A photo series ostensibly highlighting hunger in India shared on the Instagram handle of World Press Photo on Sunday has received a flood of criticism for its depiction of poverty. The images, by Italian photographer Alessio Mamo, show a series of malnourished and poor people standing in front of a table of food, with their hands covering their faces. The photos were taken in villages of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The photographer said in the caption that he had “brought...a table and some fake food, and...told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table.”

These photographs are from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh two of the poorest states of India. From the series "Dreaming Food", a conceptual project about hunger issue in India. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ My name is Alessio Mamo (@alessio_mamo) an Italian freelance photographer based in Catania, Sicily. In 2008 I began my career in photojournalism focusing on contemporary social, political and economic issues. I extensively cover issues related to refugee displacement and migration starting in Sicily, and extending most recently to the Middle East. I was awarded 2nd prize in the People Singles category of #WPPh2018 and this week I’m taking over World Press Photo's Instagram account. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Despite economic growth, a majority of the Indian population still lives in extreme poverty and disease. Behind India’s new-found economic strength are 300 million poor people who live on less than $1 per day. Government figures may indicate a reduction in poverty. But the truth is, with increasing global food prices, poverty is spreading everywhere like a swarm of locusts. These pictures are taken in rural areas where conditions are worse than in the cities and where close to 70% of India’s population reside today. Statistics show that 2.1 million children under 5 years old die of malnutrition annually. The idea of this project was born after reading the statistics of how much food is thrown away in the West, especially during Christmas time. I brought with me a table and some fake food, and I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #WPPh2018#asia #dreamingfood #india

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Mamo had won the second prize in the People category of the World Press Photo of the Year Awards 2018, for his photograph of an 11-year-old victim of a missile explosion in Kirkuk, Iraq. The awards are organised every year by the World Press Photo Foundation, a Dutch non-profit that aims to support photojournalism. World Press Photo had tweeted on July 16 that Mamo would be taking over their Instagram feed. The Italian photographer has shared several of his photographs on the World Press Photo’s account for the past seven days. Photographers selected by the organisation regularly handle the account for select periods. It is not known if the photographs they share during this period are vetted by the World Press Photo Foundation.

Mamo’s India photographs were from his series “Dreaming Food”, which he described as a “conceptual project about hunger issue in India”. He said the photographs are from two of the poorest states of India, though the metric he used for that assessment is not clear. Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, in terms of GDP, are in the top 10 Indian states, though they are among the bottom on various human development indicators.

Mamo said he thought of doing the project after learning how much food is thrown away in the West.

There was severe backlash against Mamo and World Press Photo on social media, including from photojournalists, with many contending that the photograph had depicted poverty in a way that was exploitative and gimmicky, a portrayal that is known as poverty porn. “I can’t think of a better example of someone casting ethics aside and pursuing their own selfish and distorted ideas by using people to gain recognition and awards,” said one Facebook user.

Mamo’s post on Instagram too received many critical comments, with users calling it “ethically deplorable” and cruel. In his responses to some of the comments, Mamo clarified that the photos were not shot with the involvement of World Press Photo but with a local humanitarian organisation. To a flood of questions on whether the people in his photos had been fed at some point during the shoot, he said, “...All the people from the villages where we went had their food obviously. Actually, after we explained to them the idea they wanted to be photographed and be part of the project.”

In another response, he said, “My intention was exactly to represent in a stereotyped way these Indian landscape in order to reinforce the concept. This was the idea behind, maybe I did it wrong, or maybe just you don’t like or you think it’s unethical, but the concept was to problematize food waste in front of the hunger in this area of the world.”

A screenshot of Alessio Mamo's response.
A screenshot of Alessio Mamo's response.

In a statement released on Monday evening, World Press Photo pointed to its guidelines and said that these are kept “under constant review to learn from the debates about pictures and projects the photographers share”.

“Photo contest winners and digital storytelling contest winners are given the opportunity to takeover the World Press Photo Instagram account for a week to share work of their choosing...

Alessio Mamo’s takeover started on 16 July and ended on 22 July. Other than his portrait of Manal, none of the photographs Alessio has shared were awarded prizes in the photo contest...

The World Press Photo Foundation is a platform that connects members of our community (contest winning photographers, masterclass participants, etc.) with the general audience. Being a platform we do not limit photographer’s choices beyond the guidelines provided, and we ask the photographers to respond directly to the audience when questions arise.” 

The full statement is available here.

Note: This copy has been updated to include World Press Photo’s statement.