We will like to share the news that MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York) has named The Poverty Line by Chow and Lin one of the top 10 photo books of 2021. It is an incredible and humbling honour.
Opening the newsprint cover of The Poverty Line, by the Singaporean, Beijing-based duo Chow and Lin, feels reminiscent of unwrapping street food at a market. Inside are fruits, vegetables, protein, snacks, and grains, each representing the quantity of food that one could buy with a day’s worth of poverty-line wages. These photographs were made in 36 countries, with each food positioned over a page from that day’s local newspaper.
This typological project inherently invites transnational comparisons. The abundance of spinach that can be purchased in Norway accentuates the unaffordability of fresh vegetables in other nations, suggesting that some governments set their poverty line at an unlivable standard. In the US, the wealth gap is evidenced by a mound of dried pinto beans overlaying an article about vacation homes. And the impacts of imperialism on developing countries can be observed in Madagascar, where 75% of the population falls below the poverty line. There, a single fish consumes the day’s wages, and is presented atop a French newspaper, alluding to histories of colonization and revolt.The cumulative effect of viewing morsel after morsel of delicious food is hunger—a response that feels fitting for a book dedicated to making poverty palpable by expressing it literally, as sustenance, or lack thereof.
–Dana Ostrander, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography
About The Project
The Poverty Line uses the universal lens of food to examine the daily choices we would face living at the poverty line. Over a period of 10 years, from 2010 to 2020, the artists traveled 200,000 kilometers to create case studies of 36 countries and territories spanning six continents.
Each country’s figure uses the official poverty definition to derive a per-person, per-day rate. For middle- and high-income economies, the average low-income household food expenditure is taken into account, while for low-income economies, the entire daily income of a poor individual is used. According to the granted sum of money, food is bought in local marketplaces. Every food group is included: vegetables, fruits, starchy foods, protein, and snacks. Each product is photographed on a local newspaper from the day of the shoot. Dimensions and lighting are carefully determined, in order to express identical aesthetics over time and geographical breakdown. This typological method enables a singular interpretation of the picture, while relating details of each one to the rest of the corpus. The food items were selected on the basis of finding common products available in many of the economies covered in the project and highlight the globalization of food production and consumption. Individual portraits are taken of food using a dramatic spotlight effect to highlight the existence of everyday items in our lives. The work draws on the spirit of classical still-life paintings but approaches the topic with contemporary realism.Newspapers form the monotonous backdrops crowded with headlines screaming for attention. This reflects our incessant obsession with information, but in a format whose relevance is called into question with the rise of digital media. This seismic shift in information dissemination has impacted its accessibility in a connected and distracted civilization.The Poverty Line is a growing conversation that questions our understanding of poverty and inequality. Traversing cultures and economic systems, it confronts the viewer with objective, non-emotional observations of our own circumstance, framed against the fragile balance of social structures, growth, and divide in an entangled, globalized world.
About the Artists
The crux of Chow and Lin’s practice lies in their methodology of statistical, mathematical and computational techniques to address global issues since 2009. Through a typological, photographic approach, Chow and Lin’s projects are driven by the discursive backgrounds in economics, public policy, media, and these are further augmented by enduring exchanges with specialists from those fields. Their works have been referenced by the World Bank and showcased at the Triennale di Milano; United Nations ESCAP, Bangkok; Lianzhou Foto; Les Nuits Photographiques, Paris; China Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum; Getxo Photo; Hermitage Museum, Saint-Petersberg; Myanm/art gallery, Yangon; Museum of Modern Art, Tbilisi and the National University of Singapore Museum. Their works are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, China Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum, Beijing, and Thessaloniki Museum of Photography. Chow and Lin are based in Beijing, China.
Stefen Chow is a Malaysian-born, Singapore-raised visual artist. His work has been awarded by Tokyo Type Director’s Club, World Press Photo, National Geographic, and has worked with institutions including Smithsonian Magazine, GEO, Science, and Nature.
Huiyi Lin is an economist by training and is a market researcher. She has a background in economic policy formulation in Singapore, and currently conducts multi-industry market research in the APAC region. She holds a Bachelor of Social Sciences in economics and mathematics from the National University of Singapore and a Master of Business Administration from the Tsinghua University – MIT Sloan School International MBA Program.
Thank you for reading,
Chow and Lin
7th December 2021