Picturing poverty

March 23, 2015

Most people who know me would, I imagine, say that I’m pretty laid back; relaxed and even placid, on the whole. But if there’s one thing that is practically guaranteed to bring me to a paroxysmal rage, it’s Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper.

The Daily Mail website is now the world’s biggest news site, although I use the word ‘news’ in its loosest possible sense. A quick look just now shows that it is currently running hundreds of stories, almost all of them about people whom I don’t know: boy band singers, soap actresses, reality TV people: most of them have either split up with someone or have left the house wearing something that the Mail finds comment-worthy – too revealing, too tight and so forth.

As the New Yorker put it recently, in a highly amusing takedown of the paper and its attitudes, apart from its usual right-wing UKIP-ish tirades against immigrants, the Mail is full of “a beguiling lineup of novelty stories (the girl who eats nothing but chicken nuggets), animal stories (the surfing hippopotamus), personal essays (“I married a skinflint!”), barely disguised press releases (cranberry-cheese-flavoured crisps on sale at Tesco), recipes, gossip, crosswords, obituaries, amusing pictures, and heartwarming fluff. The Mail is the place to go if you want to see a house that looks like Hitler, or a tabby with its head encased in a slice of bread.” The piece is worth a read.

I also like the Daily Mail headline generator website – I just got “Are Muslims Stealing From Pensioners?” and “Will The Euro Give Drivers Swine Flu?”

Out in Cambodia, we don’t see many Mail journalists. It’s only when a British tourist dies of a heroin overdose on holiday or a remote tribe are discovered to have unusual sexual mores that a Mail hack will turn up, churn out a few hundred words and then stand everyone drinks for a night on his fabulous expenses. Which is fine.

But I was thrown into a spittle-flecked rage the other day by a piece on photography in Cambodia. The Mail had got hold of a photojournalist in Siem Reap who objected to tourists taking pictures of poor people. The photographer, a Spaniard called David Rengel, sputtered to the Mail: “What disgusted me, what I didn’t understand and what I don’t think is understandable is why these tourists visit places where children work, or visit orphanages where children have lost their parents.”

Obviously, disgust is a hallmark of the stuff the Mail wants to cover, to make us all feel equally queasy.

But Rengel went on: “It seems awful to me that tourists and people with money take part in this, from their position of privilege, show such contempt towards the inhabitants of the countries they visit and towards their human rights. What is the most contemptuous, what we shouldn’t allow under any circumstances, is that they use children like a some kind of entertainment, violating all their human rights in the process.”

Rengel, of course, has a point. But the piece is liberally illustrated with his pictures. Which are, naturally, of children working in a dump outside Siem Reap. The pictures are huge, and gorgeous. But they are pictures of extremely poor children, working in appalling conditions. I expect Rengel got paid for them. The hypocrisy makes my head spin.

Not exploitative at all...

Not exploitative at all…

So is Rengel just stupid, or is he actively mendacious? “While I was taking photos to demonstrate the realities of child labour, I realised tourists were arriving to visit, sometimes in buses and other times in tuk-tuks … I thought it was horrible, and it should be reported.” Right, reported in the Daily Mail…

It’s difficult to take pictures of people in Cambodia that don’t have an element of poverty to them. Most people in the country are grindingly poor. But they are also dignified and beautiful human beings, and deserve better than to be turned into grist for the Mail’s hypocrisy mill

Copyright Daniel Rothenberg

Copyright Daniel Rothenberg

Working, even tangentially, with charities in Cambodia, poverty porn is a constant issue. We at CamKids get lots of visitors who want to see what we do. But you can’t show them gleaming classrooms and happy and well-fed children, hard as we strive to provide them. So it’s a delicate balance – people have to see the harsh realities, so they understand the scale of the task, but you can’t exploit the children.

I’m not sure that there are really any hard and fast rules as to who should be allowed to take pictures of poor people. But I am entirely sure that as a discussion, it shouldn’t be left up to the picture desk of the Daily Mail to decide.

In the end, perhaps the final word should go to some of those who usually only appear in the pictures. The Cambodia Daily talked to several workers at one of Phnom Penh’s dumps: “First I wondered why they came to take pictures of us, but then I realised that maybe they took pictures to show their friends in other countries the young Khmer people living in the rubbish,” said one, adding that he hoped the pictures would help to rally international aid.

Another said foreign visitors were an interesting novelty. “I have little education, and I was happy when I saw many people interested in me,” he said. “They’re strange people.”