Poverty and wealth and our lenses on life

I have recently been in several conversations regarding the topic of poverty. Mostly they were sparked by photographs I have made in underdeveloped places where the landscape offers westerners the satisfaction of impoverished iconography—piles of ruble, empty bottle lying strewn in the streets etc. Many of my colleagues point to such visual cues and instantly label the topic of the image “poverty”—some going as far as suggesting that I am exploiting such poverty by making images of it. All the while they fail to acknowledge the intimacy or social interactions depicted in the images.

How sad for us all.

I am reminded of a bus ride in southern Peru. I was traveling with a few people from the United States and a large group of recent high school graduates from a remote Peruvian mountain village. This was not your standard image of western “high schoolers.” Many of the students were well over high school age. In fact, high school was a fairly new phenomenon in their village as access to education was only available in recent years. Additionally, the village is located in a remote region of Peru that still feels the sting of being ravaged by Shining Path terrors of the eighties. Neighbors and village strangers raised many of these high school grads because their families were divided or killed in the past strife. To make matters seemingly more complex, electricity and running water were rare luxuries to most of the villagers even today, years after the turn of the 21st century.

While driving through the Peruvian landscape the villagers explained that their friends and neighbors had taught them many stories and songs—common forms of local entertainment and education. We spent a good part of our bus ride listening to their songs. Men and women ranging from late teens to early forties entertained us with the songs and stories they knew so well.

So, back to the discussion of poverty: I find myself wondering if the colleagues who see poverty where I see community, who see poverty where I see spirit, who see something lacking where I see so many other forms of wealth; I wonder if they can stand up and sing a song taught o them by their neighbors. I wonder if they have friends and family raised by strangers and neighbors who heroically jump in when their spirit and their energy and their physical intervention is needed. I would suggest that we all reconsider our definition of poverty. If not reconsider it, at the very least clarify what we mean when we point to other people and suggest that they are poor (implying somehow that we are not.)

I do not believe we understand what we are saying when we label people who do not have the same material means as us as poor. Certainly there is poverty in the world… vast amount s of poverty in fact. But I would suggest that on many levels, we might very well be the impoverished. Wealth comes in many forms. And generosity of character and spirit are the places where true poverty can begin to be combated. I choose to see the wealth in our shared human experience. And it is my hope that my colleagues find this same point of view someday. Until then, I will continue to make the images I believe to be honest and sincere about how we share life on our small blue planet, across our aggressive geographic, economic, and social borders, in our cities, towns and villages, and among friends, family, and beloved.

I agree that we must acknowledge the cultural lenses through which we look at images… but I also believe we must constantly learn to adapt these lenses to liberate ourselves from the limitations of our own points of view so that we might see the world, and more importantly each other, in new, exciting, and more generous ways.

How hopeful for us all.