Why does this picture trouble me?

Image: International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG)

I wonder.

Is it because it looks staged? Or because it reinforces our perceptions of the “old” and the “new”, the “developed” and the “underdeveloped”? Is it because it likely shows the beginning of the end of a complex relationship going back generations between a people and their culture?

We have so much to learn from traditional, indigenous societies, yet technology and knowledge transfer is almost universally one way – “us” to “them” – and is almost always portrayed in eye-catching images like the one above. In our world this is what progress looks like, neatly caught in the lens of a travelling laptop owner.

The picture tells us that development is on the way.

I wonder…

45 thoughts on “Why does this picture trouble me?

  1. Divya says:

    These kinds of pictures were cute and dandy in the 50s and 60s not anymore. It is really insulting to the culture to make it look like their people are ignorant and have no sense of “advancement”.

  2. Patricia says:

    I agree that its a bit unclear what the photo is trying to say. Maybe its a project trying to preserve culture by recording it? Saying that, these kinds of images are more often used in a derogatory way, and I think you may be right in thinking (or seeing) that here.

  3. BSKyambadde says:

    Could it be because it might have been staged? And hopefully you mean ‘computer aided’ development being on the way. The people in the picture appear to be from the Americas where, among other developments, centuries ago agricultural soils were improved with bio-char which today is also a good mode of CO2 sequestration. And apart from the laptop, there is plenty of development in the picture; take e.g. the sustainable building, tattooing and head gear technology/materials.

  4. Emily Blynn says:

    The first thing that struck me about this photo was the size of the computer- this is no sleek MacBook Pro. Often developing countries are given models that are deemed “appropriate technology” that we in the developed world would not deem acceptable for our own use. I believe there is merit to the argument that the technology must be relatively easy to use for first time users, but then again, we all learned to navigate our way around eventually, why would they not be able to do the same in time? Is technology such as this just another way in which we keep the developing world just one step behind, while being perceived as doing good?

  5. kiwanja says:

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. All very valid and interesting, and some of it might explain things a little more.

    I was wondering whether or not it was the fact that it’s a laptop in the image, and that it’s clearly not their laptop? I was wondering how I’d feel about the image if it was a mobile phone in their hands?

    More questions…

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  10. Christian says:

    I just downloaded the exact same brochure and could not believe the photo. “The laptop in the wilderness?” What does such a piece of plastic with a screen says? Information access? Access to what kind of information for what purpose? Cannot agree more. Looking forward to a cover photo where the White Man learns from the wisdom of an indigenous society.

  11. Alasdair Munn says:

    Great question. I too “feel” it. Sometimes we just “know” and cannot explain in words. (Does not mean we must not try)
    Technology, in the developed world, defines our lives. I know it defines mine. It is a natural step for us to “decide” that technology will define the development of the Third World, and what that development will look like.

    What I love about what you, and others, are doing Ken is throwing away the “constructs” of development and “technology” and looking towards culture, need, resource availability and objectives. The journey does not start with technology or a developmental goal. It starts with conversation, understanding, need identification through the eyes of the community, not the agent.
    The relevant solutions will follow, and how that looks with regard to technology utilisation can only be determined then.
    Without context, the image looks wrong to me. It makes me feel uneasy as it represents what is wrong with the mainstream developmental cycle. Thanks goodness for the new breed of sustainable development agencies and organisations. The ones who have shifted the consciousness from prescriptive to collaborative and multicultural understanding.

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  20. jke says:

    Wait…Christian & Kennya – u both telling us this pic was used in a 2009 publication?

    According to the picture information, it comes from this brochure http://www.ipc-undp.org/pub/IPCPovertyInFocus17.pdf

    With the following dislaimer inside the brochure:
    “Front page: Suruí men in the indigenous land Sete de Setembro, Brazilian Amazonia (Cacoal, RO). Capacity building course on the use of new technologies by the Equipe de Conservação da Amazônia, ACT Brasil, http://www.actbrasil.org.br. Photo by Fernando Bizerra.”

    Such an older laptop with no connectivity to a network (which would make it interesting) apparently still works best to illustrate “progress” – at least for those who are supposed to read such a publication from the editor’s perspective. A laptop may be easier to see for the reader than a mobile phone.

    And while this is somehow embarassing, I can not imagine they did it without trying to provoke a discussion, similar to what the other titles on http://www.undp-povertycentre.org/pub.do may suggest.

    The problem I’d have with such a publication is that it’s on “indeginising” – instead of waiting to see how technology is adopted from the people for their needs. Less top-down, more bottom-up.

  21. Kashmira says:

    A ‘laptop’ signifies the development and ‘civilisation’ in the Western Society. Why is tribal knowledge considered underdeveloped? Why does the West feel the need to introduce laptops in this part of world to consider it as developed? Has this laptop indeed changed the life of the people holding it for good? These are the questions that come to my mind when I see this image.
    Understanding and respecting diversity (i.e. different cultures) comes before introducing technology.

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  24. linda says:

    I think for me the issue is that the photo seems staged and is not active. Were it an active photo showing the two young men actually using the computer rather than posing with it, it would not bother me. The issue is the purposeful ‘contrast’ they seem to be trying to make between “developed” and “undeveloped” with this photo through the way it’s set up and posed. Begs an answer to the question – what is the definition of ‘development’?

    This photo reminded me of a few somewhat related experiences:

    I was at a global conference in Brazil last year and there was one youth participant who resembled the young men in this photo. He could barely participate because every time he spoke or moved around, people lined up to get a photo with him. The child protection team at one point had to form a barrier around him. This was a global congress on child exploitation and it was the adult participants who were mobbing him for photos to take back home. Disturbing. How to celebrate cultures and traditions in respectful ways without tokenizing them and emphasizing how ‘exotic’ they are.

    I used to travel with a Senegalese friend of mine who dressed beautifully, and she got stopped numerous times on the street and in airports in Asia, Latin America and the US so people could stand next to her for a photo. She would graciously agree and then mutter as they walked away “what, haven’t you ever seen an African before?”

    Last year I went out with some Rwandan youth to film in their community. I was not taking photos or filming but just accompanying the group. It was startling and awkward when a man came running out of his house with his camera, talking about me in a language I didn’t understand, gesturing and laughing, and snapping a few photo without asking. I take less and less random photos of people I don’t know these days.

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