Pity, Pictures and Poverty

What do you do when your personal experience of living and working with people in Africa is so different than what is portrayed in the western media or by many charitable organizations? Confronted with this, Duncan McNicholl, an Engineers Without Borders Canada worker living in Malawi, decided in early 2010 to begin exploring these perceptions of poverty. He took pictures of friends and neighbors in his community as both poor and rich, and then posted them on his blog, Water Wellness.

Photos by Duncan McNicholl

The posts went viral, featured by the New York Post, the Boston Globe, National Public Radio, the Australian Broadcasting Company, Maclean’s Magazine, Aid Watch, and numerous other blogs on photography and poverty around the world.

Duncan feels strongly, as I do, that a new public discourse and relationship with “Africa” is critical to building sustainable livelihoods and a bright future on the continent. In response to his project however, several people argued that organizations raising funds by utilizing dehumanizing images are justified, provided that they use the money effectively. Duncan’s rebuttal to this line of reasoning is included in the guest post below.

Also to note, “Perspectives of Poverty” is now eligible for a 2010 YouTopia Grant offered by Free Range Studios. I invite you to help Duncan spread this initiative with an even wider audience. Please vote for it here daily!


The Case Against Pictures of Pity

By Duncan McNicholl

The issue of “poverty porn” – as it is often called – is not a new one, but the importance of humanizing those living in poverty remains essential. Several months ago I began a photo project called “Perspectives of Poverty” to highlight the way in which media images often provide a single, dehumanizing perspective of rural Africa. The project is a series that presents individuals from two different perspectives, demonstrating how an image can be carefully constructed to suggest very different things about a person.

I have received several comments on the project arguing in support of images of pity. There exists the belief that development charities ‘just trying to help’ are justified in the use of ‘sad’ images, especially if those images are raising funds that might not otherwise reach those in need.

I couldn’t disagree more.

How we portray those living in poverty is more important that what we give, precisely because this directly influences what we give. How we perceive precedes how we act. There are several things wrong with the argument supporting fundraising through pity. It presumes that money, or material flows, is the key element in poverty alleviation. Although money plays a role, the belief that “only $1 per day” solutions can create lasting change is a gross and even dangerous oversimplification. It leads us to believe we can throw money at problems that money alone might not be equipped to solve.

Dollars generated from pity to sustain hand-outs are not being directed at the root causes of poverty, and should not be confused with genuine efforts to change the status quo. Pity sustains the paternalistic relationship of ‘us’ giving to ‘them,’ which perpetuates a dependency on foreign aid. This undermines efforts to empower capable people and support them in achieving their own goals – the real focus of what development should be.  If we see people as incapable through images portraying them as ‘needy,’ ‘pitiful,’ or ‘wretched,’ our efforts will continue to bypass, and even undermine, opportunities for driving systemic change.

Arop Lual Two is a Sudanese refugee from Darfur who I met last month at a camp in Malawi. His story of fleeing conflict is one that I will never fully understand; it is a reality so utterly distant from my own. Yet I was immediately struck by the similarities between Arop and myself, since Arop studied telecommunications engineering. I too studied engineering, and meeting Arop made me picture my own life in a completely different way. I envisioned what my life could have been had I been born in a different time or place. I saw a refugee as someone no different than myself.

But reflections of ourselves are not images often offered by the media when it presents us with portraits of refugees or of rural African poverty. Intelligence, humour, and capabilities are obscured beneath blankets of pity and oversimplifying slogans. Arop doesn’t need pity, he needs a job. He needs a future.

There is a tragedy here that needs rectifying. This must be done, not in the light of charity, but in a spirit of solidarity. Pity will not advance us towards this, and neither will images of perennial sadness used to solicit funding. How we see affects how we act, and change begins with seeing others as fully human.

You can contact Duncan at: drmcnicholl (at) gmail (dot) com


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  2. Brilliant photos.

    I can see a Machiavellian argument for “pity me” photos where the charity is doing development work with at least part of the money. But in the big picture, I don’t think it’s worth the damage done by creating compassion fatigue, cynicism, and false stereotypes about the powerless poor that somehow exist outside of the main economy.

    I see the “pity me” look cultivated by beggars in Indonesia as well, many of whom are shepherded by thugs who share in their takings. This is tough, because I’m sure many are genuinely in need and can’t find work. But I had to smile when a guy who’d been pestering me for money had his phone ring. He pulled it out – and it was much better than mine.

  3. Pingback: Guest post on How-Matters.org « Water Wellness

  4. J. Seamus Boylson, a community member of the Peace and Collaborative Development Network wrote a response to Duncan’s guest post. He writes, “The pride of planning, full participation and succeeding in identifying and filling [the people’s] own priority needs, gives off a human glow that makes use of camera flashes redundant.” His post can be read in full at: http://www.internationalpeaceandconflict.org/profiles/blogs/capturing-truth-in-photography

    Also, many more comments on this post can be found at:

  5. One of my biggest criticisms on aid is the lack of dignity afforded to those receiving it. And couldn’t agree more with Chris that long term solutions come together with giving people the belief that they can on their own, otherwise we develop dependent societies… which is too often the outcome

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  7. Pingback: Dignity in Development | CIHA Blog

  8. Thanks for raising issue , I am living witness for these because I have seen when some peoples do this consciously ,taking pictures of poor peoples and destructed or undeveloped part of the city e.t.c thier is poverty every corner of the world the difference is its degeree and ther are also home less people in every corner of the world the difference is the cause but some peoples when they come to Africa they totaly don’t want to take a picture of good image they hunt the very bad part of the life for documentation its just for making money

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