How to document hardship

Images of people facing suffering and financial hardship have often stumbled into ‘poverty porn’ and objectification. Is there a right way for an imagemaker to navigate this kind of work?

“Photographing poverty – I mean, I don’t know who’s done that successfully. Do you know?” asks Siân Davey, a former psychotherapist turned photographer, whose practice often leans into themes around the human condition.

Before the pandemic took hold in 2020, Davey had been working on a project exploring the intersection of poverty and mental health in Britain, both national crises that were about to be thrown into even sharper relief in the years ahead by Covid-19. She had only managed a few weeks actually taking photographs before progress stalled altogether; the months working on the project up until that point had instead been spent in conversation with people.

“I was in a food bank every week for months and I didn’t take a single photograph, and it was really important for me that I wasn’t attached to photography, that I let go of any ambition apart from to be present,” she says. “I just wanted to understand the terrain and understand my responsibility as a photographer, and actually I learnt so much from just listening.” It’s a process she feels should be at the heart of projects of this nature, though recognises that when an organisation, institution or other client is involved – rather than it being entirely personal work – that that can be easier said than done.

“I think what it actually needs and deserves is time spent with people, because I came out of that project feeling like the only way that I could really fully do this again was with … the right conditions in place.”

Top and above: Photographs by Siân Davey