I Was Accused of Producing Poverty Porn

Two days ago I had my first photo exhibit. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for several years and I’m still overwhelmed by the amount of people who came out to support me – people from nearly every realm of my life. It was inspiring on more than one level and, through the sale of prints, I was able to raise a decent amount of money for the people of Havana. In the weeks leading up to the exhibit, I’d received messages from numerous people congratulating me on the achievement and thanking me for the inspiration they managed to find in my photos from Cuba. While I appreciate every message that finds its way to my inbox, I rarely mention positive feedback because it too easily sounds like humble bragging and, frankly, nobody gives a shit. However, not every response has been positive. I considered addressing some of the more critical messages I’d gotten before the exhibit, but thought it better to wait until afterward so as not to hang a dark cloud of negativity over the gallery. I’m not totally above craving controversy but I didn’t want it to be perceived as a crutch or as a cheap tactic to attract attention to the exhibit. The event was a success and is now behind me, so I’d like to address the following messages, the senders of which will remain anonymous.

Here’s a thought… instead of shoving a camera in their face why don’t you actually HELP these people??? Or will that not get you enough likes? Did you even attempt to get to KNOW these people…. probably not? These people need things like food and medicine, not some stupid tourist snapping pictures of them like they’re animals in a zoo.

Not cool to take pics of less fortunate people and say you’re an artist. You’re very talented but I’d expect more from a fellow minority living in a country with such a long history of oppression. Shame on you. #povertyporn

[…] I would really love to show up and support your show because I believe in the genuine nature of you efforts. I have some questions though that potentially might make me sound like an asshole. […] The images you’ve been posting on IG border on the lines of poverty porn and further “other” people who are already marginalized. I noted that with each post, you indicated that permission was granted […] but what other efforts did you make – on a personal level –  to ensure you weren’t just another tourist doing poverty tours in another country and bringing back images that may misrepresent an entire group of people? Were the voices of your subjects captured in the narratives you will be presenting at your show? If so, how? I’d love to hear from you and have a conversation about your work, I really want to support it. I’m all about supporting artists of color, but in awarding support and helping advance works, I think it’s important to be critical. I know I sound completely pretentious, and like who really gives a fuck about my support when you have a crew backing you, but as members of a marginalized group, we have to be careful and responsible not to contribute to the oppression of people of color.

This type of feedback is far from uncommon in the toxic landfill of projected insecurities that is my inbox. If I took the time to respond to every finger that’s ever been wagged at something I wrote, rapped, tweeted, filmed, or photographed, I’d likely be just as productive but would have little if any time to watch Game of Thrones or to rant to my wife about all the clever shit I could say to every person who wags their finger at something I wrote, rapped, tweeted, filmed, or photographed. The above messages, however, are exceptions as they take aim not only at my character but at my passion for being a hands-on appreciator of foreign cultures and faraway places. Really, I just feel like talking some shit. My intent is not necessarily to attack or lash out at the individual senders but to address anyone and everyone as a whole who might be of the same opinion but who lack the staggering amount of nerve required to speak on it. I of all people cherish freedom of expression and I support your right to it even when I consider that which you choose to express freely to be a 5-day load of self-righteous dog shit. As such, I commend these senders for having the audacity – not to mention the free time – to go out on a limb and speak their piece. Now, in the interest of free expression, allow me to speak mine.

To varying degrees, I’ve maintained a consistent internet presence for well over a decade. In that time, I’ve been called a nigger-lover by a white man, a culture vulture by a black man, a spic by someone who mistook me for Hispanic, and a mud baby by someone who decided I fit the criteria for whatever the fuck that means. I’ve been threatened with everything from violence to bad reviews. I’ve been called a racist, a bigot, a chauvinist, a sexist, an apologist, a dick rider, a troll, a fraud, a faggot, a lame ass faggot, a lame pussy ass faggot, and a genius. As rude as you might find most of the names and words on that list, none irk me quite as much as being referred to as a tourist and an artist of color.

While the annual misdirected anger award obviously goes to the first sender, the second and third are actually more annoying because they attempt to appeal to what they wrongly assume are a set of ideals we share based solely on the fact that we’d be standing next to each other in a crayon box – you know, if we were crayons. This a brilliant tactic when trying to manipulate stupid people – or, in this case, those you mistake for stupid people. Establish and continually reference a common ground between you and the person you’re going out of your way to attack so as to appear genuinely concerned instead of hostile and arrogant. Your opponent will take your criticism as constructive, thus decreasing the likelihood of them telling you to go fuck yourself all the way back to the stone age. What the second and third sender fail to realize, however, is that we share no common ground. There is no we. Attack at will, but please refrain from lumping me in with whatever vague group of people you consider yourself a part of and for whom you’ve deemed yourself a spokesperson. We’re not crayons, and I don’t believe in groups of people. One thing I’ve never been is marginalized. I am in no way a victim of discrimination or oppression. “Victim” is a reactionary label most often worn by choice. I wear no such label and owe exactly nothing to anyone who chooses to. Furthermore, anyone whose support is contingent on me labeling myself an “artist of color” is free and encouraged to take their support the fuck elsewhere.


The internet is the greatest social experiment ever conducted. It provides a fairly boundless platform for anyone to speak their mind, regardless of whether their mind has ever produced an original thought. Every day, social media sites serve as a virtual battleground upon which socially obsolete baby boomers and impassioned first-year college students alike can duke it out, the former blaming smartphones for the impending apocalypse and the latter announcing their plans to save the world via hashtags and picket signs. Watch a few Netflix documentaries, skim over some articles written by people with whom your politics and limited worldview align perfectly, and you too can call yourself an activist – a concerned citizen of the world you know little about because you wouldn’t dare leave the safety of your home, let alone your country. Why actually go out into the world when you can form your opinion of it right from your computer? For Christ’s sake, you don’t even need to put on pants. The best part? Nobody will ever call your bluff. You use fancy words like neocolonialism and gentrification, and you throw around the race, gender, class, and/or sexual orientation card faster than a coked-up Gambit working the night shift as a casino dealer. I mean, you know like every Rage Against the Machine song, so you obviously know what you’re talking about.

The person I’m describing is a spirited one, always prepared to fight tooth and nail for what they believe in this year, and because they only surround themselves with people who are either like-minded or non-confrontational, they’re permitted to coast through life calling themselves activists without ever facing any real resistance whatsoever. They carry their soapboxes with them everywhere they go. They annoy the shit out of their friends and relatives with their social, political, or religious positions, but they’re rarely challenged. After all, nobody wants to be the person fighting with the person who’s fighting for equality. But they’re not fighting for equality. They’re fighting for attention and recognition. They’re not here to change the world but to scold and police and vilify others. They’re not freedom fighters or revolutionaries, they’re social justice bullies, douche bags of the highest order, smugly searching their newsfeeds for the slightest reason to blow their whistles. They’ve appointed themselves the parental figures of the virtual world, the hall monitors, the lifeguard at the lake who hasn’t saved shit but never misses an opportunity to yell at you for splashing. We see these people on the internet every day. We read their dramatic rants, their politically charged babble, their cries for attention and their erroneous attacks, some of which aim indirectly at us or someone we love, and we continually bite our tongues because we simply lack the energy required to stoop to their level. Soon these people, never having been checked or put in their place, find their way to your inbox, like wolves that come to sniff at your front door, wolves you assumed would stay in the forest. And that’s when you’re left with no choice but to pick up your rifle. Not to shoot anyone, but because these people usually get wicked bent out of shape about guns.

I’ve been privileged to see several countries on 4 of the 7 continents, and while I’m no travel guru and certainly no anthropological expert, something I’ve come to know is this: just as people whom we in the western world classify as less fortunate don’t want to be treated like animals on a safari, neither do they want to be treated like – or thought of as – oppressed people of color. That’s an American trait, kept alive by a passed-down sense of entitlement and a culture that not only enables but rewards victims to remain victims. The Cubans I met are not victims. They’re proud, self-sufficient people who do more with what little they have than most people where I’m from do with all the money, food, soap, salt, medicine, education, and government assistance one could reasonably ask for. And if you think it even possible for the handful of images I captured in Havana to somehow be mistaken to represent an entire country – an entire culture – an entire people – then please redirect your critical bullshit toward the person who’s actually making the mistake, even if that person is you.

I’m not what’s wrong with the world. I bear no responsibility and feel no moral obligation to fix, cater to, or apologize for stupid people who might take my words or images out of context. I’m not defending my motives and my integrity, artistic or otherwise, is not on trial. I’m not here to protest or fight the power or persuade anyone to think or conduct themselves in a way that differs from how they already do. I’m not an activist or a humanitarian. You have the wrong guy. I’m a full-fledged nihilist who gives beer money to homeless people because I like beer too and because we’ll all be nameless once our bones turn back into space dust and everything we hold dear and important is gone as if it never even happened. I stumble drunk through exotic places I’m cautioned against visiting, wide-eyed and completely fucking baffled by the very notion of being anywhere. I purposely share awkward car rides and meals and cigarettes with people I don’t know and occasionally can’t communicate with. Sometimes, I get to take their picture. Whether I spend 5 minutes or 5 days with these people, they become a part of my life and they don’t even realize it. Their faces are scattered throughout my every day, hanging on the walls of my home and my office. I have breakfast with the Thai lady I photographed paddling a canoe through the floating markets of Bangkok. I sit at my desk and look up at the old monk I shot crossing a street in Singapore and the young graffiti artist I shot painting a wall in Australia. My pictures are important to me because they make me remember how big the world is and how lucky I am to have seen a good chunk of it. In a way, I feel strangely indebted to the people in them. It’s a relationship between us – them and me – and whether you love, hate, or question the photos we made together, you’re merely an outside observer, and I owe you no explanation.

To the artists who read my bullshit: don’t hold back for stupid people, even ones you’re related to or grew up with. Spare not their feelings. Your art and its appreciators deserve as much.

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