Change the Conversation: In Photography

“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.”

That’s what Edward Kabzela of Malawi said – and he’s not alone. Whether I’m traveling to Kakamega in Kenya, a rural village in Bangladesh, or a local food bank in Los Angeles – everybody hates being portrayed as poor and needy.

I’ve 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 – charities are like a business.

For a charity, their “revenue” is your donation dollars. And most of them think that the best way to get your donation dollars is by portraying the poor as objects of pity. They’d rather show you a picture like this:

Photo by Duncan McNicholl

Instead of a picture like this:

Same person, photo also by Duncan McNicholl

It still surprises me how many people, charities, and organizations still don’t get it. In fact, I’ve debated this with good friends of mine – some suggesting my portrayal of poverty is overly cheerful and glossy (with the exception of stuff involving disasters).

But my rebuttal is this: I’m only allowed to portray those I film & photograph as they wish to be filmed & photographed. Sometimes, especially during disasters, they want me to capture their sorrow. But, most of the time, the poor may want our help – but they don’t want our pity.

8 Responses to “Change the Conversation: In Photography”


  1. 1 Ramla Akhtar

    Absofrikkinglutely agree!

  2. 2 Ramla Akhtar

    Absofrikkinglutely agree!

  3. 3 Christina

    I totally agree too. It’s very true. People who live in poverty usually do so because of circumstances they can’t control. They are hard workers and take pride in what they can accomplish. They don’t want pity. Also, I’ve noticed that many people who live in poverty have a better understanding of what is important in life (relationships) and still find joy in life. They do not just sit around and mope like you see in most charities pictures or commercials. Thanks for the post Shawn!

  4. 4 Christina

    I totally agree too. It’s very true. People who live in poverty usually do so because of circumstances they can’t control. They are hard workers and take pride in what they can accomplish. They don’t want pity. Also, I’ve noticed that many people who live in poverty have a better understanding of what is important in life (relationships) and still find joy in life. They do not just sit around and mope like you see in most charities pictures or commercials. Thanks for the post Shawn!

  5. 5 Raheel Lakhani

    Generally I have seen photographers going crazy in such shots. They act like paparazzi and don’t even care to get the consent of the picture. I personally leave it for the subject to act the way they want. If they smile, I capture that or anything for that matter. In some cases, permissions are not possible then I spare such moments. I would only publish it, if doesn’t violate their privacy. Many won’t care as they would think that they would never see where and how it has been published. Nice post I must say!

  6. 6 Raheel Lakhani

    Generally I have seen photographers going crazy in such shots. They act like paparazzi and don’t even care to get the consent of the picture. I personally leave it for the subject to act the way they want. If they smile, I capture that or anything for that matter. In some cases, permissions are not possible then I spare such moments. I would only publish it, if doesn’t violate their privacy. Many won’t care as they would think that they would never see where and how it has been published. Nice post I must say!

  7. 7 nikon 5000d

    what an excellent post..it is refreshing to see this point of view and I couldn’t agree with you more…it would be interesting to see a campaign run with ‘pity’ pictures and another run with other happier picture…or even a combination

  8. 8 nikon 5000d

    what an excellent post..it is refreshing to see this point of view and I couldn’t agree with you more…it would be interesting to see a campaign run with ‘pity’ pictures and another run with other happier picture…or even a combination

  1. 1 Follow-Up to Change the Conversation | UP | uncultured project
  2. 2 Beth Kanter Gets It | UP | uncultured project
  3. 3 Empathy vs. Sympathy | The Uncultured Project
  4. 4 When the poor speak for themselves | The Uncultured Project
  5. 5 Must…not…say…it… | The Uncultured Project
  6. 6 3 Reasons Charities Need to Drop the Guilt | The Uncultured Project
  7. 7 5 Steps for NGOs to Move from Guilt to Empowerment | The Uncultured Project

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