Thursday, February 15, 2007

news from the wire--by pablo--"poverty in america and the enlightenment of exploitation"



BOSTON--On a sunny day last march dozens of photographers crowded around the window of a six floor housing complex in Lower Roxbury, a community in South Boston famous for its poverty and high incidences of drug-related crime. Visible inside the miniscule apartment, amidst a mess of dirty dishes and trash, was a small family busy preparing dinner.

“Look at that,” one of the photographers said quietly, snapping a pic. “It looks like they bought those cans of beans in bulk. Must have been fifty cents each. And the rice too. Cheapest meal I’ve ever seen. So clever.”

The other photographers nodded and grunted as their lenses could be heard zooming in on the cans of beans and the rice.

“Look at their clothes!” another photographer said giddily, “they’re so filthy! It looks like that they can’t even afford to do their laundry!”

Behind them a tall man in khakis and a wide brimmed hat puffed on his cigar, then said in a husky and commanding voice, “Gentleman, we’ve got about twenty minutes til the sun goes down and we lose the good light. Finish up.” The photographers nodded and started busily taking photographs or moving to better positions. The man, Martin Fischer, went back to smoking his cigar while looking over his clients with a grin both satisfied and imperious. For him, it was just another day in the exotic reaches of extreme, American-style poverty.


Martin Fischer is a trailblazer in the tough business of adventure tourism. After years of guiding people through some of the poorest and most remote regions of the world, he decided to start “Poverty in America” back in 2005 after getting back from a stint in south-western China. “There were a lot of poor people in the southwest, so of course it made good photographing. But when I got back I just couldn’t help but think—sure, the third world has lots of poverty, and it’s really entertaining in its own way, but America does too. Just think of Appalachia or all those areas in the big urban centers, you know, the ones with immigrants? There’s a whole swath of places in the developed world that haven’t even been tapped for adventure tourism.”

It is already Mr. Fischer’s second year working as the head guide for “Poverty in America,” and the success of his Boston branch is making him consider moving to other areas—especially the American south, where he believes there is particularly large, untapped market in guiding people through trailer parks and places of extreme rural poverty.

I first met Martin Fischer last February in a coffee house in downtown Boston, where he liked to go to take breaks from the dangerous parts of the city. He was looking over pictures that he had printed out on the table, and asked me to come over and lend him my opinion. We discussed the pictures, he told me about his work and, when I told him I was a reporter, he invited me to come along on one of his tours. The opportunity seemed too good to pass up.

We started the day from the lobby of a hotel in downtown Boston, where dozens of excited adventurers mulled about and talked giddily about the coming day. There was an even mix of demographics in the group—the rich or middle class white Americans were evenly distributed in both age and hair-color. I asked one of them, Lewis Pinkerton, an anthropology student from Harvard, about what exactly it was about this program that so appealed to him. “Poor people.” he said without hesitation, “Even though I read about them all the time I don’t get to see them very much at Harvard, except for the janitors. Even then it’s hardly like I’m seeing them in their home environment. I’m hoping that looking at these people in their daily lives will make me appreciate my own relative wealth.”

As we load up into the three car caravan that Mr. Fischer uses to bus his clients all around the city, I asked him about what Pinkteton had said, and if this was a common motivating factor among his clients. “Yes,” he said quickly. “You see, poor people are interesting. They are not like us. They are poor. There is a kind of tragic poetry to their lives that simply doesn’t exist among people like you and me. Naturally, if you can capture this sense of tragedy in pictures, you can make some sweet cash, but you can also show the pictures to your friends and impress them by telling them about the special, enlightening experience you’ve had.”

Fischer takes us through the poorest communities of southern Boston, usually stopping and letting the photographers out whenever they come to a scene of interest, such as the location of a shooting, or unemployed people sitting around on a street corner. “It’s best when they can’t afford proper clothing, because, unlike in other countries, people here don’t where quaint costumes. Also, if we can catch some people doing or dealing drugs, that’s a huge plus; but I usually like set up as far away as possible from the drug deals. Lost some people once in a shootout.”

Drifting through the neighborhoods, we are treated with sites and sounds that rarely infiltrate our more quiet corners of American life. In many places homes and apartment complexes seem to be falling apart where they stand, with little or no evidence of home repair. Roofs fall in on themselves and some walls even have visible bullet holes. People wander the street with expressions of loss and hopelessness unseen in more affluent places—while in homes, through the broken and filthy windows, we can catch quick glances of drug addicts or alcoholics or poor families living amongst filth and disrepair. The cars lining the street are old and beaten up, and it appears that many families cannot even afford a vehicle. Homeless people are visible too, pushing shopping carts filled to the brim—bundles of shopping bags representing their whole lives.

Meanwhile, we can see gangs of men and teenagers hanging out on street corners, smoking cigarettes and marijuana and drinking alcohol from bottles poorly hidden in paper bags. Fischer explains that these are the spots that are the most dangerous, as many of the men are involved in local, drug-related gangs, and have been known to brandish weapons at the vehicles passing by. “That’s what we mean by adventure tourism,” Fischer laughs and smiles. He further explains that, because of the risks involved, he has had all of his vehicles installed with bullet-proof glass, while he and his staff each carry Glock 22s on their person, just in case trouble arises.

Stopping at one housing complex famous for its graffiti and general dilapidation, Fischer, explains that one of the best parts of adventure tourism in the United States is that the people are simply not used to it. He notes how in some places in Southern China, where photographers are quite common, local people started to ask for money after being photographed—a trend he considers to be a disturbing sign of the moral degradation of many third world areas. America, he realized was a land of relative purity. “You go to a trailer park in America and start taking photos of people—no one knows what to do. They’re not used to it. You could be filming them all day and they might get angry, but they’d never ask for money. They’ve got some pride—some integrity.”

After hearing this, I wanted whether or not the people in his photos ever benefited from getting their picture taken. Did he or his organization compensate them? Was there any chance that American poor would start asking for money, too? Fischer assured me, adamantly, that they had never received financial compensation of any kind, nor would they ever. “Lifting people out of poverty would make the world a far less interesting place, and would certainly put me and a lot of other people out of jobs,” he said, than added thoughtfully: “listen, they do get to know that the beautiful, tragic art that is their lives is captured on film. We pass on the meaning of their lives to posterity. And that’s something that I’m sure they’re quite thankful for—although, to be honest, I’ve never asked. Actually, I’ve never asked them about very much at all.”


Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Back from traveling. My decision to go to Yuanyang was a good one. The place, with its seemingly endless mountains of terraced rice fields, is honestly one of the most amazing things I have ever seen--it's also pretty much unknown to Western tourists except for the French, who for some reason swarm over the place. (Of course, I should add that it is very popular destination for photographers, especially Chinese photographers.) My recommendation is to go before Lonely Planet mentions it and ruins everything.