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Changing the Face of Poverty

In the UK NGOS, and the media more widely, have created the enduring image of ‘The Poor’. ‘The Poor’ are often portrayed as a child. This child will be ubiquitously African and will be thin and big-bellied with flies dancing around their eyes. This image is created over and over again. The UK public now finds it difficult to see ‘The Poor’ as anything more than a victim. This media creation has resulted in images devoid of any dignity or grace. ‘The Poor’ are dehumanised and people in the UK desensitised to the horror that fills newspaper pages and television screens. When did we become a people that seek the shock factor as if it were a kind of pornography? Images of skeletal women desperate to feed their babies become evening teatime entertainment. As journalists when we write, take a photograph or shoot some film we hold power. We are entrusted with someone’s story and this is a great privilege indeed.

I see one of my biggest challenges I want to tackle in my global community as the need to move Western NGO journalism from voyeuristic to participatory. Why do the media still largely treat those living in poverty as voiceless and helpless? I would argue that there is a fear amongst Western NGOs that if we take away the image of the African/Asian/Latin American victim we will also take away vital funding. I do not think this needs to be the case. When people are enabled and empowered powerful stories can be crafted and images of hope found in the darkest of situations.

My personal mission is to challenge the way NGOs portray those they serve. I am working with a number of NGOs in the UK (all who work internationally) and am exploring the ways we can enable the most disadvantaged in our world to participate actively in defining how they want their story told… how they want to be seen. I am doing this in a number of ways. Firstly through developing participatory photography training in Southern countries like Malawi with NGO Tearfund. Secondly I am campaigning against overly negative portrayals of others with The Global Poverty Project. Finally; I have been promoting the Visual Peacekeepers code of conduct as a photographer and writer. I am always trying to seek truth, beauty and dignity in all images I create and stories I write.

Being connected to so many beautiful and unique voices from around the world through PulseWire will enable me to explore how people want to be seen and how they feel their culture and identity is perceived by the rest of the world. I can to explore ways we can build methods of participation in the NGO community. I think one of the best ways to investigate this theme is through meaningful exchange with others! To me the biggest resource PulseWire has is its stories. We can exchange many things but should never underestimate the power of exchanging our words.


Stella Paul's picture


OMG! You got a key, entered my head and brought out a lot of stuff! And I was sleeping all the while!!!

:):) Well, so glad to read this and see someone calling a very plain, yet hardly acknowledged spade a spade!!! Hats off!

I am talking about how NGOs project those they serve and yes, I too am sharing your views as someone who has had professional associations with some of the very big, highly reputed NGOs.

As a journalist, that is something I have found, and continue to find, utterly appalling that NGOs keep wrapping the people in clothes (voiceless or poor or empowered) according to their own convenience. Sometimes it gets just too ridiculous.

An example: there's a young woman who was selected for a training program on web 2.0. The program is mainly for underprivileged women. This woman however is pursuing her doctorate studies, is from a family with high income and is very beautiful. The NGO head insists on keeping that as a secret and talk about her as a poor, underprivileged person because it fits into the NGO's scheme. There are so many such examples of 'voicelessness of convenience'.

Coming back to your mission, you just have to keep moving ahead, sometimes like a zombie, without caring for critics. Love and best wishes!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

gingerhooper's picture

Wow - thanks Stella and glad

Wow - thanks Stella and glad it got you thinking!

I currently work full-time for one international NGO and they (thankfully) already explore the best ways of projecting the truth. They are open to using lots of different types of image. I was so shocked when I found not every organisation was like this. I do understand why though - victims do 'sell' a charity's mission much more easily. We also have to strike that balance as it is no more honest to show rows and rows of happy, smiling people during a famine for example! That is why I think participation is the key.

I suspect the only way the status quo will change is if the public demand images and text that DO NOT work this way. This is where we all come in - if NGOs know we will still give generously with time and/or money in Western countries they may be persuaded to change the way they work.


Monica Clarke's picture

From voyeurism to participation!

Dear Laura

Thanks for saying something which I thought was just a figment of my own imagination. Coming from Africa, knowing the strength and endurance of Africa, seeing the sights of 'poor' as you so exactly describe and feeling more and more discontented with the portrayal of ineptitude through the eyes of the media, I despair. I know the strength it takes to sit in front of a tv camera without saying what is in the head - as so many suffering people have to do - and what is inside their heads never comes through. Sometimes what is hidden there is immense strength, which the world does not have access via the tv camera. And is poverty not relative? I do not deny the suffering which is happening. But then Mother Earth is also responsible for a lot of it, for when she sighs in frustration at being mistreated and turns her belly, she seems to overturn those who least need misplacement.... Somedays I don't understand her either!

When I was a family carer during nine long years of looking after my husband who had had a stroke and was paralysed and unable to speak, move or eat - during those long years of full-time caring, I was involved with the national carers associations in the UK, speaking out for family carers who are a very marginalised group which relieves the NHS of a lot of responsibility. When I was asked to speak publicly about the issues affecting carers, I was once of twice taken aside and asked to not paint pictures of satisfaction and contentment too graphically. Family carers had to look sad and overworked to gain the sympathy of their funders. Oh dear!

Thanks for saying it like it is, and for trying to steer 'Western NGO journalism from voyeuristic to participatory'. I so much, very much, agree.

I'll be in London during mid-term school break at the end of October. Can I take my granddaughter for an outing to Southend-on-Sea and have a coffee with you while she splashes in the sea as an away-treat from London? (Have senior railcard, can travel). I'd love that. Please send me an email if this can be arranged.

With admiration from Monica in France
Western NGO journalism from voyeuristic to participatory

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

nasreenamina's picture

You have a point!!

I used to work for a volunteer organization in Perú and they always insisted to present the people who benefit from volunteer exchange as "poor people" I remember they were always asking me to take pics of children and women with native features and selling things in the streets or working in the country etc etc, so they can "sell" the programs to europeans NGOs which want to become partner. I think there is a huge lack of respect in this. first cause you set poverty as something done a condition that can not be solved; second cause you instrumentalize poverty so... more poor people better for your business? and better for tourist that will feel they change the world for sharing a cup of milk with a native?....and things like that. From this time I tell you you can count with me for everything. Xoxo my friend

One's life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion

Follow me @DivinaFeminista

gingerhooper's picture

Bringing dignity

@Monica - I shall drop you an email today about a visit to sunny Southend! Would be lovely to meet a fellow PulseWire member. I am away from 23rd oct in Mali with work though so may not match with your dates so well...
I think people sometimes seem to fall prey to the idea that just because something has always been done a certain way it means that change is not possible. Web 2.0, amongst other tools, offers opportunities for more participation. A photo will always lie as well as speak the truth as the photographer will only ever see from their own standpoint. Same with writing... It is a version of the truth. What I do see as possible is us making sure as story crafters that we at least seek to show someone as they wish to be seen.
Thanks too for sharing your experience as a carer, I had not even thought of this perspective!

thanks for the comments! I think you also added in the new point that this kind of voyeurism even sometimes encourages people to be kept in poverty as they are more valuable that way! In some African countries I have witnessed slum tours (I am sure these may exist elsewhere?) where money is made from allowing tourists to photograph and be shocked by the poverty.
I also personally think these images harm all concerned. One of our recent UK newspapers led with the title 'Africa Starving Again'. This is saying poverty has no solution, Africa is one big country rather than many unique ones and also makes the person in the UK feel guilty and disempowered!

Thanks for all your thoughts and love and light to you all

Maddy M.'s picture

Wow, Laura! I really enjoyed

Wow, Laura! I really enjoyed reading such an insightful article. You are so right about the way 'the poor' are portrayed in traditonal media and how many NGOs use thoses images to get funding. I think it's key for people to be aware of what the poor -or better said impoverished people- need is justice not charity. We need to raise awareness about root causes of poverty. I come from a resource-rich country (Nicaragua). Nevertheless, it is considered the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, so where is all that wealth going? Abroad, of course, and to a couple of elite national groups.

We critically need to shift from the hegemonic perspective of charity to one of JUSTICE.

Thank you for sharing your great insights!!

KeMadagascar's picture

A very original approach!!

Hi, I'm Ke from Madagascar and I'm very glad that you have adopted that approach toward poverty. Usually, it's people like me (from Africa, poor) who struggle for the change in the perception of poverty, and it's the very first time I meet a girl like you, who has this kind of vision.

That's very good and I hope you'll continue your work and find a way to give back their dignity to poor people because most of them haven't chose to become poor, they are the collateral victims of the deep conflict between North and South...


gingerhooper's picture


Many thanks for this Ke. I think it is only by coming together we can truly make a difference! No longer rich and poor but people of one mind!

I was so moved by your essay for Week Three. You clearly understand the potential to be seduced by the power of your camera--or for others, by the power of their journalistic expression. The news is filled with endless images and footage and reporting of human tragedy and catastrophe. Another day, another story, another heart break.

I must say, your ideas really turned my head around with regard to how I have been viewing such images and stories. Mind-numbing. That is how I often feel. And yet, looking through your 'lens', I can see the potential for a revolutionary shift of consciousness. Rather than images and stories of hopeless victimization that perpetuate a feeling of overwhelming powerlessness, why not let the light shine on those images and stories of successful individuals or organizations that are helping to solve the problems caused by tragedy and catastrophe. And what better resource to find those stories than our own World Pulse Voices of Our Future?

For three weeks now, I have had the PRIVILEGE of reading VOF posts in which one woman after another tells her extraordinary story of triumph over impossible circumstances, but even more importantly how she is trying to change those circumstances. I have no doubt but that you grasp the potential to connect with other VOF participants in order to create pictures of their power, their passion and SUCCESSES, even the smallest successes. That is what the world needs to see. That is what will inspire others to come forth with financial support and to become personally involved in programs to help make this world a better, safer and more compassionate place for the future.

As a wise person once said "Be the change you want to see in the world." You are that change.

Blessings for all good things, Ginger. I believe in your vision and I welcome it!

gingerhooper's picture

wow-thanks so much

I am really touched by your comments, thanks! Means a lot to know others also stand up for the same things. Like you I see so much potential in these stories others have been posting. Any way we can amplify those messages is worthwhile. I would love to see the images of our world transformed in the next few years from ones of despair to ones that give hope.

bluepearl2001's picture


Yes, Laura, I totally agree. Despair breeds despair. Hope breeds hope for change and a better future.
You go, girl!
Oh, and sorry I addressed you as Ginger in my previous post. Nice name, though. LOL

gingerhooper's picture

no problem

Ginger (the hair!) My nickname! X

bluepearl2001's picture

Ginger indeed

I get it. Funny.

NatashaLeite's picture

The Danger of a single story

Hi Laura, just drop by to say that you made a really relevant point. Not only much of the agenda of local NGO is constrained by the agenda of the funds from the North - which includes wealthier NGOs, as it turns out, a part of the aid world is still stuck on a single storyline that focus more in assistencialism than into the strengthening of capacities and institutions.

It reminded me of a great TED talk, so I am linking it here

And a great project called Viva Favela, that I´m also linking here:

All the best,


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