A week ago I watched and took part in a discussion about, Renzo Martens work ‘Enjoy Poverty’. The film is a documentary self-shot by Martens as he tries to enlighten people in the Congo that poverty is their biggest resource and should be used as such. It’s quite a difficult watch and passes through the traditional territory of films about poverty. As well as it touches on issues arising from the relationship between the West and poverty through the mediums of photojournalism, medical aid and financial aid. The film leaves a confusion about Martens’ aims, the two main concerns in the film follow a group of Congolese photographers who he teaches to take photos of ‘raped women and malnourished children’ in order to sell them like their western counterparts and make a healthy profit compared to their current work photographing weddings. The other recurring concern follows a neon sign which Martens sets up in several locations as a focus for his enlightenment work. Which is focussed on translating his idea that poverty seems to be pretty unlikely to change soon and, as he initially posits, may even be a resource to be plundered. This being the situation, Martens suggests, that poverty should be enjoyed rather than suffered. Although he’s never clear about the details of this.
One of the questions that comes out from the film is that the relationship between journalist and subject is often ethically troubling where the journalist records the suffering of the subject whilst financially gaining. Obviously the work of a journalist and photojournalist is to communicate news- as is stated by a doctor from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) as the difference between the Conogolese photographers and the western photographers allowed to work in MSF hospitals. But communication of the news is a service, one that via public subscription TV watchers across the world fund. It’s public broadcastings base aim to offer this unbiased reportage on events in the world. However the photojournalists in Congo are on paid expenses and then paid per photo or per video that makes it onto TV or into print. The financial marketisation, and especially the paid by the piece nature, seem to diminish the service nature of the work and they play out a role similar to a miner. Pillaging the land for the raw material they can sell- in this case that is emotionally poignant photographs.
The photographs themselves may go onto serve good purposes. They may front campaigns that motivate people to give money, time and energy to tackling poverty and associated issues around healthcare. They may be part of news reporting that changes global perspectives on poverty and puts pressure on governments to make political changes. However working out the global social value of anyone one image is particularly challenging and probably unimportant. As a practice I think it is important that photography, and by extension, all media, bears witness to suffering. Not giving a voice to the powerless necessarily, but highlighting that there are voices to be listened to. My issue comes when the photographs are taken with the intention of having a meta narrative, so that in the photographers mind they are not communicating the situation in it’s particularity but instead imploring donation for example. These are constructed images, except the photographers are sadly not making this up but just framing and shooting only the suffering that fits their clients brief.
Which leaves me thinking that do photographers/communication designers consider the user’s wish to be disrupted, do they have to consent or, are the communication specialists deciding that they know whats best?