“Poverty Porn”: Documentation of Poverty, for Profit

Evelyn Harford 

Stereotypical Poverty Porn Image

Stereotypical Poverty Porn Image (Wiki Commons)

Images carry powerful messages and can engage us deeply and personally, especially in vulnerable moments. Watching TV, reading the news, and viewing webpage after webpage, many images we see go unquestioned. Until my exploration and emersion into the world of African Studies, I too had become complacent and uncritical of  what our media presents as truths.

My critical look at media’s representation of an African identity assigned, and accepted by Western humanitarian organizations must be debunked and criticized. We’ve all turned on the TV on Sunday mornings to the sight of a child in poverty. They are usually African, and used in media propagated by humanitarian organizations, such as World Vision, Free the Children etc. The depiction of this child ridden with flies and red-caked earth is detached from any connection to the child’s individual experience.

This individual child that you see becomes the embodiment of poverty and connection to innocence. The innocent nature of the child remains a quintessential element of any campaign geared to raising money for poverty reduction. This sets up the savior-victim model and poverty is not seen to be a systemic problem in need of serious finance and reform, but a simplified social issue that individual donation will help to eradicate.

In these advertisements, there is no mention of the story behind this child aside from the typical narrative surrounding: AIDS, famine, orphanages and humanitarian tragedy. You, the viewer, become the savior; you, the viewer, are the subject to define change. This perverted archetype generalizes a whole continent, especially for those western, upper-middle class do-gooders disengaged from any real understanding of endemic poverty and the business behind humanitarianism.

The concept of ‘poverty porn’ uses the images of poor, starving victims of a world system that we, the West, help to propagate.

Poverty porn’s aim is to use deeply moving images for the sale and capital generation used by humanitarian organizations.

Poverty porn’s hypocritical nature strikes to the heart of what is wrong with the West’s humanitarian industry, and media.

Addis Ababa Slum in Ethiopia (Evelyn Harford)

Addis Ababa Slum in Ethiopia (Evelyn Harford)

The coverage of the global south mobilizes these images to tug on the heartstrings of unsuspecting donors or customers, so that they buy into the ‘poverty eradication’ culture. There is some misconception that humanitarianism is a purely altruistic act. Donations within the context of humanitarian organizations are not purely to aid this archetypal “poverty child” but to pay administration fees, and aid in the business-side of non-profit organizations.

The Not-for-profit sector does exist. However, the motivation for many humanitarian organizations is to pay the salary of their workers. Money continues to flow into these organizations due to their “Band-Aid” solutions that do not fix long-standing, entrenched social injustices and the bad governance that lies at the heart of why poverty still exists. If these problems were eradicated, would the humanitarian industry exist… would there be jobs? The answer is no. Poverty porn works as a mechanism to engage the viewer with a paradigmatic assertion of the Global South with which they are familiar.

I am not trying to assert by any means that the humanitarian machine is bad, but merely to suggest that when poverty porn is used as a money making tool – this counts as ethically immoral. The pretenses for which images of poverty porn are used are not purely altruistic, and the consent of the children used is questionable. It is not the action of use per say that is the ultimate issue. Rather, it is the paradigmatic reinforcement of the Global South as “victim” and the West as “savior” that is detrimental to really solving endemic poverty.

This voyeuristic enchantment with the poor, reinforces the binary between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” It desensitizes the viewer, and often reinforces stereotypes the social space in question. We end up victimizing the victimized.

Kathy Brittain Richardson, in her book Images that Endure: Pictoral Stereotypes in the Media argues that, “Reputation of uncontexualized images as victims of war or poverty enables audiences to ignore the problems represented because they have become desensitized to the horror…” or conversely, are “Too aroused by the beautiful image to fully take it seriously.” Images of poverty engage those who have privilege because they are so foreign. Importantly, the artistic rendering of these poverty-stricken individuals is dangerous because it conflates suffering with beauty.

Imagine as the camera focuses inward and you look eye to eye with a real child who is in the mist of their seemingly inescapable hell. In this moment you cannot look away, you cannot plug your ears, and for a moment you are human with another human. There is no difference between you besides the time and space in which you were both born. Yet, regardless of this seemingly tangible connection you have made with this moving image, you continue to have the privilege to change the channel, flip the page and move along with your day.

Little girl in Masai Village in Tanzania (Evelyn Harford)

Little girl in Masai Village in Tanzania (Evelyn Harford)

This idea of “poverty porn” struck me while driving through a slum of Moshi, Tanzania when I was 16 years old. I had never witnessed such poverty first-hand. Without thought I pulled out my camera and started taking pictures. However, something did not feel right. How did I have the right to capture these individuals in undignified, and at times humiliating, circumstances? My experience changed my outlook on this sort of ‘slum tourism’ and aid projects, which in my view are largely for the ego of the upper-middle class Westerner to get a taste of poverty reaffirming their own privilege. What gives humanitarian organizations the right to export these images to benefit the business of aid.

On my second trip to Africa, I went to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Yes, I did see poverty, but this time my knowledge and experience within the University of Toronto’s African Studies Program armed me with a sense of responsibility not to present these sorts of stereotypes in my images.

I am not stipulating that these images should be banned outright, I am asking us to reflect on the implications of uncontextualized and generalized images. These images can perpetuate stereotypes and do not necessarily positively impact the communities where the images are taken. It is not the image that matters so much as the context of viewing and the stereotypes that are being established.

The fact that poverty can be used as a means of profit is disturbing. Unless the images are dignified and implemented in a media form used to not only build capacity for the global south, but to educate about the system of endemic poverty, I believe that they should be avoided.

Images without education are dangerous. Pictures truly do “say 1000 words,” and can reaffirm many hidden racist, biased, and often dangerously simplistic stereotypes that will do nothing to combat endemic poverty. It is not about banning these pictures, but more about education and contextualization of the images. In an age of quick media, images can flash without thought as to where they come from, or why they are important. It is a personal choice to take these photos, but it is another more detrimental choice to export them for consumption to the masses in a fashion that perpetuates the uninformed norms established through years of poverty porn production.

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3 responses to ““Poverty Porn”: Documentation of Poverty, for Profit

  1. Reblogged this on The Critical Nomad and commented:
    This article was written in reflection after two trips I had taken to the African continent–one when I was 16 to Moshi, Tanzania, the other when I was a 20 year old university student to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. During the trip to Addis Ababa, I noticed a dramatic difference in the imagery and focus of my photographs from the images taken when I was 16. I question whether this was due to the concious effort of educating myself about the power of images, or the unconcious decolonization of my mind.

  2. Pingback: Operationalizing Empathy | Reboot·

  3. Pingback: Topic: “Poverty Porn” | #RethinkAid·

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