Reflections (and Questions) on First- and Third-World Poverty
In 1974, I returned to Kaua‘i after two years in Asia. I was determined to settle down, create a home, start a family and never be poor – though I continued to seek jobs that involved travel, adventure and rare experience. Over the next 50 years I worked in Alaska, the Soviet Far East, the South Pacific, Japan, India, Nepal and Bhutan as well as every major Hawaiian Island.
For over a decade, I moved my headquarters and residence to Honolulu for financial and family reasons while maintaining a residence and company on Kaua‘i. I continued to photograph and write, and eventually became a filmmaker. However, I was primarily focused on engineering and construction: developing large-scale agricultural projects, hydropower and irrigation systems, underwater sea-shore pipeline interfaces, land development, tunneling and boring, and underground utilities. When people asked me what I did, I’d flippantly respond, “Anything for a buck!”
I’d been profoundly affected by the poverty I’d experienced in Asia. For two years I’d lived with poor villagers, refugees, urban slum dwellers and servants – usually without electricity or running water. Baths consisted of a bucket of cold water. Occasional visits to hot springs were heavenly.
I always traveled third class with the poor, along with their animals, food, baggage, fleas, lice, smells and disease...and the usual assortment of thieves and pickpockets.
I often hitchhiked, or rode for free on the crowded roofs of India’s passenger trains. One night, on my way from New Delhi to Kalka, the passenger cars and roofs were packed so tightly that the only room I could find was on the ladder leading to the roof. I cinched myself to the ladder with my pack straps so that when I dozed, I wouldn’t fall under the train. In the morning I woke up covered in dust, grit and coal soot from the locomotive.
Though my poverty was voluntary, essentially an experience-seeking adventure, the hunger, sickness, deprivation and near-death exposures were real. These two years had a profound effect on my worldview – on who I would become, how I would think, and what I would do. I saw India’s poverty as a nightmare. Several times I wrote in my journals, “Is India the past or the future?”
“Might a nuclear holocaust, a pandemic, a cataclysmic event cause the collapse of Western Civilization? Might the meek inherit the earth, those dwarfed and hunched beings living on the endless garbage heaps of Asia, drinking from fetid puddles, illiterate, never knowing an antibiotic or a book. Would they be the ones that survive when the bionically enhanced ultra-rich leave behind our smoldering planet and what’s left of the middle class?”
On this trip, 50 years later, while photographing the slums of Kolkata, another scenario came to mind, “Like crabs in a pot slowly heating on a stove set to boil, we Americans won’t notice that we’re cooked until it's too late.”
Though I’d been back to India several times for business, only twice did I venture into the slums with my cameras, and only briefly. I always stayed in comfortable hotels in upscale areas. Fifty years ago I wasn’t interested in photographing India’s urban poor, the slums and the slum-dwellers, preferring the more orderly and romantic “picturesque poverty” of Tibetan refugee camps and rural Himalayan villages.
This year, at the end of three months in Bhutan, Pakistan, and India, I was powerfully drawn to the slums of Lahore and Kolkata: their rich color, their fascinating characters, and especially their friendly and open people. Feeling both safe and spellbound, I roamed Kolkata's worst slums day and night, meeting hustlers, con artists, thieves, drug dealers, prostitutes, addicts and beggars...as well as lots of honest, hard-working people including quite a few hijra, or transsexuals.
Both Pakistan and India have a millennia-old tradition of hijra, colorful people born male but possessing both male and female characteristics. Hijras usually live communally under a traditional guru-chela system, and can often be found begging and soliciting at stop lights, singing, dancing and giving blessings at both births and weddings. Hijra blessings are believed to confer fertility, prosperity and long life. They don’t claim to be women; that would be bad for business. They are hijras, and like most South Asian slum dwellers, they are intimately aware of reality. It’s a survival mechanism.
Before my trip to Asia, I spent a month in Portland, walking miles every day through the city’s beautiful parks, forests and gardens, as well as its homeless camps and business districts gutted by addicts. At the end of my stay in Kolkata, I realized that I was no longer terrified by the Third World’s “nightmare” slums. America’s ghettos and homeless camps were far worse. In Portland, I was threatened by a skinny, staggering addict with a knife, reeking of urine and spitting angry threats that I didn’t understand. I walked away, not afraid but disgusted.
In Kolkata's slums everyone is making something, selling something, growing something, raising something...even the children. There’s no patch of land next to a river, a canal, or a drainage ditch without a cow, a goat, or a garden. I saw kids in uniforms walking to school, and then later out playing in the streets. Kolkata's poor are busy parents and entrepreneurs eking out a living. They must. There are no social safety nets.
In Kolkata people live with a purpose and that purpose is usually to support their families. I didn’t see the purposeless depravity that I saw in Portland: childless, drug zombie neighborhoods that were dark, dangerous, quiet, stinking and empty, with most businesses boarded. In Kolkata the slums are colorful and alive. The hopeless and purposeless are dead.
Below are a selection of photos taken in the slums of Kolkata – I hope you too can see the vitality I found so fascinating. If you have any reflections of your own on the difference between First- and Third-World poverty, please share them. I returned home after this trip both surprised and disquieted by what I'd seen, and I still am not sure why our urban poor seemed to be so much worse off than those I'd seen in India and Pakistan.