also been given spiritual gifts and that they, too, have something to offer. It’s easy for us to rest on our western wealth and make that the sole focus, instead of taking a holistic, symbiotic approach.

    I’ll be interested to read through all of the comments for others’ reactions to your images, but I think more realistic, documentary images of what we encounter when we travel overseas might challenge some of our preconceived notions, and put us on an equal playing field.

    Good work.

  66. great thinking and great work…and great form of practicable art…keep it up.

  67. Oh my goodness.

    There are people who really do not have. You must be very careful with this.

  68. This is great!!
    While I understand how the smiling Malawian in a business suit might make it more difficult for NGOs to make their case, there has to be a middle ground. So nice to have a fresh look at the “poor African story” and get past the stereotypes.

  69. […] been inspired to write about this again because I just stumbled across this blog post by a fellow Canadian by the name of Duncan McNicholl. As Duncan puts it – in many respects […]

  70. Wow…I love the smiles. I’ve never thought about fundraising images this way.

  71. Duncan I think that your efforts are to be applauded. This is like a breath of fresh air!

    The underdeveloped communities need the kind of support that is empowering and sought in a dignified way.

    As a comparison from work experience, the perception and common response to people with disabilities physical and learning is very often one of sympathyand often patronising.

    We all have various levels of ability and everyone deserves equal respect.

    To portray individuals as victims is dimoralizing. Less developed communities want compassion, understanding and support.

    This project is inspiring!

  72. These photos are wonderful, and I love the spirit behind your project. Definitely something that should be shared with the world!

  73. I wonder if you could get an OSI grant for displaying these and/or expanding the project? They have funds for photographers.

    I love the way this plays with concepts of what does and does not constitute wealth for both the people posing and the “audience” in the West. The cell phones makes us sit up and reevaluate a stereotype we might have held, whereas in the place itself a cell phone ($20? $30?) might not show as much about income level as owning a certain kind of livestock. We think wealth = full shoes, western dress, technology, a certain kind of house — but that doesn’t hold true across every culture.

  74. Good on you! You have my admiration for conceiving this wonderful project. Too often the poor are portrayed without dignity, hope, pride, joy or resolve. When only despair and poverty look out from a picture, it’s easy to dismiss that person as ‘other, ‘ someone who can’t help to better themselves, or a ‘typical’ hopeless case with no future, especially in the case of adults.

    Women living in poverty, with no recourse to aid, still maintain their dignity and strength and take care of their children as best they are able. Why not portray this, and show that any help does fall on fertile ground, and will produce change through the efforts of both the giver and the gifted.

    Oh, and Edward is one sharp lookin’ dude!

  75. […] Developing country poor people photos and the other side […]

  76. Good work. Have you seen the hilarious How To Write About Africa?

  77. […] Duncan McNicholl works with Engineers Without Borders Canada in Malawi. He’s posted a remarkable set of photos on his blog, Water Wellness: Perspectives of Poverty. […]

  78. i don’t get this project or its fans. i work in development. extreme poverty means you try to live on less than a dollar a day. more than a billion people live in extreme poverty. you begrudge NGOs effective ads? really?

    if you want to criticize development as a self-serving industry, or as an imperialism that problematizes poverty to legitimize dominion, or as a failed enterprise that leaves states worse off, go ahead, you’ll have plenty of company, and you might be right. if you want to philosophize about poverty, i’ll be interested in reading.

    but this project, however well-meaning, is flat-out dumb.

  79. I LOVE this idea of having people decide how to represent themselves. It’s funny that the “poor” pictures don’t look totally credible. They look like someone is pretending, where as the dressed to kill pictures are very believable. I also like them from an artistic stand point.

  80. It’s great to see a different perspective. I think people find it hard and overwhelming to respond to images of despondent, malnourished people, whereas the contrast is vast when you see them smiling and comfortable. I am very glad you ask the people how they would like to be portrayed and allow them to choose how they dress. I am pleased that you have drawn light to an issue that you think is important. An interesting form of art! Please bring an exhibition to Australia- I think it will be popular. Best of Luck!

  81. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Namibia and this really hit home — what a great idea!

    I noticed for the poor images, your subjects chose to sit on the ground, looked down on, in a passive state. For the dignity images your subjects chose to be standing, on a level with the photographer, active. Very telling. Very compelling.

    The passive photos, if used in a campaign, would suggest to me that my money to charity would be “giving a fish,” whereas the active photos would be like “teaching to fish.” Your photography project is showing it is a disservice to photograph people at their worst, looking passive and depressing. Keep up the good work!

  82. Intersting to note how these types of photos have influenced international adoption, to the point that families are ripped apart so kids can have a supposedly better life in the US or Europe.

  83. […] “How do we showcase the people that our organization supports without making them look helpless or using them?” We get this question a lot when we encourage groups to include photos and videos of their work in their fundraising appeals.  The author of this post asked his friends in Malawi to show the difference when you let the people decide how to present themselves. […]

  84. This is a truly great project!

    I have been feeling the same ambivalence about ngo’s pictures to the point that I am now usually repelled by those images more than I am willing to help the ngo.

    I would love to see your pictures end up in a ngo bulletin, THAT would make me stop, stare and willing to help!

  85. Hey Duncan, great idea! I would love to be of your assistance, if you need any, in Nepal.
    Keep doing the good work!

    Runil from Nepal

  86. Photography could be used as effective tool for any type of project….

    The abstract of the photographs itself is great project. The two faces as compared in your article is explanation of the thoughts of every individual but presentation and creation could be of few. You are among those few…

    Great to read the writings…

    Satya Prakash Mehra
    Advisor – RSNH
    Rajasthan, India

  87. […] project called “Perspectives of Poverty” which you can check out on his blog – he discusses that image of those “poor African children” that everyone in […]

  88. Brilliant project Duncan! By contrasting the two photos, your point is made ever more clear. It’s amazing how much a simple picture can say, and we have to be careful about the messages we want to send.
    I laughed out loud seeing Edward’s attempt at looking “poor”!

  89. what a great project! very creative and empowering. please post the link for the whole series! 🙂 great work!

  90. […] these people’s lives are far from uni-dimensional. The post has a couple more example you can see here including how hard it can be, at times, for poor to try to actually look […]

  91. This is fantastic. Thank you, and, please, keep it up.

  92. I love this project. I want to mention, though, that not all NGOs focus on “poverty-stricken” photos. Oxfam, particularly, has struck me as an organization that seems to respect the people it features in its communications.

  93. So let me get this straight: You belittle the work of aid organizations that help millions survive just because you met some people in Africa that do not need their help.

    You rail at them for selecting the particular photos that gets their point through. Isn’t part of the work of the photographer to select the best photo that fits her standard? Aren’t you selecting the best photos for this project? Aren’t you staging the photos just like the NGOs?

    It seems to me that this is just about you getting your “project.” Pathetic.

  94. i’m studying development economics and am also an avid photographer- this put a smile on my face. well done.

  95. what a fantastic idea for a project!! Some of the ‘wosachena’ pics look mocking and its the subject of the photograph thats mocking it!

    Thanks for the perspective!

  96. absolutely great job! such an insightfully brilliant project and i can’t wait to see the finished product 🙂

  97. […] and read the post here for […]

  98. Fantastic project.

    Being Palestinian Jordanian, I am also always horrified by the way Western media portrays my culture.

    Yes, poverty is an issue, but the portraits of Western media are not on spot even in the poorest parts of my country (-ies).

    These pictures made me smile.

  99. One of my most memorable travels was to haiti, in 2001. A small group of friends, and myself, traveled around to some of the very poor villages, some where most of them couldn’t even clothe themselves. Head lice, untreated cuts that had become very infected, etc. We didn’t experience anything like what alot of the organizations depict through their posters and commercials. In fact the smiles and laughter and genuine friendliness that we encountered with the poorest of the poor will stay with me forever.
    Our transportation broke down near a particularly poor village. They collected enough money amongst themselves to buy each of us a bottle of coke, which they bicycled over an hour each way to get for us!

    I think this project hits the nail straight on the head. Keep up the good work. We’ve been getting our facts from the wrong sources for long enough!

  100. […] Posted by elizabethfairfield under Uncategorized Leave a Comment  A friend forwarded me this blog post yesterday, an interesting commentary on the perspectives of poverty.  The author notes a false […]

  101. […] McNicholl a member of Engineers Without Borders, has begun worthwhile project. He calls it Perspectives on Poverty and its aim is to challenge the way impoverished people are photographed and […]

  102. […] Perspectives of poverty […]

  103. […] Perspectives of Poverty […]

  104. […] Duncan McNicholl has a nice essay about responsible photography and social justice. His current photo project is dual photographs of […]

  105. I really appreciater this perspective, thank you so much for the work that you do.

  106. Wow, and Bravo.

    I had a zimbabwean colleague who lashed out at someone for characterizing his country as being full of ‘half-naked, starving, shoeless men with spears.’ Sure, he said it better times in 1995, when Zim was at the top of the African situation and not on the bottom. But this photo essay does the same thing as Blessing’s angry words, only with visuals to match.

    Thanks for this.

  107. […] related is this series of photographs, depicting people from Malawi. Photographer Duncan McNicholl explains: We’ve all seen it: the […]

  108. […] McNicholl ottaa kantaa tähän vakiintuneeseen tapaan kuvata afrikkalaisia tai muita köyhistä oloista lähteneitä ihmisiä valokuvaamalla heidän todellista persoonaansa […]

  109. Stand Up Take Action 2010.We need you…

    Globally more than 173 Million people stood up against poverty in 2009, a Guinness World Record!

    Let us break this record in 2010!

    Be the voice for the millions of poor people living across India.

    ~ Aamir Khan stood up against poverty! ~

    ~ AR Rahman stood up against poverty! ~

    ~ Rahul Dravid stood up against poverty! ~

    ~ Rahul Bose stood up against poverty! ~

    ~ Kiran Bedi stood up against poverty! ~

    It is Time for You to STAND UP AGAINST POVERTY NOW!

    Join us on Facebook at and check out the photo album section for the event pictures.

    Follow us on Twitter at

  110. When I give talks on food security of less developed countries all my photos are of laughing, giggling kids – the other face of poverty – as I like to say. Love this project and will follow your blog. Fabulous

  111. This is amazing and important. I look forward to more, and to sharing this with people.

  112. I am realy impressed by your idea and love how you really involve the people you portray. I like the idea, especially to see how the two men pose as poor. It would be interesting to compare their poses etc. to the pictures one gets in western media. I think, of course, they are quite similiar. So would be interesting to know if they reproduce what they are confronted with in every day life or the media made images aswell.

    I am doing a master degree on African studies in Berlin (Germany) and write my own blog about topics like African history, literature, sociology etc.pp. I would really like to feature a short text about your project on my blog. Would it be alright to you if I would use one or two of the photographs? Of course I would comment on where I took them from!

  113. I think this is a neat idea and I am looking forward to seeing more.

  114. Amazing thought..

  115. Very interesting perspective. I went to Kenya and Uganda in 2007 as part of a trip sponsored by a fair trade organization. We did see and hear some heartbreaking stories of poverty, but I was tremendously (and unexpectedly) impressed by how the people I met there were so secure in their dignity and their positive outlook. It is easy in an organization like mine to see the people we work with as “poor” and take the “rescuer” position…until you meet them. I feel privileged to work WITH them (not OVER them). They are creative, hospitable, optimistic, and generous. Good luck with your project.

  116. I think this is an interesting experiment, and I’m glad you’re taking it on. Not all NGOs seek to exploit photos of poor people or poor communities though. I worked for CRS for three years as a writer who also took photos for stories about our beneficiaries. The majority of the pictures reflect proud, often happy people, with the photos focusing on them as people, not on their economic situation. And the majority of subjects wanted their picture taken — even asked for it and often did some quick primping just like I often do if someone wants to take my picture. I just did a quick search on the CRS site and do see some shots where poverty is what stands out most in the pictures I took, but this was in no way intentional. I encourage you to not use the general phrase “NGOs,” but to qualify it with “some NGOs.”

  117. I think your project is a great idea. However, I hope that you avoid making it unbalanced in the other direction which I can see from your tone is possible. I have lived in South Africa for the past 2 years and I have encountered a lot of successful people who are innovative and hard workers. I have also encountered far more people who are not necessarily destitute but disenchanted and unmotivated. I hope that the people who view this project as you are doing it and when it is displayed upon completion realize that they need to reach out to the change agents of these countries and try to make a difference that fits withing their context. Too many charities just transplant what works withing their country/culture and expect it to succeed. To all of those people/charities looking to make a difference, do me-and the people you are trying to help-a favor and engage them when you are trying to make a difference.

    U.S. Peace Corps
    South Africa

  118. I agree with you Duncan, I lived in Malawi for many years, as a ‘privileged’ expat child. And now living in Canada, it always bothered me when they portrayed Africans as a poor miserable lot, to be pitied. And I admit to falling for these stereotypical images of the poor African. But for those of us who have had a opportunity to interact with them know that is the last thing they would like to be known as, they are friendly, every smiling and positive people. This is a wonderful way to portray them – but lets avoid patronising them at the same time. And for the record Malawians love their umbrellas

  119. hey! I love there pictures of my country men. am Kenyan and i feel terrible when they depict poverty in such dehumanizing ways. if you ever decide to come to kenya, contact me, i would be very interested in assisting you in your project. please be careful though not to make africans ridiculous and pretentitous. good luck!

  120. Duncan, I recently founded a nonprofit organization called Dog Meets World, the Photo Diplomacy project to facilitate connections around the world by literally providing those in need with a personal photo. Using a portable (battery operated) printer, we encourage practicing “Take & Give Photography” by all.

    We believe a photo can transcend a person’s circumstance and allow them to see their potential more clearly. Foto, the stuffed dog mascot is used to break language barriers, give children unaccustomed to posting a prop to hold and unifies all pictures. The pictures are intended to highlight the human dignity in all of us and the richness of our being, and are not about poverty. The children, isolated from their surroundings, stand out as unique and beautiful.

    Dog Meets World has been taken as an add-on project with tourists, NGO workers, Peace Corps Volunteers, Kiva fellow, study abroad and alternate break students, business travelers and more to 27 countries to date and have honored thousands of children and families.

    Dog Meets World also believes that each single shared photograph creates a cultural connection and an indelible affirmation that is left behind as a personal artifact and a tiny seed of peace.

    Photography is something to which everyone can relate, and using photos as a medium for understanding and connection is a powerful platform.

    I look forward to your thoughts and those of your followers.

  121. […] Go here. […]

  122. […] is why Duncan McNicholl’s photo experiment over at Water Wellness is so refreshing. For years, McNicholls — who’s based in Malawi with […]

  123. Interesting. Never occurred to me that things may be posed and staged. Can’t wait to see more.

  124. What a great project! I’m looking forward to seeing more. I work for a global Bible translation organization, and we specifically avoid the ratty, fly-infested images. I think our message and brand are stronger for it, because people are less likely to respond out of guilt, and more likely to pay attention to what we’re saying.

  125. […] Addressing the portrayal of poor Africa by charities. # […]

  126. […] 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. […]

  127. […] The truth is that the development sector, just like any other business, needs revenue to survive… (read more) […]


  129. Wonderful project! A few months ago, we began working on something similar. I became frustrated by the one dimensional view often presented of women and children in need in the U.S. The animosity often expressed toward women in crisis characterized by comments that they were somehow to blame, didn’t work hard enough, etc. inspired us to set out to challenge stereotypes and present a new perspective through video, photos, and stories told in their own words. Our Perspectives on Poverty initiative is still in its infancy but I look forward to the chance to allow these women to tell their own stories of how they have faced challenges with strength and determination.

  130. […] gibt es zwei Posts, in denen er Bilder zeigt: hier und hier. Besonders interessant finde ich, dass er den Akteur_Innen die freie Wahl der Inszenierung […]

  131. […] Perspectives of Poverty […]

  132. Very interesting post. Indeed, Africa (and most of the ”developing world”) has more to offer than poverty. You’ve got it right. There is a need for more balance!

  133. Great initiative, Duncan!

  134. There was a lot of research generated about “images from Africa” after the famine in the 80s (and the “we are the world” song) …it showed how what we see in photos and on TV shape our worldviews, sometimes in ways that are anti-development. The UK did some great research with students on this. It’s great how you show the 2 images, since it’s a creative way to get discussion going and help people understand how they might be forming opinions of “poverty” and “poor people”. Good luck with your project!

  135. This such an interesting project, and I think a really good point about perceptions. I can only imagine what one would think of me if they saw me in my worst clothes.

  136. Great idea! Look forward to following.

  137. Hello

    great that you are working on the topic!
    check our website:


  138. […] Taken from Good Intentions […]

  139. This blog is interesting in the manner that it contrasts the stereotypical image of poor African villagers and their facial expressions and body language to their happier moods. It definitely provides insight to how the press or the magazines might project their images of Africa in their daily issues.

  140. […] is the third installation of the Perspectives of Poverty photo project. See first and second posts here and […]

  141. […] -Perspectives of Poverty […]

  142. […] photos are part of the Perspectives of Poverty Project, a photoblog which seeks to challenge inaccurate assumptions and counter the all-too-often negative […]

  143. […] fotografías forman parte de Perspectives of Poverty Project (Proyecto de Perspectivas sobre la Pobreza), un blog fotográfico que persigue desafiar […]

  144. Dear photography lover,

    I’d like to inform you on a new competition for young European amateur photographers: Shoot Against Poverty!

    Are you between 15 and 25 years old and concerned about the problems in the South? Are you also passionate about photography? Then get your camera, visualize the fight against poverty and sign up ( for our competition!

    You have a chance at winning our first prize: a trip (10 days) to Brukina Faso and photograph the (entire) legendary film festival ‘Yèelba FESPACO’ 2011. You will be accompanied by professional photographers and receive a press card to photoshoot the event.

    Deadine for participating: 15 november 2010. Look for more information on

    If you’re not entitled to participate, and happen to know a lot of young photographers: please share this message!
    27 nationalities – 1 message: stop poverty in the south!
    Alternatively you can visit our site and download banners, posters .. and put them on your website/wall…

    Kind regards,

    Ramses Van Ryssen
    Project Coordinator
    Shoot Against Poverty

  145. Dear photography lover,

    I’d like to inform you on a new competition for young European amateur photographers: Shoot Against Poverty!

    Are you between 15 and 25 years old and concerned about the problems in the South? Are you also passionate about photography? Then get your camera, visualize the fight against poverty and sign up ( for our competition!

    You have a chance at winning our first prize: a trip (10 days) to Brukina Faso and photograph the (entire) legendary film festival ‘Yèelba FESPACO’ 2011. You will be accompanied by professional photographers and receive a press card to photoshoot the event.

    Deadine for participating: 15 november 2010. Look for more information on

    If you’re not entitled to participate, and happen to know a lot of young photographers: please share this message!
    27 nationalities – 1 message: stop poverty in the south!
    Attached you will find some banners and posters to put in your workshop/school or on your website.

    Kind regards,

    Ramses Van Ryssen
    Project Coordinator
    Shoot Against Poverty

  146. interesting the clothes that both put on for their ‘not poor’ shots. One dresses in the clothes of a western ‘business man’ and you tell that he owns property that he rents and is looking too expand his business into transportation. The other dresses in clothes that suggest a military uniform (also of a style that originates in the west) . Interesting how the culture and values of the old colonial powers inform decisions.

  147. Duncen, Great initiative !

  148. Hi Duncan

    It is clear that your intentions are good – and so too are the intentions of NGOs. However, both impacts are, in my opinion, the same: Intervention on behalf of … the ready assumption that people from the ‘south’ don’t have agency and that someone from the ‘north’ must portray ‘them/us’.

    There has to be a more humane (and structural) way of dealing with something that is structural – poverty, which is largely the result of the unjust world order.

    Maybe images that render visible exactly how greed operates to entrench poverty would help to ignite not pity, but change. We all prop up the system of domination, we can all try to change it by changing our own thinking and behaviour.

    That way, we all retain our dignity. (I don’t for a moment doubt your good intention – I speak from my personal experience as a historically oppressed person from the ‘south’) — but you don’t have to listen to me.

  149. Chapeau..

    FINALLY someone SEES the rigor, heartbreak, the resilience and the brilliance of Africa’s spirit.
    I think this is a fantastic project and from one who was born and raised in Africa, finally to see recognition of their dignity does this old african heart the world of good. I have always maintained there is no shame in poverty, only shame in allowing the world to be poorer for it.


    Renée Sigel

  150. […] a similar reaction. His response was to start a photo project, entitled Perspectives of Poverty (intro post here). He takes a series of shots of people he knows or works with in rural Malawi. In one photo, he […]

  151. A picture certainly is worth a 1000 words!

    I really love the idea of this project and taking a really interesting initiative to show a different set of those ‘1000 words’. I’m just beginning to get into the world of photography, but I do realize that as a fellow photographer we very carefully and intentionally choose what we want our subjects to portray (whether we consciously realize it or not!)

    This brings a certain power and almost a responsibility (as I see it sometimes!) to choose carefully the images that we take and publish.

    Love reading about the experiment, can’t wait to see what unwravels next 🙂

  152. Dear Duncan

    I vaguely knew how africa was represented to raise charity dollars. But I had similar feelings of wrongful representation and indignity when I came across such representations of poverty in various media about India. Your project is of great value as it addresses a deep rooted bias about the poor and how they ‘should be treated’.

    A whole continent like Africa or even large parts of it cannot be written off like this.

    An agrarian economy probably works without cash and without a whole lot of modern day assets owned by individuals. And this point is very well brought out in your photographs. Please keep up the good work.

  153. Thank you for this Article:
    I have arguing the same idea about the devastating photos taken of Haiti. A beautiful Island poorly managed but poorly protrayed by the NGOs to continue their “business poverty”. In 2010, Haiti is being milk to the bone. I have to Haiti several times before and after the earthquake. Is there poverty and suffering? Yes! But there is also beauty, dignity, and great amazing, resilience people doing the best they can with what they have!
    Once again, Thank you for doing what you are doing! If poverty is just a business why do keep funding the “pimp”

  154. Thank you for your courage and honesty. I am an African from Zimbabwe heartbroken by the portrayal of not only my country but many others. It’s so important to have someone with the courage to stand up and not perpetuate the falsehoods and say “I will not be complicit”. I hope that through people like you the tide will turn.

  155. […] back a friend sent me a link to her friend’s blog, called Perspectives of Poverty. In it, the blogger explores some of the issues surrounding images often used by development […]

  156. […] Taken from Good Intentions […]

  157. Fantastic work and well needed. I would like to just write to state full support of this project! Brilliant! I have a basic website and blog, , and am really passionate about seeing perceptions of ‘the poor’ changed. More than that – I would like to see more people living in poverty being able to pick up a camera to portray their own lives! I am going to Sierra Leone in February, a very poorly represented country, I aim to use that one question ‘How would you like to be seen’ to guide me as a photographer. Photography is always going to be about selling something – wouldn’t it be exciting if we sold change for the world’s poorest people. Change with dignity, equality and participation!! Keep up the good work!

  158. […] 5. A little perspective on pictures taken of poverty […]

  159. […] about a person, especially when we see an image of “poverty” from rural Africa. from “Perspectives of Poverty,” by Duncan McNicholl, Water Wellness, 28 April 2010 :: via Aid […]

  160. […] ‘Back Catalogue’ of his writing on representing Africa; and Duncan McNicholl’s Perspectives on Poverty (for a more playful and humorous take). This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the […]

  161. […] the laughter, the resilience, and the capabilities of so many incredible people?”, Duncan asks. “This is not to say that people do not struggle, far from it, but the photos I was seeing […]

  162. Hello all! I like this forum, i inaugurate tons gripping people on this forum.!!!

    Large Community, regard all!

  163. […] order to show a clear story that illustrates obvious need to the public and donors, NGOs rely on “portraits of despair” of their recipients. You know, the ones of African babies with bloated bellies and flies in their […]

  164. […] order to show a clear story that illustrates obvious need to the public and donors, NGOs rely on “portraits of despair” of their recipients. You know, the ones of African babies with bloated bellies and flies in their […]

  165. […] de la organización Ingenieros sin Fronteras. Duncan McNichol ha creado el proyecto fotográfico Perspectives of poverty a raíz de su trabajo en Malawi para invitarnos a reflexionar sobre el efecto que puede tener en […]

  166. Hi,

    I really appreciate this project of yours. A thatched hut and rags for clothes has, unfortunately, become a symbol of poverty due to these “organizations” and their misleading, misguiding pictures. This has really helped me on a recent homework assignment that was a world poverty analysis. For extra credit, I have to include different perspectives on poverty from different people all over the globe.

    All the best,

  167. It’s refreshing to see a project like this. Citizens in developing countries are usually photographed in a manner that makes them look “poor” or even miserable. Many of these people are happy despite their living conditions. They know no other way and don’t hold the same values on things that we do in the Western world.

  168. […] Some say we need to give Africans a voice, not realizing they already have a voice that is simply being ignored.  Instead of portraying Africa as a single country needing the guidance of Western humanitarians, […]

  169. I live next door to a children’s playground in Copenhagen. A 100 meters away is a bridge on a main road and for hours every working day of the week young, starry eyed NGO beggars prance up and down falsely smiling at unwitting members of the public in order to lure them into giving their money away. I’ve engaged with them many a time and every time I wish I’d got their responses on camera. How can arrogance be disguised so successfully as compassion I still ask myself. Without necessarily the Frontline culprits even suspecting anything.
    The children’s playground next door, indeed any playground in Denmark, Britain, where I’m from, or perhaps any EU playground are potential reminders of a certain irony. If I or any other man were to stand by the fence surrounding one and assume to take photos, regardless of the intention, we could get into serious trouble. Yet quite similar behaviour conducted in the third world is, on the contrary, rewarded highly! In the first instance at home even my neighbours could wonder, if not change the way they think of me. In the second instance, my neighbours in Uganda could be positively curious and even be collaborative.

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