Since 2010, pho­tog­ra­pher Ste­fen Chow and his econ­o­mist part­ner Lin Huiyi have been chal­leng­ing per­cep­tions of what it means to be poor across the globe. Their award-win­ning project The Poverty Line, which will ex­hibit at this month's Ge­orge Town Fes­ti­val

Southeast Asia Globe - - Flavours - – Cristyn Lloyd

How did the Poverty Line project get started?

We de­cided to come up with a project that at­tempted to an­swer the ques­tion: What does be­ing poor mean? We found that the ques­tion seemed very sim­ple, but then as we started diving into what we knew about the sub­ject, we re­alised that we had mis­con­cep­tions. We started diving into fig­ures – for ev­ery gov­ern­ment, there’s a cen­sus that ba­si­cally cal­cu­lates where the poverty line starts within a so­ci­ety. [What] we found was that the poverty line in China was 3.28 yuan [per day]. To me, it didn’t feel like a lot. So, we went to the mar­kets to buy food and re­alised that in­deed you [have] some choices. You can get a bunch of veg­eta­bles, you can get a sin­gle chicken breast. It dawned on me that us­ing food as a sub­ject, [we could] change the con­ver­sa­tion, be­cause ev­ery­one, no mat­ter whether you live in the top of the so­ci­ety strata or some­one strug­gling below the poverty line, has ac­cess to food ev­ery day. But it is the choices that de­fine our well-be­ing. [So we] used food as a way to chal­lenge our no­tion of what poverty is.

How do dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ments de­fine poverty?

The world, by a lot of stan­dards, is still di­vided into de­vel­op­ing coun­tries and de­vel­oped coun­tries. The cal­cu­la­tion and the way that they de­fine [be­ing] poor are ac­tu­ally dif­fer­ent. De­vel­op­ing coun­tries will usu­ally cal­cu­late the poverty line us­ing ab­so­lute poverty. Sim­ply de­fined, it’s seen as a sur­viv­abil­ity line – how much you need in or­der to sur­vive. And this is of­ten cal­cu­lated based on caloric di­ets. Whereas for the de­vel­oped world, the cal­cu­la­tions are dif­fer­ent... What you find is this is more of an ex­pec­ta­tion of what a per­son should have in terms of choices. For us, it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to re­alise that in some ways, poverty is de­fined as the way we would ex­pect, but the fac­tors sur­round­ing it are a lot more com­pli­cated. We try to state this in a very sim­ple, vis­ual way. What vis­i­tors will see is a sin­gle pic­ture of food placed on news­pa­pers, and the food would be the food choice based on the bud­get de­fined by their own coun­try’s gov­ern­ment at that par­tic­u­lar time. So, you might see some bread in a Ger­man news­pa­per or you might see a sin­gle piece of oc­to­pus in Ja­pan.

How have your per­cep­tions of poverty changed?

At the very be­gin­ning, we saw this as a prob­lem for de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. But if you dive a lit­tle bit deeper, you re­alise that even de­vel­oped coun­tries have very deep is­sues sur­round­ing poverty as well. And per­haps [there] is not a straight­for­ward way to com­pare a de­vel­op­ing coun­try with a de­vel­oped coun­try like Ja­pan, but in coun­tries where there are high costs of liv­ing and high de­vel­op­ment rates, very of­ten peo­ple that fall through the cracks of so­ci­ety find it ex­tremely bur­den­some to sur­vive. For our project, [we did not want to] paint a pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive pic­ture – what we are do­ing is to go right to the sources, cite it as fac­tu­ally as we can, but put it in the con­text of art. It lets peo­ple think about this is­sue, and for us, I think that’s re­ally the pur­pose of the work.

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