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"Images of poverty are the Congo’s most lucrative export"
February 5, 2014 5:33 PM   Subscribe

What if poor people capitalized on their own natural resource, poverty? This is the central question of Renzo Martens' 2008 documentary, Episode III - Enjoy Poverty, the second film in a triptych exploring power relations between photographers and their subjects.

"It's not the poor who benefit from this 'fight against poverty,' it's rich people." In the film, Martens sets out to train some of the impoverished people of the Democratic Republic of Congo to photograph and sell images of their own country's poverty and devastation, images similar to the ones that foreign journalists visiting the region make their living by and receive awards for. Disturbingly, it seems that for the people living the experience, the supposed beneficiaries of anti-poverty efforts, there is no market for their images or stories. This exposes who those anti-poverty efforts are actually intended for: the audience.

On his own role in the film, Martens says, "I am both the observer and the perpetrator of the African's exploitation. I can never be the savior or the emancipator because I am defined by the structures and institutions that exploit in the first place...The one with the camera will always exploit because of the power relations inherent to taking, distributing and selling images."

Portions of his first film, Episode I, which explores the production and consumption of images of war in Chechnya, can be seen here, along with his commentary.
posted by Ouisch (13 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
Metafilter: both the observer and the perpetrator of the African's exploitation.
posted by michaelh at 7:07 PM on February 5 [4 favorites]


Very thoughtful. Thanks for posting!
posted by nmguiniling at 7:36 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


I can't give full attention to the videos right now, and watched only one completely. And so I can't comment so much on the content, but only on the concept. It looks like, as political/awareness-raising project, it's effective. But as an actual tool for combating poverty...? I don't think it really is.

It is a great concept to help poor people capitalize on skills they have and things they know well. For instance, poor people in America could teach a thousand useful seminars on budgeting, being resourceful, saving money, being patient, playing the long game and other useful skills. But why don't they? "Poverty as a resource" is an interesting idea. There is indeed a body of thought, action, and work in the realities of poverty that can be taught and shared - in fact, are already taught and shared under the guise of Zen retreats and budget-planning seminars and the like But aside from the logistical issues, there's a very real issue of social capital - the ability to recognize, craft, package, and translate your knowledge and skill for the paying market rests on a set of relationships and levels of awareness and information that usually aren't easily available to lower-income people. Not never, but usually. The entrepreneurial idea "just use your resources!" is great only if you are already benefiting from the set of skills that allow you to analyze the knowledge inherent in poverty, analyze potential markets for poverty knowledge and cultural production, assemble the infrastructure to bring the two together, talk the talk of both the producers and consumers of this content, and make sure the benefit of the project actually goes to you, not to the first-world intervener who has actually depended upon their own social capital to bring these two together.

In other words, interesting on a Twitter level, but not that easy to toss out there in the expectation of an easy, obvious, pragmatic fix. I'd just say "beware of media makers bearing gifts." Who has the social capital to broker media products to the world's most powerful broadcast companies? Is that just a matter of giving out free digital cameras?
posted by Miko at 8:35 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


Enjoy Poverty is a bizarre and devastating movie, and if you ever have the chance to see it (I think I caught it on IFC or maybe even CBC or something) watch it. It gutted me. It's been a few years and I've never stopped thinking about it.

Oh, and Miko, I very much doubt Martens had an easy, pragmatic fix on his mind when he created this. It is meant to be a disturbing and revealing indictment of how anti-poverty work actually functions within, and reproduces, the systemic inequalities that structure our world. And that even seemingly "pragmatic fixes" are utterly powerless against that. And also that "raising awareness" is often only to the benefit of the people doing the "raising," not the subjects of the "awareness."
posted by Ouisch at 8:38 PM on February 5


] It is meant to be a disturbing and revealing indictment of how anti-poverty work actually functions within, and reproduces, the systemic inequalities that structure our world. And that even seemingly "pragmatic fixes" are utterly powerless against that.

OK. great. So then what? After the film festival? If these efforts are "utterly powerless," what is left as a course of action? I notice the photographers so supported were still prevented from entering the war zones that presumably yield the vital news photography commanding high investment.

Despite the intent - and it's a good intent - it's still possible to analyze the power dynamics here. Who has the social capital to get this film on IFC? For instance.
posted by Miko at 8:44 PM on February 5


I think you'd do better to ask the director about that, not me. But I don't think he's unaware of any of those power dynamics. The questions you're asking is exactly what this film is about. Why are the photographers and the filmmakers more powerful than their subjects? Why are there such enormous profits to be made from documenting others' suffering, but not from actually solving it?

I guess you had to be there.
posted by Ouisch at 8:47 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


This exposes who those anti-poverty efforts are actually intended for: the audience.

Isn't that who most photographers make things for, though? Or isn't he saying that photographers are the ones waging the fight against poverty?
posted by clockzero at 8:53 PM on February 5


Frieze Magazine - Enzo Martens, a review of Episode III:
Martens’ latest film repeats this gonzo strategy, with him playing the same narcissistic character...Martens is too caught up playing the self-obsessed artist to really dig deep which results in very little actually being revealed... the most tiresome aspect of the work is the way it perpetuates the very things it is critiquing, such as the vicarious pleasures of watching other people in dangerous situations (it features images of rotting corpses and desperate malnourishment), and, in its quasi-Conradian narrative, a fascination with an exotic ‘other’. In not showing any aspects of their lives other than those necessary to advance his thesis, Martens’ portrayal of Congolese plantation workers or local photographers performs the same reductive stereotyping that the film supposedly criticizes. Martens’ knowingly gauche persona does not alter the fact that Episode III… exploits art audiences’ desires for work that demonstrates ‘authentic’ political engagement. By acknowledging his own complicity Martens does not legitimize it.
Toronto Film Scene:
Much of the movie is his interactions with the Congolese, as he tries to ‘help’ them in various ways, be it teaching them how to profit from their poverty by taking pictures, or convincing them to enjoy what they can because they can’t change their poverty. I do understand some of what he’s trying to get across, and think that there are important lessons in this film. That being said, I can’t shake my distaste of how he goes about teaching these lessons. It feels like he’s using the Congolese as much as the people he’s criticizing. Which I understand is part of the point he’s making, but at the same time, like many of the things Martens films, it leaves me feeling very uncomfortable.
The Lumiere Reader:
In order to answer the question ‘who owns poverty?’ Martens develops a plan to personify the ‘poverty industry’. In one of the film’s most difficult sequences he gathers together a group of amateur wedding photographers and convinces them to take photos of dead bodies. If white journalists can get up to $500 for images of bloated corpses, why shouldn’t they? Of course, Martens knows their poorly composed photos won’t sell. His Congolese subjects do not. As he leaves they’re still unaware he’s used them to suggest they cannot be active participants in their own destiny
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posted by Miko at 8:54 PM on February 5 [5 favorites]


I believe he is grouping anti-poverty workers along with journalists and others who "raise awareness" of poverty, often profiting for themselves in the process and leaving little actually changed when they leave. Here is an article that talks about some of his continued work in the Congo.
"This new institute will start a gentrification programme there, which may be provocative as a term. The idea is that there is a problem with some critical art, that however much pieces may critique or deconstruct political or economical systems, they don't seem to change much at the place where the critique is aimed. However, they may change a lot in places where such art is shown, distributed and taught, places that happen to be mostly the former colonial centres - New York, Brussels, London, and Berlin. In general, such art creates a good atmosphere where museums are built, coffee shops and boutiques with designer jeans are opened. There are many examples of thie accumulation of capital, intellectual and maybe even artistic, but also financial capital through the arts. I thought, well, all this should be taken into account as a basic parameter of artistic production and we should start such a gentrification programme as the intervention."
I'm sorry you don't like the concept, Miko. I'm really not up for a pissing match tonight though.
posted by Ouisch at 9:00 PM on February 5


I'm sorry you don't like the concept, Miko. I'm really not up for a pissing match tonight though.

Didn't say I didn't like it, and am certainly not trying to create a pissing match. I just think there's a lot to say on this topic, a lot of good critical response to bring in, maybe a broader frame to bring to it. If, as you say, that's what the artist wants, then let's go there. There's much to discuss here.
posted by Miko at 9:08 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


OK. great. So then what? After the film festival? If these efforts are "utterly powerless," what is left as a course of action?

Obviously, stop donating to development programs, enjoy your money, and ignore problems elsewhere in the world. It helps if you give your donations instead to indie like Marten.
posted by happyroach at 8:43 AM on February 6


OK. great. So then what? After the film festival? If these efforts are "utterly powerless," what is left as a course of action?

Why does all criticism of the shallowness of the status quo have to provide an alternative?


But I think the answer to your question is somewhere in the answers to questions like:

- who do free trade agreements pushed by the WTO usually benefit?
- why is most US Aid spent on US produced goods?
- If simply flooding troubled regions with foreign produce destroys local markets then why do we keep doing it?
- if the current luxury of the west is dependent on subjugating poorer nations - would most people actually give up their wealth?
posted by mary8nne at 10:10 AM on February 6


It's a fair question, mary8nne. I guess my bias is to thinking a robust critique of any kind should point to an alternative (or at least first steps along a process for developing an alternative) because if it does not, it is simply a rhetorical exercise, with no utility. If what we are doing as the status quo is actually the best solution, or the only feasible solution, than it just critiquing it will produce any good.

The questions you articulate are good ones and could be the kinds of first steps that might be useful in attacking the problem, if they don't end as questions only.
posted by Miko at 11:11 AM on February 6


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