Voicing Agency: Towards a (mis)understanding of
Renzo Martens’ Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty

Enjoy PovertyStill
Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty, film still, by Renzo Martens, 2009.

Renzo Martens’ Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty is one of the most provocative films that have been circulating the art world since its release in 2009. The film has become a trigger for a much-heated debate around issues of agency, ethics, and so-called ‘aesthetic journalism’. In Enjoy Poverty the filmmaker himself takes on the role of the investigative reporter who sets out to explore the heart of darkness of sensationalist media journalism in today’s Democratic Republic of Congo. Martens turns the logics of aid on its head and re-defines poverty not as a lack, but a main resource. In various meetings with rural workers and displaced communities, the artist suggests that to indulge in the suffering, to ‘enjoy poverty’ rather than trying to overcome it, is the way out of the illusionary narrative of ‘development’.

To give an example, one of the key scenes shows a group of adolescent Congolese boys trying to take pictures of sick children in a make-shift camp hospital. As if these images were not already difficult enough, Martens pushes the photographers to take close-up shots of the worst cases: emaciated starving babies. He manages to convince the boys that pictures of “raped women, dead bodies and starving babies” will guarantee them a more profitable income than conventional photographs. Martens’ perverse plan comes to an (expected) end when an official press person rejects the images for their lack of professionalism. The devil’s advocate position, which Martens plays to perfection throughout the film, produces many shocking and provocative scenes. For the filmmaker, however, embodying the very position he seeks to attack is a way to expose the complicit relationship between media, aid, and us, the consumer of these images. In this text, however, I propose that Martens’ method of critique is in fact symptomatic, rather than critical, of the way in which poverty is represented in the commercial mainstream today.

In the following I will schematically sketch out three distinct ‘frames’ of the filmic representation of poverty in Africa. The first ‘frame’ briefly introduces post-colonial filmmaking including the French filmmakers René Vautier and Jean Rouch, but also more recent work by Mali-based Abderrahmane Sissako and the media project Slum TV. The works follow the leftist tradition of activist/militant struggle (Vautier), anthropology and post-modern reflexivity (Rouch), post-coloniality (Sissako) and participatory grass root filmmaking (Slum TV). These approaches, which are essentially based on the post-war school of critical theory, were fundamentally challenged in the 1980s. The second frame focuses on Live Aid, the famous charity concert event of 1985. The use of images of the Ethiopian famine appealed not so much to the political but to the affective sense of an increasingly neo-liberalised mass audience. In the context of contemporary global hyper consumerism representations of poverty and the subaltern have moved from affect to ‘chic’. In the final part I shall place Enjoy Poverty in the context of mainstream advertising language.

Frame I: The Voice of the Image

Afrique 50still
Afrique 50,film still, by René Vautier, 1950.

There is one distinct aspect that marks the following four films. The use of the voice – language – often challenges what the image shows. The voice serves as an analytic tool. It enters the image, breaks and dissects it; the voice deepens the meaning of the image as what we hear changes what we see.
René Vautier’s Afrique 50, 1950, is one of the earliest surviving post-colonial films by a French filmmaker. In this 17 minutes long film 21-year old Vautier comments on images of every-day life in French colonial West Africa. With a high-pitched, nervous voice he exclaims:

“Friends, colonisation here as well as everywhere is the reign of the vultures, these vultures who split Africa amongst themselves have names: West African Commercial Company – a profit of 650 millions in 1949; Company Française de l’Afrique Occidentale – a 365 million profit in 1949; GABOME – a 180 million profit; The French African, The French Niger, The French Company of Ivory Coast, Unilever, the Anglo-Saxon company – 11.5 billion in one year! 40 million stolen from Africans on a daily basis!”

With a voice full of empathy, humour and rage, the filmmaker reveals the historical, economic, ethical and systemic mechanisms of exploitation that led to his visual records of injustice and poverty. In Afrique 50 image, voice and text are placed in an analytic relationship to each other. The image depicts the problem (Africa), the voice represents the knowledge producer (the filmmaker), the text speaks the solution to the problem (system of exploitation, aka colonial France).

Moi, un noir, 1958 still
Moi, Un Noir, film still,Jean Rouch, 1958.

Eight years later, the French anthropologist Jean Rouch attempts to reverse traditional modes of subject representation. In Moi, Un Noir, 1958, Rouch hands over the microphone to the main protagonist by the nickname Edward E. Robinson, a young teenage boy who moved from his home country Niger to Abidjan, Ivory Coast in the hope of finding work. Crossing the river to the new district of Treichville Robinson comments:

“I’ve got to take the ferry, which costs 5 francs out of my 25. I have 20 francs left to buy avocado. My god! Life is complicated! Life is sad! Some people have good food, nice homes, are nearer to God because they live on the 12th floor. But me… I live on the other side. I live in Treichville. Our homes are huts, in houses, but our houses are not well built like on the others. Our lives are different. I get off the ferry and make my way to Treichville. ”

Moi, Un Noir represents an important moment in the history of anthropological filmmaking. It is one of the earliest participatory films in which the (white, colonialising) filmmaker does no longer hold complete authoritarian control over the (black, colonised) subject. Despite his filmic innovations, however, Rouch’s film is still embedded in, and conditioned by, the power structures he seeks to undermine. It is not until the blossoming of so-called Third Cinema in the following three decades that the hierarchical relationship between Western and non-Western film production changes profoundly.

abderrahmane sissako bamakoastill
Bamako, film still, Abdelrahman Sissako, 2006.

A recent important example of Third Cinema is Abdelrahman Sissako’s Bamako, 2006. Having studied filmmaking in Moscow the Mali-based filmmaker uses the language of classical Socialist filmmaking – and again the voice takes centre stage. Bamako is a heavily text-based feature-length semi-documentary about a court case taking place in an open courtyard in Mali’s capital Bamako. Local lawyers and Malian witnesses from all walks of life gather in order to testify against the mechanism of ‘pauperisation’, at the centre of which they place the World Monetary Fund. One of the most memorable speeches is delivered by a female lawyer:

“I have the honour to appear before this court and to lend my robe to a noble and fair cause, but above all to lend my voice to Africa’s silent majority that has been subject for 25 years to the iron law of adjustment, the law of the strongest that has never been the best. Yes, Your Honour, adjustment is an evil, an organised and structured evil, administered and inoculated to our people. This evil, Your Honour, is the cynicism of the debt, the vicious cycle of the debt. This debt has ruined our economies and that has sapped all our energy before we could even pay it off. What must we do faced with the debt’s violence? I hear the Latin Americans. They told us, Your Honour, “El deuda es impagable” – “The dept is simply unpayable.” Yes, Your Honour, it cannot be paid because it is illegitimate, because it is violent. It cannot be paid because it is simply untenable.”

This quote not only addresses the mechanisms and effects of pauperisation, such as the “vicious cycle of debt” and the so-called Global South. It also marks a shift from (self-)victimisation to agency. The woman lends her voice to the voiceless (the “silent majority’); her voice is a method of empowerment.

Mr Onyango’s NeighboursStill
Mr Onyango’s Neighbours, Slum TV

The importance of agency is also central to the media project Slum TV. Mr Onyango’s Neighbours, 2008, a 3-minute clip by Esther Wanjiru was produced for the Newsreel for Peace series of Slum TV, a media organisation based in Mathare, a slum of 50.000 people in Nairobi, Kenya. Slum TV provides film equipment and offers workshops for the local residents in Nairobi’s vast informal settlement. Presenting an inside perspective of life in Mathare, Slum TV functions as a kind of local news station. Seeking to reverse the Western gaze Slum TV organises competitions, public screenings and festivals that attract large audiences. Mr Onyango’s Neighbours is a short low budget video portrait of a local, who speaks openly about the tensions in the mixed tribal area of the slum.

“I’m a Luo. I am the only Luo staying here. I live with Kambas, Luyas and Kikuyus. […] When the chaos started I could not go outside the house. They started talking about tribalism. They did not want Luos beside them because Luos were fighting them. They didn’t tell me they wanted me to go but they didn’t want me near them. […] I have lived here since 1969, I have never seen anything like that with my neighbours since I have been here.”

In this short video clip we visit Onyango’s home, meet his friend, a Kamba, and follow the old man through the slum. Esther, the director, is part of the young Slum TV team, an organisation founded in 2007. Slum TV can be considered the most recent manifestation of participatory filmmaking. The poor are not presented as a mere image but as a speaking subject.

The above examples, which mainly focus on the history of French colonisation, give an insight into the complexity and richness of ethical filmmaking in and about Africa. The history of (white) Western anthropology and Third (and) African cinema production is vast and complex. At first sight, Enjoy Poverty seems to part of this history, however I argue, that in fact, the film functions on a structurally different level. In Martens’ film the poor is not a speaking subject whose voice represents depth and interiority, but the poor is mere image, a surface on which global power games are played out. But at which point in time did this shift in spectatorship, the shift from text to image occur?

Frame II: The Affective Image

Live Aid is an example of the way in which the problem of poverty in Africa moved from a political, historical discourse to the affective, privatised space of fund raising in the 1980s. It is indicative of the shift from international political struggle into the personal sphere of private space, which occurred in the mid 1970s in the face of the decline of the Socialist utopia and the conservative turn in world politics. Live Aid was a music concert performed simultaneously at the London Wembley Stadium and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia in 1985 for the benefit of the Ethiopian famine. The event presented famous bands such as Queen, U2, Status Quo, Elivis Castello, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner just to mentioned a few. Unprecedented on the level of music, scale and marketing Live Aid has become a household name for those who grew up in the 1980s as it marks a milestone in the history of aid. Images of poverty, for example the famous image of the undernourished young girl Birhan Wold in the Live Aid video, did not call for joint political struggle, but for financial help.* With Live Aid the relationship between pop entertainment, image consumption and aid reached a new level. Let’s not forget that Bob Geldorf, British musician and founder of Live Aid, first developed the idea of Live Aid after watching a television documentary about the famine in Ethiopia.

It is in the context of the 1980s that the groundwork for Martens’ approach to questions around spectatorship, ethics and representation was laid. Martens follows the post-modern move away from the politics of the text to a consumerist economy of images, or in other words Enjoy Poverty is symptomatic of the shift from analysis (voice) to affect (image).

Frame III: Poverty Chic

Annie Leibovitz for Louis Vuitton’s Core Values advertising campaign, shot in March 2010.

After an outstanding Live Aid performance at Wembley stadium U2’s lead singer Bono continued his engagement for Africa and has become somewhat of an ambassador for poverty. The (visual) association between the sunglass-wearing musician and development work in Africa has been strategically used in a recent advertising poster for ‘ethical’ Louis Vuitton designer bags. The photography (taken by Annie Leibovitz) shows his wife Ali Hewson and the singer himself stepping off a glider in the middle of the African steppe. Both carry Vuillton bags; Bono holds a guitar case in one hand and in the other a massive leather bag imprinted with the iconic logo. The white explorer sets out to put order into the African wilderness with the help of the luxury goods industry.

Vivienne Westwood’s Ethical Fashion Africa advertising campaign, photo by photographer Jürgen Teller, 2011.

Another example of ‘poverty chic’ can be found in Vivienne Westwood’s Ethical Fashion Africa advertising campaign. Taken by star photographer Jürgen Teller these photographs show the queen of punk fashion parading her latest designs amidst rubbish dumps in underdeveloped areas in Nairobi. In one particularly striking image, Westwood catwalks down an abandoned train track balancing a red waste container on her head seemingly imitating the posture of local female workers. It might be true that these designer items provide work opportunities in the so-called Third World, however, the way in which images of these exploited places are depicted is simply tactless. While Live Aid is indicative of a generation that although well-meaning still sustained the global inequalities it sought to overcome, the hyper-consumer of the 1990s and early 21st century produces a very different image of poverty. Live Aid’s use of images appealed to a problematic but nonetheless empathic identification with the suffering subject, Westwood’s advertising campaign, on the other hand, aestheticises poverty and renders
it perversely sublime. This process, however, incapacitates her to even begin to deconstruct the trauma. “I know, yet I consume”, Westwood seems to be saying.

Enjoy Poverty blue
Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty, film still, by Renzo Martens, 2009.

Arguably, Enjoy Poverty falls into the same logic. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a big blue neo sign reading ‘Enjoy Poverty’ is put up in the middle of a remote village. Ignorant of the actual concept behind this event, the villagers celebrate the blue electric glow with chanting and dancing. This scene presents what one could call the sublime ecstasy of trauma. Yet, the cynicism of this eerie, violent moment is almost unbearable. Originally used for advertising purposes the neon lights in this context render the situation utterly ironic, if not grotesque.

Enjoy Poverty personalises structural violence by focusing on the affective power of the image à la Live Aid and de-personalises it by withdrawing any possibility of intervention by rendering poverty sublime à la Westwood. This is where its provocation lies.

Enjoy Poverty proposes an institutional critique involving an international network of political actors, NGOs, the media, local residents who generate income from exploiting foreign aid and us, the consumer of those images. Tapping into the ‘white guilt’ complex of the West, the film is exclusively intended for a Western art audience. It is this very audience that has been celebrating Enjoy Poverty for its critique of the Aid-Industry. This text, however, sought to focus on the potential of agency of the (African) subject. I have come to conclude that Martens’ institutional critique only functions at the expense of the latter.


* Birhan Wold shared the stage with Madonna at the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park, London in 2005. The image of Wold as a grown-up, beautiful, strong African woman has become a visual metaphor for ‘the West done good’.

Published September 22, 2013.