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Poor people photography: when is it OK and when is it not?

In Part 1 of the Economics of Poverty (and in ECON 156: Poverty and Inequality) we briefly discuss some of the views of the great C18th German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant is not often identified as a key thinker about the economics of poverty (and I can claim little expertise in moral philosophy). But in my view Kant took a key step in thinking relevant to poverty and anti-poverty policies, namely to argue that poor and other disadvantaged people should be given respect in society—yes, they may be poor but that should not mean that they are treated disrespectfully.   

That brings me to consider the two types of “poor people photography” that we see in modern times, especially in development settings.

First, we see serious efforts, like Gapminder’s “Dollar Steet,” aiming to use photography to provide objective information that helps teach people how others in the world live. Efforts like Dollar Street are good for raising public awareness of poverty. Similar efforts go way back in the history of thought on poverty (as also discussed in Part 1 of EOP).

The second type is what has come to be known as “poverty porn.” I refer to stereotypical, over-simplified, often cringe-worthy, photographic depictions of poor people, typically aiming to attract donations or promote some cause. We have seen the pictures of starving children with flies swarming around them. Radi-Aid has often pointed to other examples, including through their Rust-Radiator Awards.

As development folk resume field work and other travel “post-pandemic,” and seek to illustrate their talks, fund-raising efforts, high-profile reports and so on, we might reflect on how to differentiate the first type of poor people photography (which we want more of) from the second (less please). There is more sensitivity to this issue today, but not enough in my view.

A key requirement (that Kant would approve of) is obvious respect for the subject. A minimal list of criteria for that would surely be:

  1. The subject’s approval; don’t take that photo without asking for the subject’s approval, in clear terms.
  2. No obvious damage is done to the interests of the subjects and preferably there is a good case for believing that they will benefit.

OK, but that minimal list seems inadequate. Something is missing. Any thoughts? Please go to my tweet on the topic (May 12 2022) if you have suggestions or comments that might help us come up with some practical ethical guidelines/norms.

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