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July 31, 2013

Catch-up Post: Don’t Pity the African Boy Without Pants


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I grew up joining in on clothing drive efforts at school, advertising to students to bring in their old clothes to donate to poor kids on the other side of the world. I also grew up seeing lots of NGO campaign photos of African babies without much or any clothes on. And so I automatically equated little or no clothes to poverty. However, this long-held notion of mine was challenged when I talked to the manager of the Kireka Rehabilitation Center near the Banda Slums of Kampala. Miriam Akot, pictured below, was an energetic interviewee and had lots to say about poverty porn.


Miriam Akot, Manager of Kireka Rehabilitation Center and a positively sassy lady who believes Africa needs opportunities for industry development and ownership as well as individual skill development to maintain those industries without permanent foreign help.

Our interview turned into a conversation and soon we were talking very honestly and openly – so much so that we began talking about male genitalia. She made me stop the audio recorder and began talking about how there is a very good reason why some boys we see in the slums or elsewhere don’t wear pants. It’s not because they’re poor and can’t afford them. No. It’s because the lack of pants, or any kind of restrictive article of clothing for that matter, allows for the proper development of the kid’s “male parts.”



I was mind-blown. Not only because we were having a much too lengthy conversation about penises and what not, but also because of the fact that I had realized what a seemingly small piece of local knowledge could do to change a long-held misconception around. This is not to desensitize anybody about poverty and down play the fact that there are definitely children who cannot afford proper clothes or any at all. But what this conversation taught me was two things – 1) that understanding the local context was important and 2) a photograph can’t always capture that local context.

When we see photos of poverty, we need to know that they’re photos of poverty because somebody behind the camera framed it that way. Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not. Even if it’s a seemingly candid photo, the decision to wait and take a photo at a certain point of the person’s state is in itself a conscious artistic decision to achieve a certain result. I’m not saying that photographers are evil and manipulative, but only that there is a depth and diversity of narratives that can go missing if we rely on just one person’s original news caption.



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