Open Letter on Exploitative Photography

To the SIPA Capstone Workshop Team,

We are writing to express disappointment and concern about a recent comment that was made at the SIPA Liaison Orientation regarding photography of Capstone projects on February 8th, 2019. During the session, one of the presenters encouraged students to take photos of children and communities as “office or domestic photos” are not as interesting as “those in an African village.” While many were rightfully shocked and appalled at hearing this, for many others such a statement did not come as a surprise. One only needs to walk down the hall of the fourth floor to view SIPA’s proud display of poverty porn from capstone projects and internships past. Poverty porn is any form of media used to exploit marginalized people’s position in an attempt to evoke sympathy or gain attention. It completely “others” the subject of the photograph while creating a toxic mentality of superiority among privileged students. While SIPA prides itself of being an international school with an international body, too often we feel excluded and isolated by these comments and practices, which do not only represent racist and neocolonial stances, but are outdated, thoroughly critiqued perspectives. It is truly shocking that we are still having this conversation.

Statements like these are extremely offensive, and should represent the antithesis of SIPA’s mission. Urging students to take and share exploitative photos strips individuals and entire communities of their right to dignity and agency of how their stories, lives, and images are shared. It goes against SIPA’s stated commitment to provide “students with the necessary skills and perspectives to become responsible leaders in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.”  Instead, as we prepare to embark on our capstone research we received advice that was a deeply irresponsible statement from the world’s “most global” public policy school. The fact that no ethical consideration was voiced during the session speaks volumes in terms of the vision of development SIPA is advancing.

The negative impacts of poverty porn on affected populations and communities have been well documented, and even on many occasions have been heavily discussed in classes and among peers here at SIPA. This practice is not only unethical, it is also out-of step with professional standards in many nonprofits and UN agencies and has the potential to damage future job prospects for students looking to work in certain NGOs. We have provided a short list of resources below and are happy to provide more should you be interested in learning more about this topic.

Rather than encourage students to participate in this demeaning practice of taking photos of people or communities, without informed consent or consideration of how this might affect those depicted, the meeting should have, instead, implored students to refrain from such actions in the field. We call on the administration to do a review of the SIPA Liaison Orientation to ensure that statements, such as the ones made that day, are not repeated in the future.

Additionally, we request that capstone and internship orientations include discussions on the negative impacts of exploitative photography of affected populations and communities and encourage students to not take such photos while they are out in the field. In the event that a client requires students to include photos for their final report, SIPA  must stress the importance and need for students to seek consent from individuals or communities in their native languages before taking their photos and offer a mandatory sensitivity training on photographic exploitation.

We would like to remind the SIPA Capstone Workshop Team and the SIPA community that the subjects of these “interesting” photos are human beings, with dynamic lives and stories, who happen to find themselves in devastating situations, not animals in a zoo to be ogled at and photographed for western consumption. These photos do nothing but disempower people, rob them of their humanity and story, and reinforce a neo-colonial narrative. They have no place here at SIPA and should never be encouraged.


Human Rights Working Group

RISE:Working Group on Race, Inequality, Solidarity and Economics

Humanitarian Affairs Working Group

SIPA Students of Color

Palestine Working Group

Rashida Kabba

Teresa Perosa

Harmonie Kobanghe

Julia Imbriaco

Won Jang

Yen Bui

David Wickland

Asel Botpayeva

Alexandra Kotowski

Jacob Sprang

Jillian Timko

Lea Giddins

Hira Azhar

Diana Sari Nabulsi


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