Visualising the poverty line

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A new book by photographer-economist duo Chow and Lin uses food to illustrate the daily budgets of those living in poverty

The poverty line, or poverty threshold, refers to the level of income below which one is considered to be living in poverty. Definitions and numbers vary between nations; one might assume that richer countries set higher poverty lines than poorer countries, but what husband-and-wife duo Chow and Lin discovered was more complex.

A collaborative endeavour between photographer Stefen Chow and economist Huiyi Lin, The Poverty Line is the winner of the Luma Rencontres Dummy Book Award Arles 2019. Using images of food, bought and photographed in 20 different countries, the artists seek to represent the daily budget of those living on the poverty line in that country at that moment in time. The book, which will be published in time for next year’s Les Rencontres d’Arles, includes at least one country from every continent bar Antarctica, attempting illustrate the varying degrees of poverty around the world.

In the following interview with BJP-online, Chow, who speaks on behalf of himself and Lin, explains the concept and their working process, along with the places that they found to be the most shocking.

BJP-online: When did this project begin and what was the catalyst for starting it?

Stefen Chow: The Poverty Line started back in 2010, but our discussions about poverty, economics and  food began before that. Lin and I had similar family backgrounds – we were both with silver spoons in our mouths because our families were successful in business. However, before we got to schooling age, each of our family’s businesses collapsed due to a variety of factors. Our families struggled financially as we grew up, and we always appreciated the choices we had, however limited they were.

Several years ago I found myself in New York, US, and Kolkata, India, during the same week – the contrast could not have been more different. New York is full of glitz and skyscrapers, but you see beggars by Wall Street, and homeless people sleeping in the subway. In Kolkata, the poor slept on the road at night, because it was the only place they wouldn’t be shooed away – poverty was visible everywhere. It really got us thinking, ‘Is it better to be poor in New York or Kolkata?’. It was a difficult question, but it got us thinking.

Why did you decide to use food? What do you think makes it so visually powerful?

Everyone consumes and understands food, no matter which strata of society you are positioned in. We have a personal instinctive response when we look at food, and the quantities available; everyone has an opinion.

What about the newspapers in the background? What do these symbolise?

Initially, we were thinking about photographing the food on plain backgrounds, but quickly felt that the images lacked context — the message wasn’t just about the food, but also about the cultural and geographic context of the human stories we wanted to share. We paused the project for a while and went back to the drawing board. We tested out a few alternatives, and, in the end, decided on local newspapers, bought on the same day as the food.

These provided a visual marker of the location, and a time stamp, for when the statistics were calculated and the food was photographed, as well as suggesting the cultural symbolism of each country. Like food, newspapers are also available to a wide cross-section of society due to their regular distribution and relative affordability.

In India, the daily budget works out to 32INR (o.46 EUR). This could also buy you two pomegranates or 14 goya. Delhi, India, 2011. © Chow and Lin.

“We set out to create a pleasing aesthetic to draw in the viewer, but the heart of the topic is about visualising global poverty”

4.91USD (3.60EUR) is the daily budget for a person living on the poverty line in the United States. New York, United States. 2011. © Chow and Lin.

Could you explain your photographic process for this project?

The photographic process begins with  research into the economic figures supplied by the country. This can be accessed through annual reports. Lin uses these figures to calculate the daily budget for food for a person living at the poverty line.

I would then purchase the food, based on that budget, from different locations in the city, from superstores to local markets, depending on food variety and affordability. Then I set up the shoot in my hotel room, carefully measuring the dimensions, and ensuring that the lighting is consistent. The whole process took a week or two for each country.

When creating this project, did you think about how it fits into the wider genre of food photography, which is often about fantasy and beauty?

We are aware. We set out to create a pleasing aesthetic to draw in the viewer, but the heart of the topic is about visualising global poverty. This is the power of photography and art: it allows us to offer an opinion that is complex, even depressing, but it also encourages conversations about the topic with which we are concerned.

In Georgia, 3.64GEL ( 1.69EUR) is the daily budget on the poverty line. This could also purchase four eggs, or two small chickens. Tbilisi, Georgia. 2013. © Chow and Lin.

Which places were the most shocking?

Brazil was a difficult place to photograph The Poverty Line. When we visited Rio de Janeiro in 2012, the country was in a very different economic situation. Oil prices were high, investments were flowing in, and the people I spoke to were confident about their future.

However, on returning for The Poverty Line, I discovered that there were not many affordable supermarkets in the city centre. Even when I went to the favelas, I found the food items to be limited and more expensive than usual. I later found out that shops in favelas often owe protection money to gangs in the area, and operating costs become high as a result.

Eventually, I found a superstore that was a 45-minute bus journey from the city. Food was more affordable there, but the one-way bus fare alone was the price of the daily budget, and poor people generally cannot afford the time or the extra cash to buy food items in bulk.

In Brazil, 2.33BRL (0.93EUR) is the daily budget on the poverty line. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 2012. © Chow and Lin

Japan was another interesting case study. At 394 yen (3.51EUR), one would imagine that food would be in abundance – not so. We were shocked at how expensive food was at the supermarket; fruits and vegetables were highly priced even in their raw forms. We looked around different places around Tokyo to find affordable produce, but it wasn’t easy. Generally, we found that in expensive countries, like Norway for example, eating out is expensive, but finding food within the supermarkets are often much cheaper. This was not the case in Japan.

394JPY (3.51EUR) is the daily budget for those who live on the poverty line in Japan. Tokyo, Japan, 2011.© Chow and Lin

BJP: What are your hopes for this project, and specifically the book?

We want the project to be a catalyst for conversations surrounding global poverty. This has been the goal for us from day one, and we are elated that the project has gained momentum since, especially with the win at the Luma Rencontres Dummy Book Award.

Find out more on The Poverty Line

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Deputy Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.