Sir, why do you always take photos of…

…poor people?  This was a question posed to me by a student a few days ago. It stopped me in my tracks a little, and I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. In actual fact, her exact question was why do foreigners always take photos of poor people? I presumed however, given the nature of some of my recent photos, that I most probably fell firmly into this bracket and was the inspiration for her pressing question.

I thought for a second or two and my response was simple. “I don’t take photos of poor people, I take photos of people.” That’s all I could think to say when put on the spot like that. However, after contemplating it a little further, I realised that my initial response had been fairly accurate. I never actively or purposefully set out to capture images of so-called ‘poor people’ but maybe I am naively guilty of it appearing this way.

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The whole question though makes me uncomfortable. One of my favourite weekend activities here in Chittagong is to wander somewhat aimlessly with my camera capturing anything that makes for an interesting shot. This pastime has earned a pronounced regularity since I returned to Bangladesh, but a simple question posed by one student has made me question every aspect of it.

My photography subject of choice here is predominantly people, so I am certainly in the right place. I cannot deny though that this does weigh heavy on my conscience at times. For example, a couple of weeks ago I visited one of the railroad communities, and as I peered down from the bridge above, I felt a certain amount of embarrassment.  Why is this interesting to me? Why do I presume it’ll be interesting to the people I eventually share the photos with? All I can say is that it is different. That is all. Different in so many ways.

Railtrack community

I really appreciate this quote from Dorothea Lange,

 “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”


Living in Bangladesh, I want my photos to represent life in all its forms here. So when I share them, my hope is that viewers will see beyond just the single image. I want people to be able to contemplate this country and the people of this country in a much deeper capacity.

The residents of the railroad communities, I would hazard to guess, are poor in the most simple and raw form of the word and in the sense that their single image suggests. However, who am I, or we to judge if they are poor? And how do we define poor? That is not something for me to do, and it is not something I want to do. All I want to do is take photos of people, not poor people…people.


Therefore, here is a collection of images representing just a tiny corner of Chittagong, Bangladesh taken quite recently in the past few weeks. And here is one more quote;

“A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth. ”  – Richard Avedon

Tea shop kitchen






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All images © John Stanlake

13 thoughts on “Sir, why do you always take photos of…

  1. Very thought provoking comments and the photos of the local people are superb and show what their life is like!!, miles away from this materialistic country were we live.
    Really evident with people gearing up for Christmas.

  2. Heh John, how can you let me down like that? I was so drawn in by the first few paragraphs, you set out a very simple yet provoking question and then you failed to really tackle it. Do you really believe your own explanation? I feel, perhaps incorrectly, that you have a more honest answer to give, and I’d like to hear it.
    “All I want to do is take photos of people, not poor people…people.”
    Nice line but I do not really accept this, and not specifically in regards to your motivation but more generally because the ladies question wasn’t simply about your fascination for photographing poor people but as a trend she has observed. This line hints that her observation is a slight misconception, yet I don’t think it is. As a facebook user with many well traveled Western friends, their photo albums justify her question.

    I certainly don’t have a good answer, however, I will offer a few quick ideas.
    1. Drama – a photo of poverty enables the viewer to create a story behind it, that this story contains suffering, hardship etc of course makes it dramatic. Photographing the poor is win win in terms of facial expressions, if they are sad then that emphasizes the sadness and suffering of poverty; if the sitter has a wide smile and bright eyes, then we sit and wonder at how happy they are with nothing and yet our rich society is gripped my depression.
    2. Historical Anthropologists – many early anthropologists and explorers took photos of people, these images have been used again and again, setting a trend, the rich ‘colonialists’ curiously recording ‘the barbarians’.
    3. Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl” – one of the most spectacular images, perhaps this photo alone has influenced people.

    P.S. John you know I love your blog, I wouldn’t have bothered writing such a long reply if I didn’t. If the aim of your articles is to make people think you have certainly made me do that this evening. Keep your articles coming.

    • Thanks for the feedback Rich – and I appreciate and respect your thoughts and I’m really glad the blog made you contemplate the question also.

      I think the problem for me is that I’m still very uncomfortable with this word ‘poor’. As I mentioned in the blog, I’m not sure how we should define it, and as such I don’t want to attach it to my photos. When I say I only want to take photos of people, I do mean this. Last time I was here I attended a wedding. The photos from this are in one of my albums on facebook. They are some of my favourite photos as the colours and beauty of the subjects are very interesting to me. Also, it was unlike any other wedding I’d been to.

      So, for me the most important part of any subject I photograph is that it should be different. It should be unique to me and to the people I hope will view it. In my case most of the people who probbaly see my photos are family and friends back home, people who may also find the subjects unlike the images they see in their daily lives.

      I never spend too much time hunting for people to photograph. The railtracks are 10 mins from my home, the tea shop photos are a 1 min walk from my home, I rarely travel too far when I embark on my photo excusrsions. If I were in the UK I would be interested in carrying on the theme of people photos.

      In a number of the photos I have taken and shared, the people have approached me and asked for me to take their photo. If it is clear that a person doesn’t want me to take a photo of them, I always respect their wishes and I always ask before I take any photo. Now, I have to admit arguably my most controversial action is then sharing them on here, on flickr and on facebook, because I never ask the people for this permission. For that I am certainly guilty.

      I should add, and this may be an important point, that there have probably been just as many photos taken of me as I have taken of other people. Wherever I go I am often asked for my photo and sometimes not asked. I always oblige as this is my obligation. Why do they take photos of me? Because I’m different, that’s why. In the end we are all intrigued by aspects of this world that are different to what we are used to or familiar with, and in this blog I tried to present that message.

      Cheers Rich, I’m glad you’re sent this message as it is nice for me to know that it has got people thniking.

  3. Nice read John, with some interesting photos. Perhaps poor people make better subjects for photos, but they always seem happy to be photographed. Keep the blogs coming.

  4. Thanks for your response John, you argued your side well.

    I wondered if I could make a request! You have many blogs from your travels around the World, Asia, Africa and South America, yet you have neglected the place your nomadic life started. I hope you haven’t forgotten your 5 months in Prague and as it is coming up to the 5 year anniversary of your move there and it might be nice to write a retrospective piece. Having been to so many places since then you may have a new perspective on an old time.

    Only a thought!

  5. Amazing photos John. They have such expressive faces, so no wonder you want to take their photos. Also, there is no problem taking pictures of children not like over here!! Keep them coming.
    Mum xx

  6. Pingback: dekha hobe, Chittagong! | Little fish, big pond

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