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Portraying Poverty

March 21, 2010

From Congo with Love

I visited From Congo with Love yesterday with a friend. It’s a small photo exhibition by Rankin about the daily lives of people living in the DRC, currently at the National Theatre. Worth a diversion to have a look if you’re in the area.

Afterwards, in a  nice juxtaposition she told me about a documentary she’d watched recently called ‘Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty’. I’d never heard of it and haven’t been able to find it anywhere online but have managed to watch a couple of trailers and read the director’s summary here.

My friend mentioned she was rather traumatised by the film –  from her description, it involved a white European man roaming around the DRC and asking rather insensitive questions to the people he met about their own poverty.

From the trailer at their website, the director/interviewer, Renzo Martens asks a man in DRC  “have you ever owned a suit?” the answer comes back “no” –  “leather shoes?” – “no” – “If you haven’t been able to obtain these in 10 years,  I don’t think you’ll be able to get them soon”.

“One can only denounce poverty by depicting it.” Martens states. His belief is that most depictions of poverty currently are part of a lucrative economy from which no poor person benefits – the trailer shows cameramen swarming around dead bodies and starving babies.

Enjoying Poverty?

The film and exhibition take vastly different approaches to displaying poverty.

From Congo with Love depicts every day Congolese life – highlighting the daily resilience of people who face constant adversity.  The documentary (from the little I can gather) instead seems to want to make the viewer as uncomfortable as possible – by making us realise the reality of poverty and how it is often exploited for the gains of others. Whilst an admirable aim – by doing so though has the director not exploited the poor too? Or is that the point? Or does that even matter?

Interestingly, From Congo with Love was sponsored by Oxfam – and so inevitably has a particular portrayal of poverty it will want to get across – one Martens may well be suspicious of.  Indeed, in the summary he calls it ‘exported poverty’.

Is this a fair assumption? Is poverty exploited by organisations, and if so is it important to show different realities of the poor?

Any thoughts?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Hana G permalink
    March 22, 2010 9:50 pm

    Great post Andrew- it really made me think! And having worked as part of the F&C team for an NGO, I definitely agree that certain images of poverty and suffering are used by organizations to elicit greater response from donors. In this sense, depictions of poverty are strategically exported and do become a part of a lucrative economy.

    Yet I’m not convinced that this alone makes them exploitative. If an exhibition like From Congo with Love portrays a relatively positive image of resilient people in developing countries, while increasing awareness and possibly donations to Oxfam’s programming, can we really criticize it? Or perhaps more importantly, given the power to do so, would we change it??

    For me, one of the most interesting parts of this debate is the power of the image. At the risk of digressing, consider Peters Map, which was (shamefully!) only recently drawn to my attention- thank you West Wing! . Peters Map calls itself an ‘area accurate map’ and raises, for example, the issue that our standard Mercator map makes Greenland appear the same size as Africa, when Africa is actually about 14 times larger Although Peters map is also controversial, I think it highlights how images can become so common that we take them for granted as ‘objective’ and ‘factual.’ The biases contained in the Mercator map, which impact our perceptions of the world and our place within it, stem from an inequality of power in terms of knowledge creation and distribution.

    Clearly, these same unequal power dynamics also permeate our portrayal of poverty. From this perspective it is very important to show different realities of the poor- providing a more nuanced and dynamic depiction of poverty.

    However, while From Congo with Love and Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty may present opposing depictions of poverty, they also seem to have one crucial element in common: they are produced by ‘us’ about ‘them.’ So if we really want to talk about the importance of showing the different realities of the poor, maybe we also need to think more about whose voices are being heard and acknowledged as valid…

    Just my two cents for this evening! 🙂

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