Poverty Pictures and the cliche


Despite working in the press for six years I’d never seen guidelines on the reporting and photography of poverty till today. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation in York, however, have a set and I think it’s important to tease out two main problems on picture style and context.

The main thrust of the guidelines I’d hope were obvious. Merely plonking a picture on the page and with the caption, “Barry: A poor person” is not good enough. And whilst most representations aren’t so crass, the pitfall of describing people in these passive terms is all too easy and reinforces both the hand wringing of the ‘helpless victim’ narrative and the screams of the ‘undeserving poor’ that echo through our social debates.

So, as important a social issue poverty is to address, it is equally fraught with difficulties to illustrate. To avoid, ‘Look a poor person’, the convention is to use an anonymised image – whether this being a face obscured through lighting, a back to the camera or hidden through other means. The problem then arises when you need more than one picture, these pictures whilst generic do not sit well beside each other. And if you need something more specific, a reportage picture can work well, but through identifying people you risk treating them as an object of their poverty, an ‘other’, falling back into our passivity trap. These two problems, the need for visual variation and to avoid objectification can be further compounded when you use a reportage shot in a generic context, i.e you readily identify a particular person to illustrate a general theme, and not their specific circumstance, Barry: A poor person writ large.

This dilemma must be slain if the media or a voluntary organisation is to present their work in a convincing, page stopping manner. The fact is where I have worked in places of long-term unemployment, high crime and all the rest of it I’ve been more struck by the industriousness of grassroots organisations, Credit Unions, small charities and community workers than I have by the spray of graffiti that more often becomes the metaphor and the image. So use your anonymous generic image where you have to, but when you need to be specific use particular people in their context changing their own lives, and not a downtrodden object.


Here’s the link to JRF’s guide to photographing poverty


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