Tag Archive for 'ethics'

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.

Continue reading ‘The Foreign Pornographer’

The Ethics of Nudity in Poverty Photography?

When it comes to filming & photographing, I always try and learn from the professionals. I recently discovered superstar photographer “Joey L”. Joey’s worked with some big names (The Jonas Brothers, Usher, NBC, FX Network, Warner Music, and the Salvation Army).

Joey also travels to developing countries and photographs and films those living in poverty. Recently, he uploaded a video on his trip to visit the The Mentawai in rural Indonesia (WARNING: NOT SAFE FOR WORK):

The reason this video is not safe for work is because it shows full frontal nudity of children. I’m not trying to hate on Joey. In his defense, this is probably nothing more than you’d find in National Geographic Magazine. I’m sure the intention was documenting – not pornography.

But, this raises a question, what are the ethics of filming and photographing the poor in the nude? Is filming for charitable purposes different than filming for documentary purposes? Are the standards different for those living in the West vs. those living in developing countries?

From what I can tell of Joey’s work, that seems to be the case. In this video, he blurs and blocks out nudity of himself and his assistant as they bathe in a river – but does not do the same for any of the naked locals in the same scene (WARNING: ALSO NOT SAFE FOR WORK):

For me, I come from a very different perspective. Even if families are itching and eager to be on camera – if they are nude, I say no. Or, at the very least, frame it to protect privacy. This helps because when I team up with Save the Children, I’m in line with their policies and practices.

But the fact is, no matter how much care & consideration one takes in filming and photography, there is always going to be someone out there who thinks you’re grossly violating the rights and disrespecting your subjects.

On-the-ground I know that my paranoia of not filming nudity seems to foster respect among those I film & photograph. It also stems from the fact that I share a cultural ancestry with most of the people I try and help.

It’s for that reason, I’m not going to change how I do things. But, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – especially if there are any professional photographers and filmmakers out there reading this.

Follow-Up to Change the Conversation

Just noticed this was the banner ad displaying on the “Change the Conversation: In Photography” blog post from yesterday…

I’m sure if you search my Flickr archive, you might find a few stoic & frowning kid faces too. I’m by no means an expert (or the standard-bearer) for how to photograph and film the poor. But, is there like some rule a charity ad can’t feature a smiling kid?

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.

Why Nick Kristof is Wrong

When I was building the Pond Sand Filter in Barguna, Bangladesh, I decided to scout out and see what the condition of other recently completely water projects were like. What I saw shocked me.

A leaking & broken faucet from a Pond Sand Filter left in disrepair in rural Bangladesh

Most of the completed water projects under community control were in disrepair. Even things like faucets & knobs – things easily fundraised & replaced by villagers – were left unrepaired.

At the same time, the same villagers were each saving up so that they could each have a cellphone and many were trying to save up to have a television or radio in their house.

Did these villagers not care about clean water? Were they too lazy? Unmobilized? The answer? They just wanted to be on par with their neighboring villages.

It turns out many of the neighboring villages didn’t receive clean water support from a charity. So, even if the Pond Sand Filter in this particular village failed, they’d still be on par with their neighbors.

Because drinking unsafe water was the norm, it didn’t seem like a loss. But, because cellphones were becoming ubiquitous in other villages, villagers were saving up so as to not be left behind.

This is important. What this shows is that how we progress as a society is based on our impetus to keep up with others – and what we feel will become (or is already) ubiquitous.

I mention this now because I recently read an article by New York Times author Nicholas Kristof. In it he mentions that:

Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.

NY Times Author Nicholas Kristof

In the article he points to parents who buy booze & cigarettes – instead of tuition for their kids. Or families who spend money on cellphones – instead of mosquito nets.

His conclusion is that aid & development agencies need to “try to redirect the family money now spent”. I agree with Mr. Kristof – but he’s mistaken a quirk of human society for individual irresponsibility.

If you want families to invest in their children’s education – let’s first make education standard and ubiquitous for all. Granted this burdens the developed world with the cost – but we don’t have to fund this forever.

Even if a single generation gets the taste of universal education and grows up where everyone around them is educated – it will be sustained. Why? No village would ever want to be the first to slide back from that progress.

Not only that, but if education isn’t sporadically distributed, it is easier to see the correlation between education & success. It only takes the proper investment in one generation to create role models for the next generation to follow.

(As a side note, Americans spent $8 billion on cosmetic products – but it only costs $6 billion to provide free education to every child in the developing world. So it’s not like we can’t afford to do what I’m suggesting.)

Similarly, if you want to make it so every water project is sustained by a local village, make sure every village gets clean water. No village will want to be the first one to start drinking brown water again.

(As a side note, Europeans spent $11 billion on ice cream last year – but it only costs $9 billion to provide clean water for every single person who doesn’t have access to it right now. So, again, we could afford this if we really wanted to.)

We often fail to imagine the complexity of living in poverty. For most people living in extreme poverty, clean water, childhood school education, and a malaria-free life are luxuries.

And, when it comes to how we buy luxuries, we always do so in a way that keeps up with the Jonses. Which is why Bangladeshis villagers I met bought in cellphones instead of clean water and the Congolese villagers Mr. Kristof met bought booze instead of school tuition.

Writing this blog post was a bit tough because Mr. Kristof is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner – and I’m a graduate school drop-out. He’s the gold-standard for articles & thoughts about global poverty.

But, in this particular case, I respectfully disagree with his POV.

Dealing with Anti-Muslim Haters

In my project I’ve been able to help Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims. But because my focus is on Bangladesh, and because Bangladesh is 83% Muslim, it does mean that most of the time it’s Muslims & Muslim families who get helped.

This is why comments like this annoy me:

If I got a dime everytime someone left a comment like this, this project would be fully funded.

Most of you will brush this off as random haters. And, okay, in this case it may very well be. And, to be fair, this project seems to attract all varieties of haters. There are Muslim haters who say I should go to hell. There are Bangladeshi haters who claim I’m doing it for fame. It goes on and on.

A Muslim by the name of Mohibul left this gem for me. Haters are by no means just anti-Muslim. Bonus Fact: I later learned Mohibul is a graduate of the London School of Economics.

I know you’re supposed to ignore haters and not feed the trolls. But let’s face it: this kind of hate isn’t confined to the internet. We live in a world where there are people who think it’s perfectly alright to want to see Muslims suffer and those who want Christians to burn in hell.

I don’t talk about my own religious beliefs because whether I read (or tweet or respond to comments using excerpts from) The Bible, The Qu’ran, The Torah, or even The God Delusion – I find that these books all inspire me to believe that we as a species need to get along with each other.

And I realize that me rebutting or responding to every hater isn’t going to create world peace. But, at the same time, me just helping one person or one village at a time won’t end global poverty. But ignoring either doesn’t seem to be something I’m wired to do.

tl;dr: Why can’t we just all get along?


The Law of Diminishing Returns

Before I studied sociology – I studied economics. In economics there is something called The Law of Diminishing Returns. When it comes to my critique of charities (and how they can be fortresses) I think I’m about to hit diminishing returns. If you’ve been reading this blog, following me on Twitter, and/or watched me struggle to get charities to team up with me on the ground – you get it already.

There’s no reason to belabor the point.

You see – and I’m only now just scratching the surface of this – there is this whole vast online sphere of people who love to bash charities. No matter what a charity does – they will call it a “hand out” instead of a “hand up”. No matter how tactfully a charity shows poverty – they will call it “poverty porn”. And no matter how open and transparent a charity is – they will call them “secretive” and “closed”.

I don’t want to be that guy.

The majority of charities I’ve seen out in the field are doing a good job. The world is a better place because of the majority of charities I’ve seen – even if it’s the minority of charities that get all the attention due to scandals. I pull my hair out trying to break the fortress of many of these good charities because I think they deserve not to be left behind in a new era of how we interact.

You can still expect the occassional tweet about this. And, if something particularly poignant comes up, I’m sure I could blog about this again. But, I don’t want this project to be come off looking like I’m bashing charities. Charities are imperfect, they have flaws, and they can be like a fortress. But, like I said, if you’ve been reading my blog posts, following my tweets, and watching me struggle to work with them on the ground – you get that already.

Let’s avoid diminishing returns.