Is This Poverty Porn?

WSHA0208-Edit

 

I’ve been asking my self this question after being bombarded with (usually constructive) criticism on a series of images I created with Tala Samman (@myfashdiary). I had been in a bit of a creative rut when I contacted Tala and said I wanted to get out there and shoot something with her. There was no reason or message behind these images when we created them, no planning either. One of my favorite quotes by Chuck Close that Zack Arias uses a lot in his workshop goes like “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us show up and get to work.” So we showed up and got to work. This is exactly the same thing I did was Azza Al Mughairy (@azzaalmughairy) last year in “Throwback Abu Dhabi”. Click it to view that project.

 

Before you make a judgment I think you should know a little about me. I was born and raised in downtown Abu Dhabi. The first thing people ask is my nationality and that’s something I refuse to answer because I don’t want you putting me in a little box in your mind based on whatever experience you’ve had with that particular nationality. And no, I didn’t just make that up, whoever knows me knows that about me and it’s up on my bio in the Contact section. Click it to check it out. As an adult, I spent the first 10 years of my career as an engineer in the oil industry where I frequently spent several days in labour camps or offshore sites while rooming with 4-8 people. I slowly switched my career to the content creation world I’m in now. I am where I am now by the grace of God first, the sacrifices my family made second, and my own sweat third.

 

I am not an artist and I’ve never called myself an artist. I think I’m a pretty good technical photographer, I’ve got enough knowledge to educate others in that area, however, I’ve got a long way to go in terms of educating myself in matters of content and culture.

 

Having said that, I hope you believe me when I tell you that I don’t see “Us vs Them”. I don’t see race, color, or class division because I AM all that. I AM a bunch of races and colors and classes. I feel at home in areas like the ones in the photographs because, well I grew up there, its was part of my first 10 years of my adult life, and I still frequent it today.

 

WSHA0229-Edit

 

Now, lets talk about Poverty Porn. Its a term I first came in contact with through the comments on instagram. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “Poverty porn, also known as development porn, famine porn,[1] or stereotype porn,[2][3]has been defined as “any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause”.[4][5]

 

Some articles I read to educate myself on what Poverty Porn are:
While doing a little research and speaking to a few of my peers who I would consider educated in the world of culture and art history I came across to schools of thought. The first group would generally have a clear distinction in their mind as to which nationality (mainly south asians and africans) or class is superior to the other and anything that shows that divide is negative and is considered poverty porn.

 

Lets use the Unite For Sight article as a check as to what we can classify as Poverty Porn:

 

Before Photographing

  • Always get the subject’s consent first, especially if you want to do a close-up: DONE, YOU CAN SEE THAT THEY’RE POSING
  • Examine your motives for shooting a particular frame. Do you want to inspire hope and understanding, or maybe even expose wrongdoing and neglect? It is not acceptable to use the photographs simply to harness pity. People who donate out of guilt tend to see subjects as pitiful objects, which is dehumanizing and disrespectful.  ALL SUBJECTS ARE PORTRAYED IN A RESPECTABLE WAY AND SHOWING SUCCESS. BARBER IS AT HIS SHOP DOING HIS THING, GROCERY SHOP OWNER IS IN HIS BUSINESS FULLY STOCKED UP, GUYS ON THE STREET HANGING OUT OUTSIDE THEIR HOME WITH NOTHING TO SHOW THAT THEY’RE SUFFERING FROM ANYTHING.
  • You should not bribe subjects to feign despair, anger, or other emotions, or seek to influence the “slant” of your photos in any way. NO ONE WAS BRIBED, SOME ASKED TO BE IN THE PHOTOS, OTHERS WERE APPROACHED AND INFORMED. NO ONE ASKED FOR MONEY BUT WE GAVE IT TO THEM ANYWAY AT THE END
  • Think about what you want to portray in your photo. While it is fine to portray the fears and poverty of your subjects in some photos, others should also convey the community’s strengths and expectations.(8) Never portray your subjects as useless or inadequate.(9) NO ONE WAS PORTRAYED NEGATIVELY, BUT TWO OF THE 3 PHOTOS PORTRAY SUCCESSFUL BUSINESSES

While Photographing

  • Sometimes, it works well to photograph subjects from behind so that only their activities, and not their faces, can be seen. For example, your photo may show the face of the doctor who is performing an eye exam, but not the patient’s face. This not only prevents the patient from getting distracted, but also protects his or her privacy. THERE WAS NO NEED FOR THAT SINCE WE TICKED ALL THE ABOVE BOXES
  • Be humble, considerate and respectful, especially during private moments of grief. Try to take the picture from afar without being intrusive. WE WERE RESPECTFUL AND ASKED FOR THEIR PERMISSION. THERE WAS NO GRIEF
  • Try not to be an aloof stranger; build a relationship of mutual understanding with your subject. WE WERE NOT STRANGERS, WE BUILT A RELATIONSHIP WITH THEM AND CREATED THE IMAGES TOGETHER AND THEY WERE PART OF THE PROCESS

After Photographing

  • Don’t stereotype or make false generalizations.(10) A single photograph of a starving African child is not representative of the situation throughout the continent. Use captions to contextualize visual images. I DONT SEE A STEREOTYPE HERE. I COULD BE WRONG AS THIS IS SUBJECTIVE
  • Photos should be used to raise public awareness, not to exploit public sympathy. NO SYMPATHY WAS EXPLOITED, HOWEVER, WE DID NOT RAISE PUBLIC AWARENESS TO ANYTHING
  • Photos must be carefully and faithfully edited (meaning there should be minimal, but acceptable digital manipulation and no fancy embellishments) to avoid misrepresentation. I ADDED AN EXTRA WINDOW FOR SYMMETRY ON ONE PHOTO. NO OTHER MANIPULATION WAS DONE
  • Ensure that your photos document what you believe is the real situation of your subjects.(11) I BELIEVE IT WAS THE REAL SITUATION, GUYS BY THEY’RE HOUSE CHILLING, BARBER CUTTING HAIR, GROCERY SHOP OWNER AT THE COUNTER.
 
So… is this really Poverty Porn?

 

WSHA0242-Edit

 

I’ve seen poverty first hand in Dharavi (the 3rd largest slum in the world) and Joe Slovo (a slum in South Africa) and our brothers and sisters in the UAE are well above the poverty line. They might be less fortunate than me and you, but no, this is not poverty. I’m also not exploiting them to sell anything. There’s no message here, we’re just having a good time, and so are they. We were shooting Tala on her own against some backdrops, then they brought us tea and water and wanted to be involved, so we got them involved. The photos after that were staged based on the first photo because we like the idea of having whoever was around involved and they loved it. We explained that these are going on Instagram, they were genuinely concerned about magazines and advertisements and we said they weren’t being used for anything like that. We parted ways after offering a payment which they gladly took. Everyone was happy. The people in the photos are all regular people, working the barber shop or the grocery store nearby, they are healthy and not starving, they don’t need any help (they actually helped us by giving us tea and water). No one is depicted in a negative way or at their most vulnerable state. So is this really poverty porn?

 

Let’s ask the general public. I put out a poll that asked if this photo was offensive and here are the results. Yes, I agree, its a small sample of people (109 people) but that’s what I have access to so feel free to take it with a grain of salt.

 

IMG_6412

 

We talked earlier about the 23% that would say this is poverty porn, now let’s talk about the 77% that don’t think it is. That school of thought believes that anytime there’s an image of anyone that is stereotypical of lesser means then it will automatically be viewed in a negative light, regardless of the intention or process. Quote from a friend, “For a lot of people the idea of different classes and races is a touchy subject, however, it needs to be spoken about, this does exist so turning a blind eye to it and pretending it doesn’t then when you get bombarded with it and you get offended is wrong in practice.”

 

I also had a conversation with Tala and her thoughts were “If someone chooses to see the color difference, they obviously are racist to begin with and that’s the real problem. I never once looked at color difference in those photos, we are different ethnicities in an international city – which is beautiful. I truly think for someone to call those pictures racist, have a racist mindset. So to highlight a divide and racism, the problem is the person looking at that photo because that’s the true reason we still have racism and divide in the world. The guys don’t look unhappy, they weren’t forced, we didn’t depict them in any way, this is their community – one of the most nostalgic areas in Dubai. Of course, people can read into it into a million and one ways, just how you can read any piece of art. How you read things is based on what you’re taught and how you think – the artist is not to blame for that nor is the artist supposed to agree with everyone’s mindsets

After a day’s reading and digesting all the comments, I think I can formulate my own opinion. My first thought is that this is not poverty porn for the reasons in the checklist above. However, this could have been done better. I should have interacted more with the people, took their names down and promoted their businesses. I should have also had them in the foreground at the same level as Tala and not in the background.

A big thank you to everyone that was brave enough to voice their opinion and help me understand something new. My eyes are now open to the term Poverty Porn and I hope to create better and more culturally sensitive images. Thank you for being part of my journey.

Updates


Dukkan Show Panel at ASLI Studios with Rami Farook, Justin and Rozan


An article in The National Newspaper titled “Scandal in Satwa: the fashion shoot in old Dubai that sparked a debate about cultural appropriation”


Gulf News Express Article


2018-11-16T12:55:46+00:00