Ana Maria Ilie
What does “Poverty Porn” mean? Is any type of media – written, photography, film – that exploits the state of the poor to generate sympathy, to collect charitable donations or support for a particular cause. It is usually used to highlight poverty in African and the urgency to donate for children in order not to die of hunger.
As Emily Roenigk reveals in her work and articles – there is a problem with the way we represent the poor in our media, exploiting their condition and even their suffering for financial gain. As we often do with the objectification of women, we need to pause and ask ourselves whether it is ethical to depict the graphic qualities of a human being to Western audiences for the sole purpose of eliciting an emotional experience and ultimately, money. This way, poverty porn takes shape and it does almost nothing to address the real structural problem of poverty.
Along the way, the effects of this practice became more and more clear and obvious so here are five major issues that describe the concept of poverty porn:
1. Poverty porn misrepresents poverty
Poverty is a result of both individual and systemic problems, involving not only personal circumstances but the social and justice systems in place that either work to empower the poor or perpetuate their condition.
According to critic Diana George, organizations have a hard time convincing Western audiences that real poverty exists outside their day-to-day life in a culture that is completely saturated by images. She writes that showing extreme despair may seem like the only solution. Poverty porn shows grotesque crises, often through individual stories, that audiences can easily mend through a simple solution or donation. Poverty porn makes a complex human experience understandable, consumable and easily treatable.
2. Poverty porn leads to charity, not activism.
This kind of giving has the potential to make significant impacts once in the hands of organizations that address poverty in a sustainable way. However, it perpetuates dangerous ideologies along the way that do more harm than good. It tells the poor that they are helpless beneficiaries and it tells financially secure donors that they are the saviors. In this dynamic, donors are told that they are the only ones with the ability to make a difference. Nothing is said about what it would look like to empower the poor and walk alongside them to help them realize their inherent ability to be the change agents in their own communities.
3. Poverty porn misrepresents the poor
George writes, “In such images, poverty is dirt and rags and helplessness.” In reality, poverty has “many faces” and no simple solution. Poverty doesn’t only look like a starving child with flies on his face. In fact, poverty doesn’t look any particular way. It is multi-faceted and should be depicted as such. Reporter Tom Murphy writes, “Suffering is a part of poverty, as is good news, as is a family sitting down for a meal.”
Poverty is holistic, affecting the whole person and not just what is seen.
4. Poverty porn deceives the helper and the helped
One of the biggest problems with poverty porn is that it is incredibly successful at empowering the wrong person. It does this in two ways. First, Poverty porn tells donors that because of their position in society and because of their resources they have the ability to be the saviors in vulnerable communities they might know nothing about. Second, poverty porn debilitates the helped.
5. Poverty porn affects the human dignity
Showing children and moms in a very bad look, but intentionally searching for that in order to impress and raise awareness it’s really damaging and gives not an accurate image of the situation. In addition, encourage and enforce stereotypes about certain parts of the world and about people.
In order to raise funds about different humanitarian causes there can be a different approach with focus on campaigns that respect human rights and the people’s dignity, where the context is very clear presented and the protagonists can speak for themselves.
For instance, follow the Golden/Rusty Radiator Awards where there are shown positive ways of collecting funds and emphasizing on the effects of the poverty porn approach.
Ana Maria Ilie
The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author, and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of ALDA and the European Union.