What does it mean to be poor, really?
That was the question photographer Stefen Chow asked when he started The Poverty Line. The undertaking is unusual for a photography project, because Chow isn’t looking for answers through moving portraits or barren landscapes. Instead he’s relying on cold, hard numbers. The Poverty Line strips away emotion in favour of a bare-bone analysis, distilling poverty to an issue of choice: What foods can the world’s poor afford to live on, day to day?
Together with his wife, economist Lin Hui-Yi, he set about figuring out what a country’s poverty line is in the form of a per-person, per-day rate. Armed with that figure, the Beijing-based Malaysian creates a visual portrait of what food items someone living on the poverty line can afford. The result is a stark portrayal of the choices that the poor are limited to every day. Chow and Lin began with China in November 2010, eventually covering 16 countries across five continents by the end of 2011.
The ongoing project has been an immense success, garnering international attention and winning the 2011 Arles Photography Open Salon. His photography was exhibited in the prestigious Galerie Huit in Arles, France, and more recently in China House and Alliance Française de Penang in George Town. We spoke to Chow about the venture and what it means to him.
How did The Poverty Line come about, and what sort of research did you have to do?
There have already been very inspirational works done by my contemporaries, who document poverty head on. I wanted to add to this discussion, but in a different way. I wanted to come up with a very simple understanding of what being poor means.
I think the full picture of the poverty line is too complicated for a layman like me to really understand. Lin is an economist and she does market research as a profession. My expertise is in photography, perhaps storytelling. We decided to collaborate because The Poverty Line, at the heart of it, is about statistics and economics. I didn’t want it to merely be a creative way of approaching this subject. It’s very important to allow us to have as factual a view of the poverty line as possible.What Lin did was, she went through layers and layers of statistics. For example, when we started with China, we found that there are three different poverty lines: one by the government of China, one by the World Bank and one by a Chinese non-profit organisation (NGO). It took a while for her to measure the pros and cons of each of them and determine the poverty line. Typically, she takes about one week to research a single country.
I met someone from the economic board in Malaysia. When I read the entire statement on how the Malaysian poverty line is derived, she agreed with it wholeheartedly, because the research was done correctly.
Once Lin comes up with the amount, I would source for the cheapest goods available.
As you did your research, was there anything that you discovered that you didn’t expect to find?
Yes. I must say that I had a lot of assumptions about what being poor means. My friends and I were assuming that “the poor” would refer to people who are homeless, who are jobless, who perhaps made some wrong choices or were given some very poor starts in life.
And I was wrong. In India, the poverty line was at about 50% of the entire population. So we’re talking about 400 million to 500 million people who are defined as poor. In Japan, the poverty line was set at about 19% of the population. Even if you are earning about the equivalent of US$3,000 in Japan, you’re considered poor.
Poverty does not mean you’re homeless, poverty means you are underprivileged and you have limited choices in life, in your own country. Ten dollars a day a person may seem a lot in Malaysia, but that would be the poverty line in Switzerland.
At the same time, I found out that if you are poor, there are certain foods which are a lot cheaper than others. One of the cheapest staples I find in almost every country is potatoes. To my surprise, the price of potatoes in Germany and India are about the same.
But once you go into meat, processed food or food served by others, your options become very limited. In China, out of about 100 items, I could only get about two meat items. In Madagascar, India or Nepal, you virtually cannot get meat anywhere if you’re poor.You said you used data from government departments, NGOs and the World Bank. Do you find a big discrepancy between the three?
Yes, there is. The poverty line in China, if we were to use China’s national statistics, is set at 3.49 yuan, which is about US$0.49. At this amount, two per cent of China’s population, which is about 20 million people, fall below the poverty line.
But the World Bank’s figure is actually US$2 a day, compared to US$0.49 a day. What’s the difference? The difference is saying there are 20 million poor people in China versus 400 million.
Do you know why there’s a difference?
The World Bank basically divides the world into two parts: the developing world and the developed world. The developing world is bunched together in the same basket. But China argues that it is not Africa. And I think there are different calculations on what poverty entails. In the developing world, it’s usually on a caloric measure: How much do you have to pay to get 2,000 calories a day?
Within China itself, the people know nothing about the World Bank figure. And the figure is rarely used, because it’s the same figure used for the African continent and for India, and prices are different.
In the end we decided to go with the national statistic, which is given by the Chinese government. Whether it’s biased or not is not something we will address, but based on the amount of research we have done, the national figure seems to be more accurate.
There are different definitions of the poverty line; there can be statistics that can seem artificially low, and others where you’d think someone would simply not be able to survive on that amount. In the end, interpretation is really dependent on the viewer.Poverty itself is a sensitive topic in a lot of countries. In Hong Kong, the government actually claims there is no poverty. In Japan, the word poverty was never mentioned until 2007, when they announced: Yes, there is actually a poverty line, and it’s this amount. Suddenly, nearly 20% of the population found themselves to be poor.
Which countries are you working on now?
Right now we have not really thought about where we want to go, because up to this point everything has been sort of self-funded; I’ve been riding on commercial projects. I want to go to South America, because that’s where The Poverty Line has not reached. And I really want to go to the main continent of Africa because if you talk about poverty, that’s where it really is. Closer to home, countries like Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos come to mind.
The Poverty Line has been done in five continents so far. If we reach out to as many people as possible, it’ll be great. We intend for this to be a lifelong project, because the poverty lines change, just as time changes. We hope to be able to continue with this project for as long as I can take a picture.
If we could effect change, that would be marvellous. But that’s not really our intention. The body of work is just a vehicle to start a discussion on poverty itself. Quite a few organisations have approached us, and I think everyone wants to bring this to the masses. The Poverty Line is bigger than who I am as a photographer.