Response to “Enjoy Poverty”

Everyone who has seen this film has spoken about it as if seeing it was one of the most emotionally affective and personally transforming experiences of their life. But I can’t figure out why.

The film makes many traditional criticisms of development aid and conflict photography. In a nutshell: development work is often done for the interests of the donors and aid workers, and the state from which the aid flows – the interests of those being “helped” comes last. True enough, but who still believed in the liberal narrative about aid being somehow outside the libidinal capitalist system which reproduces the inequalities that sustain it, and which soothes our ethical sores rather than uproot the sources of injustice which plague it. Conflict photography and journalism might begin with the good intention of documenting abuses, but it is at the same time a way of profitting off of the suffering of others in such a way that does not enrich them. When I take a photo (with permission) it becomes entirely my property – the person in the scene has no right to renumeration because I am the maker of the photo. Of course this is in some situations absurd and unjust. But isn’t this obvious? Who is this news to?

I suppose what is new in the film is the filmmakers attempt to get local communities to recognize their own poverty to be their greatest resource, which economically it absolutely is. He suggests that if poverty is a resource we should ask “who owns it?”, “who controls it?” and “who profits from it?” – and since it is in the local community’s interests to control and profit off its resources, they should commodify and sell their poverty in exchange for the same money which development companies and journalists receive in exchange for images of poverty.

Some people have found the idea of commodifying poverty in bad taste. But it’s a serious argument – either poverty is a commodity or it isn’t, and if it is, then the side arguing that it should not be used by a community to profit by it is the one which must meet the burden of explanation. Personally I don’t find the idea of commodifying poverty in bad taste, I think poverty itself is in bad taste, and that this affective response is a result of mistaking the repulsiveness of a truth with the repulsiveness of stating a truth which is repulsive.

Or, perhaps some people find the idea of encouraging African locals to take and sell pictures of misery offensive. But again, why? Why is it any more offensive for people in a community to profit off images of horror from that community than for an international to go in and profit off the same pictures?

Watching this film makes me more excited about volunteering and Kalandia Youth Media – which is a program dedicated to empowering the children of Kalandia with photography, videography and journalistic skills. While we won’t explicitly be encouraging the children to take photos for the purpose of selling them as conflict photos, we will be working on developing the photographic and journalistic skills which the African locals in Enjoy Poverty lacked, and prevented them from turning a profit at the photography of poverty.

I recommend this film to anyone doing or interested in doing development work.

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