Photos as Philanthropy
What Does Poverty Look Like?
By Alexa Dilworth, Publishing Director and Senior Editor at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (CDS).
How does a photographer create a body of work that viewers can really see, take in with an awakened sensibility, and be engaged enough with to act, to answer a call to action?
This past weekend I participated as a judge, along with Margaret Aguirre, Phil Borges, John Isaac, and Denise Wolff, for PhotoPhilanthropy’s 2012 Activist Awards. PhotoPhilanthropy champions “social change, one photo at a time.” As judges we were looking for “photo essays that visually articulate the mission of a nonprofit organization in a compelling manner” in three categories: student, amateur, and professional.
What makes for a successful series of images that represent the interests of an NGO, the agent, as well as a photographer, the artist?
Photo by Giovanni Cocco on behalf of Friends of Decani
The above questions were going through my mind as we looked, and looked again, at the essays (of ten photos each) to get down to a winner and two finalists in each category. In the case of the professional winner, particularly, I found it incredibly hard to select one photographer even after we’d narrowed the field to three essays. And along the way, in the service of reaching consensus, the individual judges had to give up personal favorites—for instance, one of my favorite bodies of work (“Orthodox in Kosovo—Life Under Siege” by Giovanni Cocco for the NGO Friends of Decani) was on something I knew nothing about and that made me feel like I “got it,” meaning I felt that I sensed the complications, precariousness, urgency in the life of the people pictured, both priests and parishioners. Cocco’s best images were painterly in composition and cinematic in impact.
While the range of the essays, in content and style, was incredibly varied, and the pressing, of-this-very-moment, work of the NGOs represented in vital and evocative ways, I sometimes found it hard to stay emotionally available, awake to images, engaged with subjects, when looking at 12 student, 27 amateur, and 42 professional bodies of work within the broader context of being barraged by media representations of disaster (poverty, famine, war, climate change), as we all are, and of making a living as an editor and reviewer of documentary photographs.
I started to wonder about the essays that pulled me out of the (seemingly) simple act of regarding photographs and into a more emotional and reflective engagement with the people and environments pictured. There were essays made up of forceful and adept single images, but they lacked the compositional flow and narrative arc of images that are connected by structure in every sense. There was something especially compelling about essays that alluded to the past while pointing to a way out, as one of my fellow judges put it—stories that showed that intervention and aid could make a tangible difference in people’s lives, that were held together by a subdued but palpable hopefulness in the possibility of change because one could see concrete ways to help through action (giving, working). So how to craft a powerful, effective, thought-provoking, attitude-shifting body of work (in this case, out of ten lonely photographs) that can be heard and felt, to switch metaphors, amidst all the noise of visual media?
Photo by Liz Hingley on behalf of Save The Children
This is all a rather long way of getting to the body of work that provoked me to carefully consider some of my assumptions about poverty and what it looks/“should” look like, the Professional Grand Prize–winning essay “The Jones Family” by Liz Hingley for Save the Children. The statement that accompanied the essay sums up the story of the photos this way, “The Jones Family—two parents and seven children—are living in their first house on a council estate in West Midlands, U.K., after residing in caravans for three generations. This was the first time Save the Children was able to use real stories to communicate the meaning and experience of genuine deprivation in a wealthy country.”
If I’d read this statement first, without observing the photographs, what would I have imagined seeing? I thought about this later as we were discussing the final three essays in order to pick the winner. “The Jones Family” is such a quiet, interior set of photographs. These were not images that I would have associated with Save the Children, those rotating black-and-white photographs of children from all over the planet so common on the TV promos.
Photo by Liz Hingley on behalf of Save The Children
The wealth, and therefore opportunity, that surrounds the Jones is implied by the amenities they have acquired—a sofa, a dishwasher, a blow dryer, a microwave. They have a roof over their heads, a place to sleep—in so many ways their lives are disarmingly familiar—but they inhabit an economic and social space very different from my own. I am introduced to this reality, and the immediacy of it, through Hingley’s spare but evocative essay about nine recurring characters in the few rooms of a house on a council estate in England. She forms “a trusting relationship with . . . the Jones,” she says, “in order to develop a more subtle visual language.” Her ambition is to provide “new ways of representing the stories of both struggle and resilience. As a young person myself, it was a transformative relationship of mutual learning and sharing.”
The photographs, without moving beyond the confines of the house, are about environment in a way that compels us to think about the culture, society, and landscape outside and picture it in our minds. This one essay conveys the power of story to shift, and re-shift, ideas and feelings in the space of a few breaths. One family’s hardships, the Jones family’s hardships—parents unemployed, children crowded into one room, the bed serving as table, desk, play and sleep space—exposes the vulnerability of us all. This is a middle place usually hidden from our view when we think about people in crisis; they’re not refugees, they’re not living in a tent, they’re not malnourished or wounded, they’re not working in terrible conditions.
Photo by Sara Anjargolian on behalf of Tufenkian Foundation
One of the judges said something about how hard we can become in our prejudices, our preconceptions (from our vantage point of freedom, in every sense of the word). What do we, assuming “we” are privileged Americans or citizens of the First World, think when we see a homeless person asking for money while talking on a cellphone? How poor is poor? What sort of distinctions do we make in the situations in which we are involved and, critically, in situations that we are witnessing by proxy? And what do we do about them, in thought and deed? I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, which have been asked often and more eloquently by better minds, but I know I have given them a lot of thought in the last few days. How to see what’s around us, and what’s afar, in new ways—ways that do not seem to trivialize and marginalize or, on the other hand, exploit their subjects, as individuals and as part of larger categories (“the poor”)? This internal struggle was what compelled me to choose Hingley’s essay over the other two finalists’ intelligent and accomplished essays, which were also about poverty and powerlessness: “How We Live: Life on the Margins in Armenia” by Sara Anjargolian for the Tufenkian Foundation and “Copper Eaters” by Gwenn Dubourthoumieu for the Carter Center, which shows us a story of copper mining interests in the Katanga province of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Photo by Gwenn Dubourthoumieu on behalf of The Carter Center
Interestingly and affectingly, two of the three winning photographers made their photographs in their home countries (Liz Hingley in the U.K. and Amateur Grand Prize winner Natasha Kharlamova in Russia for the rehabilitation center Our Sunny World), again pushing on ideas of inside and outside. Karlamova’s essay, “Maxim’s People,” tells the story of Maxim, a fourteen-year-old boy with a rare form of cerebral paralysis who can’t walk but who can ride a horse, who can’t speak but is profoundly connected to others. The people who surround him seem enriched by knowing him, and he, more obviously, by being with them. One photograph of a man holding Maxim as he lifts him from or into a car conveys this reciprocity with wonderful tenderness and affection.
Photo by Natasha Kharlamova on behalf of Our Sunny World
Photo by Kai Löffelbein on behalf of Society for Community Organization
Another close-up look at how people live together is Student Grand Prize winner Kai Löffelbein’s “Hidden Hong Kong” for the Society for Community Organization. “With a population of more than seven million, Hong Kong is one of the planet’s most densely packed metropolitan areas, with 25,900 people living in every square km,” Löffelbein writes. He describes how landlords charge around US$200 a month for a dog-container-like cage or a small wooden cubicle in rooms of twenty such containers. And then there are his startlingly intimate yet restrained photographs of the different planes of existence happening in these blocks of space. We are “in” the room with a man who has lived in his “cage home apartment” for thirty years and another man who is waiting for public housing. He shows us a nighttime rooftop view from these compartments, and then, more strikingly, there’s a photograph of one of these buildings from the street, looking up. Having visited and walked around Kowloon and Mong Kok myself, I was stunned by these images—by these vivid portrayals of lives and living conditions within the walls of seemingly humdrum high-rises. The profundity of what we can’t see. And the sting of recognizing that we often don’t understand what we’re looking at, and the realization that this is precisely why we need photographers to do this sort of work for us.
The student essays were unexpectedly strong, and there was an energetic discussion around how to photograph a story of what’s beyond our sight, or what comes into view for only a short time. Student finalist Dijana Muminovic’s “Beneath My Land” for the Missing Person Institute is a story about Lake Perucac in Bosnia, “which was flooded before survivors were able to exhume the bodies of their loved ones who were killed and thrown in the lake during the Serbian aggression. In 2010, because a dam in a Serbian town upstream malfunctioned, the lake dried up, allowing hundreds of volunteers to search for victims’ remains. Sadly, Lake Perucac was flooded before the search was completed.” Muminovic is Bosnian, and she also relates how, at the age of nine, she survived the war by hiding in basements. The necessity of the organization’s work and the ingenuity of the photographer were evident in this essay of missing people whose histories are ultimately unrecoverable.
Photo by Dijana Muminovic on behalf of The Missing Person Institute
As an invitation for attention and a call to action, the concentration of message in story—whether of a person, a family, or a more random group of people inhabiting a space together—has tremendous potency. The seeming limitation of the singular, over the collective, is more than offset by the space that narrative opens up, a space that allows the viewer, reader, or listener to attend with less judgment and fewer defenses. I don’t have a neat wrap-up to what I’ve written, but I can attest to the power of photographs (particularly as essays or book-length narratives) to provoke understanding and change, and to bring the world, even communities recognizable or close at hand, into our range of vision so that we might see with refreshed eyes, hearts, minds.