Portrait … or poverty porn?

03Jan16

One of my goals when I travel is to get beneath the touristy veneer of a city and actually interact with its people.

It’s not always about photography — although I’ve gotten much more comfortable with being an awful street photographer. Rather, it’s about forging a human connection.

And, as a tourist, some of the most surprising connections have come from talking with the “invisibles” few others seem to notice (or actively ignore). The woman standing outside the church doors, for instance, or the man crouching on a makeshift cardboard couch.

Almost to a person, they welcome the conversation. Sometimes I’m surprised by their warmth, their intelligence, or their story. Other times I’m drawn by their beauty.

Such was the case with this woman I met outside Paris’ St. Eustache church last September. “Where are you from?” I asked. “Many places,” she said, “Je suis Roumaine.” A Roma. I nodded. “But not the bad kind,” she added, “not the kind that steals.”

I commented on her beautiful eyes. “May I take your picture?” I asked. She nodded and gave me a faint smile.

This remains one of my favorite images from the entire trip.

St Eustache beggar 1360908 BW 3 BLOG

Back at home, I was telling a friend about this interaction when her husband stumbled by. “Now you’re doing poverty porn?” he slurred, motioning toward my screen with his beer bottle. He shook his head in disdain and continued on his wobbly trajectory.

I take most drunken opinions with a grain of salt, but these words stung. I found myself wondering whether I’d in fact broken some moral photographic code, wondering if I should never again show this photo.

But here’s the thing: I shot this image with the best of intentions, to record this woman’s humanity and quiet dignity. I shot it to capture a moment I found beautiful. And I shot it not to show a poor person, but to show a person.

Is that so wrong?



69 Responses to “Portrait … or poverty porn?”

  1. I think, too, that she probably views herself as a ‘person’ before ‘poor person’, so nothing to feel doubtful about here. It’s a great shot!

    • 2 hmunro

      Beautifully said, Aimee — and great point. Thank you for taking the time to comment.
      BTW, I *adore* your blog. Cheers from your newest subscriber!

  2. It is a moving portrait of this woman. She does indeed have beautiful eyes and I applaud your “seeing” her for what she is instead of ignoring her. Your friend’s husband only saw her poverty. Thank you for implicitly challenging me to interact with the poor instead of ignoring them.

    • 5 hmunro

      Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comment, Paula. I’m truly honored that this post may encourage you to reconsider your own interactions with the poor … even if it’s just making eye contact, I think it makes the world a better place to say, “I see you and I acknowledge your humanity.” But I’m preaching to the choir. 🙂

      PS: When do you get to return to Paris?

  3. A beautiful image and the world is better for having it.

    • 7 hmunro

      Coming from you that’s an enormous compliment, Tom. Thank you.

  4. Being rich is in the heart….

  5. 10 daaagwood

    You asked permission and received it and shared time and personal stories. You dealt with the woman as a fellow human being. You also happened to capture a stunning image. Tom Heuerman’s comment could not have stated the case better.

    • 11 hmunro

      Thank you so much for your kind words, daaagwood, and for helping me once and for all put that drunken fellow’s words out of my mind. You’ve truly made my day with your kind comment. Thank you!

  6. Stunning image. You’ve caught the her history in her lines face.

    • 13 hmunro

      You’re so right: There’s a rich history in that face and those hands, isn’t there? Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Timothy.

  7. I’d guess that the Roma lady, and her family, would appreciate the humanity and the life that you’ve captured in her eyes and in her demeanour. People forget, I think, how precious a picture like that can be, and how rare it is for anyone, rich or poor, to have a proper, thoughtful portrait taken of them.

    If it were me, I’d contact St Eustache (http://www.saint-eustache.org/vie-de-la-paroisse/nous-contacter) and ask if you could send a copy, or a couple of copies, of the photo for her and her family. Or for the church itself, if they’re doing an exhibition of the community that surrounds them. If the lady is Catholic herself, as many Roma are, then she’ll be easily recognisable to the church as a parishioner. Imagine how proud she’d feel to have that photo and for you to have thought it worth keeping.

    The ‘poverty porn’ is in the head of your friend’s husband. If he’d looked closely he would have seen that you focus on her eyes and her smile. ‘Poverty porn’ would have been a big photo of the door of St Eustache, with a tiny figure, anonymous and interchangeable with any other ‘poor person’ sitting on the steps with a collecting tin. To an American audience it would have said “Look at this picturesque, quaint European beggar.”

    Your photo says: “woman with a whole life in her beautiful eyes.” Yes, I can see that she’s not “wealthy woman with beautiful eyes.” I can see that her jumper’s a bit shabby. But she looks like any hardworking woman of the land from anywhere in Europe. Certainly, in Spain, Greece or Portugal, the countries I know, those hands show pride in her appearance and hard work done.

    She looks old enough to have been born during the Nazi genocide of the Roma, or for her parents to have had memories of those terrible times. She will have seen things that we can’t imagine, yet I see kindness, not bitterness in her eyes.

    Your portrait reminded me of the portrait of Georgia O’Keefe at a similar age http://bit.ly/1VzaDFz and I thank you for taking it. Your friend’s husband needs to get out more.

    • 16 hmunro

      What a beautiful and thoughtful comment, Elaine … thank you. I loved your observation about what may have constituted “poverty porn” (a term I loathe, by the way). I did actually shoot a handful of images like the one you describe in the Vatican, because I was interested in the juxtaposition of the tiny wretch of a human figure huddled under the massive, ornate arches of a church — seeking sanctuary, as it were, yet being dwarfed by the cold and indifferent stone. But that’s another subject entirely…

      I also appreciate your suggestion that I contact the church to see if they can find her and give her a print — or at least display it. I actually hope to find her myself in the not-too-distant future. I would love to see her again, even though she’ll likely not remember me. I remember *her,* though.

      Oh! and your closing comments about the Holocaust, yet the absence of bitterness in her eyes: That (apparent) absence of bitterness is something that has struck me time and time again in my interactions with Paris’ poor. It must be dreadful to be surrounded daily by such affluence and indifference, but not one of the people with whom I’ve talked so far has commented on this fundamental inequity. To a person they’ve seemed grateful for the coin or the conversation or the sandwich, or whatever else I’ve had on offer at the moment. That’s maybe the most remarkable aspect of it all, to me.

      • You’re a kind traveller and an honourable image capturer. Sorry if it sounded as if any juxtapositions of tiny humans against large church architecture qualified as something other than portraiture in my mind. Having seen your photos over time, there’s a humanity in them, a love of the subject, that gleams and glows in them, every one. It’s your eye and your humanity that make them shine so.

        I think ‘poverty porn’ is out of your reach anyway. ‘Poverty empathy’ or ‘poverty encompassing’ perhaps – but they don’t trip off the tongue like the expression ‘poverty porn.’ I don’t like it as an expression either, but I do understand what it means – and, having seen shots of photographers circling around refugees on beaches on Lesbos for a photo that they can sell, without asking permission and treating those huddled families as elements of the landscape rather than as human beings, I’d say there’s an element of ‘refugee porn’ going on there.

        In truth, I think the thing that differentiates portraits, of anyone, rich or poor, or in the middle, from stolen shots, is the asking of permission (if you’re close enough to ask) and the human interaction that question provides. It’s respect, isn’t it? When there’s an exchange – and especially when a copy of the photo is offered, if possible. Then the subject benefits from the existence of the camera as much as the photographer who owns it.

        As far as the poor of Paris go – sometimes, as a traveller, I think it’s easy to miss the daily small acts of kindness that often surround the homeless or the poor. It’s easy to imagine that nobody ever steps out of the stream of humanity that passes them by, but I think the people that you’ve spoken with, especially if they’re a regular presence in the same spot, will be brought hot drinks and food or given warm clothing by local residents. It’s the kind of thing that tends to happen at either end of the day, when residents are on their way to and from work. I saw an article that mentions Paris’ kindness to refugees – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/03/europeans-who-welcome-migrants

        • 18 hmunro

          Oh, Elaine … I didn’t at all take your thoughts about the “church door with tiny figure huddled underneath” as an indictment — it’s just that your comment reminded me of those images I shot years ago, which I’d long since forgotten.

          Ditto for your keen observation at the end that it’s easy to miss the small acts of kindness and assume the poor are largely ignored. In my adopted neighborhood of Vincennes I’ve seen the locals regularly give pastries and sandwiches to the local homeless guy. But in the more densely packed downtown streets (and especially in the touristy areas) my observation has been that the vast majority of people simply walk past, probably because in these business and tourist districts it’s more likely that people are simply on the go. But perhaps on my next visit I’ll sit out of the way and watch for an hour or three to see if my observations are accurate.

          As for that link from The Guardian … thank you. What a beautiful and uplifting story! It’s wonderful to see such a caring and human counterpoint to the usual “European refugee crisis” headlines. With *that,* you’ve made my day. Thank you, Elaine.

          • Saw this article on Paris architecture and older residents in Dezeen and thought you might enjoy it: bit.ly/1mYEP1h
            Best wishes
            Elaine

            • 20 hmunro

              Fascinating! I had no idea most of these places existed — it looks like Le Corbusier’s vision won out in the end, doesn’t it? I love the images, too. Thank you for sharing your wonderful discovery, Elaine.

    • What a wonderful idea! And I couldn’t have articulated these thoughts better. 🙂

  8. One of the tough things about creating art is that you can’t control how it will be received. Your intentions don’t transmit because the viewer lacks all of the context that went into creating it.

  9. Not wrong at all. The one who should be embarrassed is the one who sees this gorgeous face and the story of interacting with a fellow human on your travels is the one who dismisses it out of hand as just some poor person. How can a human contact with the best of intentions that seemed valued by both participants be wrong? Keep using your art to illustrate the world!

    • 25 hmunro

      Thank you so much for your validation and encouragement, Patti. I will take your advice and keep trying to use my photos to illustrate the world.

  10. Gorgeous photo. You treated the woman with respect. You shared her story in some small way. You also got to express yourself through her image. While you were doing all that, the husband was probably cracking a beer and watching actual middle class white people porn.

    You win. Go out there and find your next photo. 😃

    • 27 hmunro

      Ha ha! You always know just how to make me smile, don’t you? Touché, Corey. And thank you very much for the encouragement. I will obey you today and get back out there. Merci infiniment.

  11. It’s always so bothersome when someone’s careless comment gets under the skin. It happens to me often. What he said, however, speaks more to his focus that to anything you are doing. I suspect you know this. Your photo is absolutely beautiful.

    • 29 hmunro

      Yes, it really is bothersome when someone’s comment gets under one’s skin like that! But usually if something really bothers me, it’s a call to pay attention to something. I’m glad that in this case it was a more a reflection of that one fellow’s focus than on the image or my intentions for it. Thank you for taking the time to confirm that with your comment and kind words, Pollyanna. I really appreciate it.

  12. This is a beautiful photo, and you asked her permission and interacted with her. I would say the drunken comment isn’t worth a moment’s consideration. I would love to do some street photography but am always nervous about the conversation, so reading this gave me some insight too, on how to approach people. thank you.

    • 31 hmunro

      I still struggle sometimes with engaging strangers in conversation — but thinking about this video from Peter Turnley always gets me over the “shyness hump.” https://vimeo.com/75495256 🙂
      Thank you for your kind comment, Susan.

  13. I think hops and grains dulled his thoughts. NO, this isn’t poverty porn. I agree with a previous responder that it is evocative of Margaret Chase White, and she was clearly documenting a story. While you might not be documenting a story per se, you are documenting a person, a character. Maybe if you put her face on the cover of a brochure soliciting funds to help the homeless, and took the picture for that purpose, maybe that could be. Only maybe. But as a piece of art, capturing the character of the human spirit, it is properly just that…a piece of art.
    And a really well done shot as well
    Keep doing it 🙂

  14. You have an amazing blog, I have just started up and wondered what do I need to include in my blog to gain subscribers and comments and likes x

    • 35 hmunro

      Thank you very much for your kind words about my blog. I write it mostly for my own enjoyment, but it always brightens my day when someone else says they enjoy it.

      And how funny you should ask about how to start a blog and attract readers, because I’m working on a post about that very topic! I’ll send you a link when it’s live. Back in touch soon!

    • 36 hmunro

      Hi there! Remember a couple of days ago, when I promised a post on starting a blog? Here it is: https://hmunro.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/so-you-want-to-start-a-blog/
      Scroll to the bottom for some tips on attracting subscribers and comments. Hope this helps give you a few ideas! x

  15. i like your article, very inspiring, thank you for post

  16. Your post, and the comments, really gave me something to think about. You see, I’m that person who stands there- camera in hand-waiting for folks to move out my shot…you know, as if the only perfect image of a church is one with no people in it…

    • 40 hmunro

      Ah, I can relate, Cindy! I’ve been that photographer too. I can say without hesitation though that I’ve become a much *happier* photographer — and my images have also gotten better — since I started not only including people in my shots, but sometimes making them the subject. I’m really pleased and honored that this post got you thinking about your own photography. If you decide to include people in your next church photography project, I’ll be very eager to hear about your experience and your results! Anyway … thank you so much for your kind note. It’s comments like yours that make blogging well worth the effort.

  17. Beautiful image. You asked permission and she gave it because you made her feel human, special even. I agree her eyes are beautiful! One last thing, you share her image with so much love and that my friend is truly special.

    • 42 hmunro

      I’m so glad that the love and kinship I felt for this woman came through, Rochelle. I do hope I’ll see her again someday so I can tell her that a lot of other people find her beautiful, too. Thank you so much for brightening my day with your kind note!

  18. 43 pmmiller1

    Beautiful woman. Beautiful photograph. Period.

  19. Beautiful capture of emotions. Surreal

    • 46 hmunro

      What a kind compliment! Thank you.

      • Are you active on Instagram ? Wanting to share this photograph of yours !

        • 48 hmunro

          I’m not an Instagrammer, but I’m very honored that you like my image enough to share it. May I make one request, however? In your post, please either state where you got the image or make sure my watermark shows at the bottom of the image so it can be traced back to me. (Copyright infringement is a big problem, as you’re no doubt aware.) Thank you so much!

          • Did the needful! My pleasure anytime ! Do have a look at my posts and any suggestions of any sort would be truly appreciated ! 🙂 xx

            • 50 hmunro

              Thank you so much, Smriti. I really appreciate it! I’ve checked out your blog as well and have only one request: MORE, PLEASE! 🙂 I would love to see some photos of Bhutan, for starters …

              • Sorry for the late reply… Shall surely do so:) Also, how am I supposed to get more traffic on WordPress ??

                • 52 hmunro

                  Now it’s me who is apologizing for the late reply. 😉 How funny you should ask about how to increase your traffic. I’ve been asked that question so many times in the past month that I’m actually writing a blog post about it. I’m curious, though: Why do YOU want to increase traffic to your blog? What are you hoping to get out of more viewers? I won’t publish your response, but I’m curious about why people start blogs and what their goals are.

                  I’ll be back soon with that post, and hopefully an answer to your question …

  20. 53 hmunro

    Thank you so much for your kind words, PurpleWishingWell … I loved your observation about a camera’s two lenses and am honored that you found only beauty in this image. I’m also honored you liked it enough to want to share it on your own blog! Please do, although I’d greatly appreciate some sort of credit line or even a link back to my post. Thank you in advance!

  21. Am glad you took that photograph. She has a quiet beauty

    • 57 hmunro

      You are so right, Barine: Her beauty shines from within. Thank you so much for stopping by, and especially for taking the time to comment!

  22. Oh, gorgeous photo, love it so much. You are maestro.

    • 59 hmunro

      You are too kind! The beauty comes from the subject, I think … but thank you for very kind comment.

  23. Amazing post! Really:)

  24. It’s a picture of grace and beauty. It does nothing to lower the woman. I don’t see any parallel to any kind of pornography. Please continue your fine work.

    • 63 hmunro

      Thank you for making my day with your kind comment. I greatly appreciate the encouragement.

  25. If he hadn’t been so tipsy, your friend’s husband perhaps could have presented a valid defense of this idea of “poverty porn”…….his comment was pretty loutish and careless in the context you described. Personally, I’m not so clear at all on this issue in the way that many of your friends and other readers have commented above (and I’m not saying they’re completely black and white on it either……but they clearly trust you and for good reason). For me, a lot if it falls on the integrity of the person behind the viewfinder. But at the same time, for a host of complicated reasons, I’m still concerned that even with someone’s permission to capture their image, we can exploit them without realizing it.

    There’s so much humanity and intelligence in your voice that I allow myself to admire the images you’ve taken of people and feel stirred. I trust your work because you’re a critical observer. But I would argue that not everyone deserves that trust, even if they go around asking others for permission to take their photograph and have good intentions at heart.

    Thanks for taking a look at my snail picture. I sure love your stuff (writing and photography)!

    • 65 hmunro

      Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comment, Mr. T Fir. I’m honored by your kind words.

      And I agree with you that it’s possible to exploit a person or situation even if we have the best intentions. I think there was a little part of me that was afraid doing just that — even though this woman and I really did connect and share a moment — because she was begging for food money. That’s also probably why the tipsy fellow’s comment got under my skin.

      But then I remembered why I took this woman’s photo: Because I found her strikingly beautiful, and because I wanted to share her beauty. So many of us walk past those less fortunate every day without acknowledging even their fundamental humanity. If we looked into each others’ eyes more often and empathized just a tiny bit with others whose paths we cross every day, the world would be a better place. That’s my naïve philosophy, anyway.

      As for that very last sentence of your comment: Right back at you! I look forward to more of your photos and thoughts.

      Thank you again for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment.

  26. I see the beauty in pictures like this! They show the perseverance of the human spirit to overcome in spite of hardship. The character of this woman is deep and all one has to do is look and see it. The next step is to say hi and then listen. Who knows you may learn something.

    • 67 hmunro

      Well said! I did in fact learn quite a lot from this beautiful woman in the two minutes we spent chatting. Thank you for stopping by, and especially for taking the time to comment.

  27. 68 Pierre P.

    Well, I don’t think it’s wrong. If you kindly ask, and the person agrees, then why not ? Should we abstain from taking pictures of poor people because they’re poor ? I prefer your taking this picture to people who walk by and never give her a look.

    Regarding the harsh words : some people like to make other people think they are smart by initiating some controversies they don’t care so much about in the end. You should not listen to them too much. What’s important is that you gave her some attention, asked for permission to take a photo, and that she agreed. Respecting her is also about respecting the fact that she made a choice. Trust me, she could have said no if she was feeling uncomfortable.

    And btw, it’s a fantastic shot !

    • 69 hmunro

      Thank you for your kind words, Pierre, and for your thoughtful perspective. I agree with you that it’s a greater wrong to walk past another person who is in need than it is to take their photograph. And thank you for the reminder that just because someone has an opinion doesn’t mean I have to listen to it! That’s a lesson I’ve been trying to learn my whole life. Perhaps now it will finally stick. 🙂 Merci !


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