Chow and Lin, The Poverty Line

JTF (only facts): Published in 2021 by Lars Müller Publishers (here). Thin cover (22 x 29 cm), 432 pages, with 368 illustrations. Includes articles by Armida Salcia Alijahbana, Andrea Brandolini, Lucas Chancelle, and John McClewright. Designed by Sandra van der Doylen and Tyon van der Heyden. (Cover and post the shots below.)

Comments/Context: In 2015, the World Bank updated the international poverty line to stand at $1.90 a day, but the single figure doesn’t tell us much about what poverty looks like in most countries. In order to better visualize the reality of global poverty, photographer and economist duo Stephen Zhao and Hui Lin started a project called The poverty line. Zhao is a Malaysian photographer and Lin is an economist and market researcher originally from Singapore, and in their joint practice, they apply “the methodology of statistical, mathematical and computational methods to address global issues”. The poverty line It was a decade-long project, spanning 36 countries on six continents, presented as an interactive website, gallery, and this year also published as a picture book. The project clearly shows what it means to be poor, and directly addresses what it means to live with limited resources in reality for the diners of different societies across continents.

as a book, The poverty line Very thick, but relatively light. The dust jacket is like newspaper and book damage. Inside, photos are also printed on uncoated newsprint-style paper. An image of dry ramen lumps appears on a newspaper on the cover, and the book’s title is placed at the top in large red font in large letters, making it clear from the outset that the “poverty line” is the book’s main focus. In general, the book has a clear, consistent design and a clear structure.

Zhao and Lin use visual classification and technical research as the basis for the project. Based on the official statistics of each country, they estimate how much a person living on this amount can spend per day. Then, they buy food from the local market and, where possible, choose foods typical of that region. They also buy local newspapers the same day. The resulting photos look very simple: food is neatly arranged on the newspaper and photographed from above. The newspaper gives the photo a sense of place and time, and each photo represents a food choice that anyone can afford that day. There are about ten images for each country, showing a number of options. The result is an outpouring of aesthetic uniformity and consistency that creates a more objective comparative study.

The book begins with China, the country where the project started in 2010. What can one buy? Pictures show a pile of rice, five yellow bananas, a small pile of cashews, perfectly arranged mantos, two legs of smoked chicken, seaweed, a green pile of bok choy, smoked pig ears, and finally five blocks of ramen noodles. The space in the middle of these pages provides information about the country and a couple of charts with statistics. In China, CNY 8.22 ($1.27) is the daily budget on the poverty line.

This taxonomic project encourages cross-national comparisons. The images across continents show what it means to live on the poverty line in different countries. In Myanmar, one day’s income will give you a bunch of bananas, while in India, it will hand you four apples. One can buy nine strawberries or two carrots in Japan. In France, you can get a dozen oysters, while in Australia, you’ll get a roast chicken.

While Chow and Lin use local newspapers as a backdrop, they offer curious insights into local social and political issues. Spanish newspapers contain a large number of articles about football, which reflects the country’s obsession with this sport. One of the differences in the United States picks up a pile of beans above the newspaper discussing retirement plans and vacation homes, highlighting the country’s wealth inequality.

The duo also highlighted nine products (eggs, apples, corn, instant noodles, bananas, tomatoes, Oreos, poultry and pork) available in selected countries to illustrate differences and changes in prices and consumption. The photo grid makes the differences fairly clear: thirty eggs in Norway, compared to four eggs bought in Ethiopia, or six eggs in Laos. Following the images are texts that provide basic information about a particular product. “Eggs are widely touted as a healthy and relatively cheap source of protein with low levels of fat.”

After pages and pages of grapes, bread, grilled fish, avocado, chocolate, sausage, shrimp, crackers, cheese, and bananas, one can easily get hungry. And in a picture book that raises questions about poverty, this only seems like an appropriate response. The organizational concept behind the book is simple and powerful. With its smart concept and great implementation, The poverty line It serves as a powerful social commentary that also sparks an important discussion about poverty, food, and the economy.

POV collector: Zhao and Lin don’t seem to have representation on the show at the moment. Collectors interested in following up will likely contact the artist directly via their website (linked in the sidebar).

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