OREM, Utah — A picture is worth a thousand words, but VII photographers weren’t campaigning for words when they teamed up with the Millennium Villages Project to photograph extreme poverty. What they want is action in Africa.
Jeffrey Sachs founded the Millennium Villages Project with the help of Millennium Promise, UNOPS and Earth Institute of Columbia University. Its goal is to eliminate poverty in Africa by addressing “the root causes of extreme poverty, taking a holistic, community-led approach to sustainable development.” It draws from science, government, business and civil society to empower communities.
The latest organization to join the cause is VII. Founded in 2001 by seven highly successful photojournalists, its archive holds more than 100,000 images that capture the significance of the modern world and expose global issues. Now VII photographers are turning their cameras toward Africa to photograph poverty and its eradication.
How does photography fight poverty? In an experiment, a group of potential donors studied a photo of Rokia, an impoverished Malawian girl, who would benefit from their charity. Another group simply knew that Malawi needed help. The group that saw the photograph donated a much larger sum than those who knew nothing of the girl in the picture.
“Powerful images elicit an emotional response,” said Austin Cope, a Denver-based photographer. “Happy, sad, uneasy, interested, excited–they make you feel something.”
People react most strongly to negative images that evoke sadness, fear, or a sense of destruction. As Cope explained, a picture of twenty adorable kittens snuggling twenty equally-adorable puppies has an effect that lasts a second or two. A haunting photo’s effect lasts much longer.
“See enough of those, read enough crushing accompanying stories, and it’ll eventually push you to act or help in some way,” said Cope.
However, VII doesn’t restrict its content to smoldering, garbage-strewn forests and suffering children. It also records the progress that Millennium Villages Projects is making in Africa to show that poverty can be overcome.
For example, a picture taken by VII photographer Ron Haviv shows a pair of feet on a dirt path. According to the caption, the owner of the feet is headed toward “the local market, which is filled with a variety of fruits and vegetables from local farms benefiting from Millennium Villages Project’s farming interventions.” Instead of focusing on the human subject or the market, Haviv chose to emphasize the play of shadows across the ground. The photo is aesthetically appealing, and viewers are drawn to it even before they know it represents a good cause.