The Foreign Pornographer

“What are you doing? Making poverty porn?” I asked.

It was a Sunday night here in Dhaka. I was drenched in sweat having nearly completed a 50 mile bike ride around the city. I was passing by the upper class part of town when I had to stop.

In the middle of the street, stood a foreigner taking a photo of the most crippled street beggar he could find – an elderly man with stubby deformed legs roaming around in a wheelchair.

Armed with a DSLR and lighting rig, worth more money than this beggar would see in his entire lifetime, the foreigner had the beggar pose with a photo of Ronald Regan in front of his face.

“Why Ronald Regan?” I asked the foreigner. He ignored me – pretending I wasn’t there.

I pedaled right next to him – putting myself between him and the expensive luxury SUV he had rode up in. I didn’t notice it at the time, but the car sported yellow license plates: a privilege reserved for diplomats and dignitaries.

“Excuse me – why Ronald Regan?” I asked again. The foreigner coyly shrugged. “Because why not?” he asked. “But why Ronald Regan? What are you trying to do? Besides make poverty porn?” I asked. He turned to me and smirked.

“That’s exactly what I’m doing” he replied.

His flippancy was astounding. It only got worse.

Me: “You know you can’t use images like that with charities like Save the Children, right?”
Him: “I’m not with Save the Children”

Me: “But most charities have banned that – at least in the United States”
Him: “I’m not American”

Me: “But even UNICEF has protocols on what is and isn’t permissible in poverty photography”
Him: “That’s just PC nonsense”

Me: “Did you ask for his consent? Have him sign a release waiver?”
Him: “I don’t need to in this country”

Eventually, I got into a debate with him about what is and isn’t acceptable, what is and isn’t respectful, and what does and does not constitute giving dignity to the poor.

Me: “You know the most important thing the poor care about is being treated with dignity, right?”
Him: “That’s nonsense – the most important thing the poor care about is getting a meal”
Me: “That’s not true. I’ve been in situations where the poor have thrown aid back because it wasn’t given with care and respect”

Eventually, he agreed to give me an anonymous email address (and not his name) by which I could stay in touch with him. Later that night, I got this email from him:

Thanks Shawn, had a look at your videos.
Now, there is an art movement which is completely alien to the earnestness of Bangladesh and to those who seek fame and fortune from the poor of this country, called cynical realism. It’s sorely needed here.Had a look at your twitter account too. First time in my bloody life!
Couple of points – street photographers do not carry consent forms. But that’s by the by – why would anyone need to sign a consent form if his face is covered by a piece of paper and is therefore unrecognisable. Pay attention to what was happening! :)
I want to address the issue of consent and respect for the poor when taking photos and videos:
  • Rule #1: Acknowledge that there is a power imbalance when you take photos and videos involving the poor. This is true if there is a significant disparity of wealth, if you are a different race, and especially if you come in a way that suggests you have diplomatic status.
  • Rule #2: Acknowledge that the poor often have no private life. For many, their private life is public because they either live on the streets or in situations which afford them no privacy. Taking a photo of a street performer in NYC is not the same as taking a photo of a street beggar in Dhaka.
    • This is why charities like Invisible People (which photograph homeless people) are so zealous with obtaining consent for all the people they film, interview, and photograph.
  • Rule #3: Acknowledge that the poor will often agree to things that they aren’t comfortable with because there is an expectation or hope of favor, money, or aid in return.
    • This is why Save the Children makes anyone entering their projects with a camera sign a contract mandating that all images be taken of aid recipients be done in a way that makes it clear to aid recipients that they do not have to cooperate or consent to photographs to receive aid.
  • Rule #4: Acknowledge that the onus is on YOU to obtain consent in an authentic manner. This may not mean having them sign a release waiver but they should know what you want to do with the photos. Not only that, you should be culturally and linguistically aware enough to be able to tell if someone is reluctantly giving consent or giving consent with the expectation of help or aid or money.
    • This is point cannot be stressed enough. I’ve had rickshaw drivers decline to have their photo taken because they’re hiding from criminal gangs. They fear that if the photo got shared too much – their lives would be at risk.
    • In this particular case, it was clear the street beggar wanted a lot of cash for posing with the photo. And, having stayed behind after the foreigner sped off in the SUV, it was clear the beggar was angry and felt betrayed for posing for nothing.
  • Rule #5: Acknowledge that your responsibility is a moral and ethical one – not just a legal one. Just because laws are lax in one country doesn’t mean human beings are any less worthy of rights, consent, respect, and dignity.
    • Unlike the  foreigner, this also includes whether or not one can see your face in the photograph. There are many ways to identify an individual. Just because all brown people may look the same to you doesn’t mean people can’t tell one person’s stubby crippled legs apart from another person’s stubby crippled legs.

Unfortunately, I have no idea who this person is and what capacity these photos will be used. The foreigner did mention that he’s Australian and plans to use in a private display which – after conversing with me – he will now title “Poverty Porn”. Funny.

P.S.

The reason there is no photo attached to this blog post is because I didn’t obtain the consent of the foreigner to disseminate his photo on the internet. Which was more informed consent than he gave the beggar.

  • Preetraj Kaur

    Your empathy and ability to describe discrepancies is remarkable. Do you think this is something innate to certain individuals or can it be learned via experience? Or some mixture of both, I would assume.

  • Blair McCulley

    Fantastic blog post. Thank you.