Perspectives on Poverty (and Other African Stories)

by Paul Sullivan Jun 24, 2010
Every photo tells a story – but which story?

EVERY PHOTO TELLS a story, they say. I believe it’s true – but then there are usually many sides to a story, and a question that every appreciator or viewer of photography should perhaps ask themselves is: which part or side of the story is this particular photo telling?

Even when photographers don’t think they have biases, they do. It’s impossible for any sentient being to not be influenced one way or another by his or her political, social, cultural backgrounds and/or immediate environments. Aside from that, there’s the ever-present danger of adhering to cliche – photographing in a particular style that’s worked for others in the past.

This important point was raised yet again recently when I came across a article about a photographer called Duncan McNicholl. McNicholl takes photos of Africa that aim to “expose the dehumanizing way in which Africans are depicted through the media.” His project “Exploring Different Perspectives Of Poverty Through Photography” involves taking two photos of the same person – one with the typical symbols of poverty (a miserable look and ripped clothes, for example) and another of the same person looking their very finest.

The images are striking, showing something we don’t normally see – the other (or at least another) side of the story. As McNicholl states in the article, “a change in perspective is needed to see beyond the familiar stereotypes of poverty, and to see development [as] a means of collaboration for investing in capable people. Collectively, we can initiate a shift in perspectives towards viewing the rural poor with the dignity and the respect that they deserve.”

A very similar perspective is embraced by a new online photography project called African Lens. The site owners state their aims clearly: “The dominant representation of Africa today is one of war, poverty, disease and everything that can go wrong with humanity. It is famously referred to as the “forgotten continent”. African Lens is designed as a platform to document and present a visual Africa in an unbiased way.”

Content comes from a mix of established photojournalists and users and the site makes for an enthralling trawl, with stories and photo essays emerging from all kinds of places and viewpoints. You really get the sense you’re experiencing the continent through multiple perspectives, a liberating feeling compared to the one-dimensional ‘mediation’ we ordinarily experience through the news (and even via famous photojournalists).

I feel both these projects should be applauded and supported for providing us with deeper insights into Africa’s beautiful complexity, and for broadening our understanding of Africa and the world.

Do you know of other sites that offer similar ‘alternative perspectives’? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section…

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