Chow and Lin, The Poverty Line

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Lars Müller Publishers (here). Softcover (22 × 29 cm), 432 pages, with 368 illustrations. Includes essays by Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, Andrea Brandolini, Lucas Chancel, and John Micklewright. Design by Sandra van der Doelen and Teun van der Heijden. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In 2015, the World Bank updated the international poverty line to stand at $1.90 a day, but the single number tells very little about what poverty is like in most countries. So to better visualize the realities of global poverty, the photographer and economist duo of Stefen Chow and Huiyi Lin started a project titled The Poverty Line. Chow is a Malaysian photographer and Lin is an economist and a market researcher originally from Singapore, and in their joint practice, they apply “methodology of statistical, mathematical and computational techniques to address global issues.” The Poverty Line was a decade-long project, spanning 36 countries over six continents, and it was presented as an interactive website, an exhibition, and this year it was also published as a photobook. The project vividly shows what it means to be poor, and addresses with straightforward clarity what living with limited resources actually means for the dinner plates of different communities across the continents.

As a book, The Poverty Line is pretty thick, yet relatively light. The dust jacket has the feel of a newspaper and wraps the book. Inside, the photographs are also printed on newsprint-style uncoated paper. The image of dry ramen blocks on a newspaper appears on the cover, and the book title is placed on top in large red font in all caps, making it clear right from the beginning “the poverty line” is the main focus of the book. Overall, the book has a clear consistent design, and a legible structure.

Chow and Lin use visual typology and artistic research as the basis for the project. Based on each country’s official statistics, they estimate how much a person living on that amount can spend a day. Then, they purchase food at a local market, and where possible, they pick foods typical for that area. They also purchase local newspapers from the same day. The resulting photographs look very simple: the food is carefully arranged on the newspaper and photographed from the top. The newspaper gives the image a sense of place and time, and each photograph represents a food choice a person can afford that day. There are about ten photographs per country, showing a number of choices. The result is a flow of aesthetic uniformity and consistency that creates a more objective comparative study. 

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

This typological project encourages transnational comparisons. The images across the continents show what it means to live on the poverty line in different countries. In Myanmar, one day’s income would get you a bunch of bananas, while in India, it delivers four apples. One can afford nine strawberries or two carrots in Japan. In France, you can get a dozen oysters, while in Australia, it will provide you with a roast chicken. 

As Chow and Lin use local newspapers as the backdrop, they provide curious insights into local social and political issues. Spanish newspapers have a high number of articles about soccer, reflecting the country’s obsession with the sport. One of the spreads under the United States captures a pile of beans over the newspaper which discusses retirement plans and vacation homes, highlighting the wealth inequality in the country. 

The duo also highlighted nine products (eggs, apples, corn, instant noodles, bananas, tomatoes, Oreos, poultry, and pork) that are available across selected countries to illustrate the differences and variations in prices and consumption. The grid of images makes the differences rather obvious: three dozen eggs in Norway, compared to four eggs purchased in Ethiopia, or six in Laos. The images are followed by texts providing background about the particular product. “The egg is widely touted as a healthy and relatively cheap source of protein with low fat levels.” 

After pages and pages with grapes, breads, grilled fish, avocados, chocolate, sausages, shrimp, cookies, cheese, bananas, one can easily feel hungry. And in a photobook raising questions about poverty, this only seems like a fitting reaction. The organizing concept behind the book is both simple and powerful. And with its witty concept and its fine understated execution, The Poverty Line stands as a powerful social commentary that also sparks an important discussion about poverty, food, and economics.

Collector’s POV: Chow and Lin do not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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Read more about: Chow and Lin (Stefen Chow and Huiyi Lin), Lars Müller Publishers

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