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The Ethics of Earning a Living Fighting Poverty

My work with this project has always been unpaid, unemployed, and (for the most part) unplanned. It’s probably now that I should talk about the fact that I’d like to one day earn a living doing this.

What do I mean by “earning a living”? Well, in the near term, I would like to be able to stop borrowing from friends and family to pay for things like meals, clothes, and even basics like getting a haircut. In the long term, I’d like to one day live that “American Dream” somewhere in suburbia.

At the same time, I want to be able to follow my passion. Helping others – especially in ways that connect people using technology – is a dream come true. Even though I believe we can end extreme poverty, I want to be able to continue to help others for the rest of my life.

The desire to earn a living from your passion maybe a no-brainer for many people reading this. But it deserves discussion because not everyone agrees that you should be able to earn a living if your passion is fighting poverty.

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Exploiting Misery: The Pornography of Poverty

Belinda Meggitt is someone I met here in Bangladesh through Mikey Leung. In one of her recent blog posts, Belinda asks the question if candid photographs of third world suffering constitutes a form of voyeurism. One thing I’ve learned since going to the cyclone disaster area is that, when it comes to cameras, the poor are often be treated like zoo animals.

There is a right way and a wrong way of taking photographs. If you want to be respectful of those you are photographing or filming, you sometimes have to risk coming back with horrible shots or horrible footage. Filming and photographing should come second – being respectful should come first. This was exactly what my experience was with Save the Children. When I was handing out my blankets, filming was done in a corner away from the kids. A lot of the footage didn’t turn out that well – but all of it was gathered in a unobtrusive and respectful manner.

Unfortunately, not every cameraman is that respectful.

A lot of people gathering footage and photos would sometimes setup their shots – asking aid recipients to stand, pose, and look at the camera. Sometimes this can be unobtrusive and just a simple request. Other times – and I’ve actually seen this – people would be tugged at, pulled, and placed into position. One time I saw a kid who was hiding her face by tightly hugging her mother. Staff members from a charity wanted to take a photo of her – so an aid worker came and stuck his hand under the kid’s chin and lifted her head so that her face could be visible.

But even if you aren’t manhandling your subject – there are other concerns as well.

As someone rich enough to have four walls around me and a roof over my head – if I want privacy, I close the door. What about those too poor to own a home? Or, as with Cyclone Sidr, have recently lost their home? Their private moments are made public by the simple fact they have no place to call their own. As someone who is behind the lens, I can tell you it’s a very tough call. There is always this feeling that if you are able to take a good photo or get good footage – it just might be what inspires others back home to start giving a damn. I think a lot of charities which gather footage and photos feel the same way.

Whether or not someone receives your charity – they always deserve your respect.