A young Indian man covers his eyes with his hands. In front of him is a table with a lavish spread that includes turkey roast, fruits and champagne flutes. In contrast with the extravagance is the humble background — a house with a thatched roof, a traditional cot and a goat. This is a photograph that's part of a series called Dreaming Food by award-winning Italian photojournalist Alessio Mamo. He had asked the villagers (children, old people) to close their eyes and dream of some food they'd like to see on the table. The food in the pictures though, is fake.
This was enough for people to accuse Mamo of 'poverty porn', when his series got noticed after World Press Photo Foundation uploaded it to their Instagram handle on July 23. The series is problematic on multiple counts. Though a statement and apology released by Mamo mentions that he went to the villages with an NGO and that the people were 'not malnourished anymore', a skinny young boy in the series can be seen with a bloated belly — typically, a symptom of malnourishment.
Appalling as the images are, the photographer's intent must be taken into account. In his caption, Mamo states, 'The idea of this project was born after reading the statistics of how much food is thrown away in the West, especially during Christmas time.' His statement further adds, 'The only goal... was to let western people think, in a provocative way, about the waste of food.' Which begs the question, why not depict the very real issues of hunger, homelessness and poverty that exists in Western countries? As independent photojournalist Harsha Vadlamani puts it, "It looks like he took the WhatsApp forward that goes 'Don't waste food because a child in Africa is starving' literally." By juxtaposing villagers from two of India's 'poorest states' (as per the caption), Mamo's point seems to be exactly that. "The attempt to spread awareness of food wastage doesn't come through," says Vadlamani.
The fake food photo series is also exploitative, furthering the trope of 'poor people as props'. "There is no context to who the subjects are, what they do, what they eat. When you don't get to know anything about them, they are reduced to props," says Vadlamani. A key factor of exploitation is that the exploited do not know what is being done to them. Which brings us to the question of consent. No doubt, photojournalism bypasses consent and there are no legal forms involved. But this hardly qualifies as photojournalism. According to Mamo, 'most of the people enjoyed spontaneously to be part of this'. Consent, though, is a layered concept. A person may be okay with being photographed but they may not know, for instance, that they are going to be on the front page of a newspaper. Or that the photographer stands to make money from it. "Villagers usually live a simple existence and may be naive," says acclaimed photojournalist and author Ritesh Uttamchandani. "Plus, a foreigner is a novelty for them."
Consent is, more often than not, bypassed while photographing people from low-income groups. Even a hobby photographer will not hesitate before clicking a homeless person sleeping on a bus stand, yet, if a subject belongs to a higher economic class, permission is usually sought. Uttamchandani recommends a simple way to gauge whether it's okay to take a snap — ask yourself whether you'd be okay with someone barging into your personal space, given your education and knowledge of the world.