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Poverty Porn: What Is It And How To Avoid It?

Before you read this article, ask yourself: what do you think of when you envision someone poor or experiencing poverty? What do they look like? Where do they live? What are they doing? Do you imagine….

A malnourished child? A family living in a dilapidated house? A depressing backstory? Someone with torn and tattered clothes? A dark demeanour? A homeless person? 

If any of these images came to mind – have you ever wondered where and how those images were formed?

For many of us, the image of ‘what poverty should look like’ is often derived from what is portrayed in the media. This stereotype of what another person’s suffering should look like is one of the effects of poverty pornography. 

What Is Poverty Pornography And What Does It Look Like?

The term ‘poverty pornography’ or in short ‘poverty porn’ is generally defined as any type of media – written, photographed or filmed, that exploits or fetishizes poverty to garner sympathy or support for a cause. These types of media are circulated to promote an emotional response of the viewers and are often laced with financial gains through donations for the ‘cause’. Poverty porn perpetuates a certain narrative and stereotype of what poverty should look like[1]

When we see media references about the poor and vulnerable communities, it is often images of malnourished children, a family in a vulnerable or dirty environment, a run down dilapidated house or someone with a sad, gloomy, hopeless face[2]

These images are commonly paired with labels such as “starving children” or “save the vulnerable” which may or may not be the context in which the image was taken[2]. These extreme images have long been effective in eliciting a response from the public. Or at least, until the public becomes desensitised or apathetic to an image or issue and moves on. 

The argument of using images to communicate major humanitarian crises or issues of social justice has long been on the cards. Many organisations rely on photographs to illustrate the message and communicate the need. However, how many of us have considered the possibility that rather than help others, poverty porn may lead to possible considerable damage?

The Impacts Of Poverty Porn 

#1: The exploitation of a person’s suffering to elicit acts of kindness

The main problem with poverty porn is that it is conducted based on objectifying a subject and exploiting their suffering. Poverty porn takes advantage of one person’s lowest and spins a narrative that is guaranteed to trigger feelings of pity, sadness and kindness by the viewers, moving them to donate or give[3]. In many cases, it is objectifying and dehumanising. While the intention may be to ‘raise awareness and funds for vulnerable communities, those images shame the people who are affected, and demean their lifestyle for not being up to par and needing help[3]

#2: It misrepresents poverty and the poor

Poverty porn paints very specific pictures for both poverty and the poor. It disregards the complexities and multi-dimensionality of poverty while putting the focus almost solely on the person itself.  According to critic Diana George, organisations find it difficult to explain all the different forms of poverty to uninterested consumers, let alone illustrate that poverty can occur in all levels of society[4]

Audiences of poverty porn describe poverty as physical suffering and a lack of material resources, whereby those that experience it defines their condition psychologically and emotionally, describing it to be shameful,  inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness[5].  

Too often excluded from these narratives are community members themselves who are creating change: the policymakers, local activists, or people working at a grassroots level such as doctors, nurses and teachers. – Diana George, a critic[4]

The solution of oversimplifying the matter through visible images of suffering was deemed the fastest way to ‘connect’ with their audience. Because of this lack of representation of the different types of poverty, those that do not fit the image are often deemed as ‘undeserving poor’.[3]

#3: Poverty porn triggers short term aid instead of long term advocacy 

Many of us have bought into the belief that once we donate our money to a charity, we are helping people to escape poverty. It embeds the idea that those suffering in poverty cannot help themselves, and look to higher income groups or ‘superiors’ to help[3]. This resurfaces the white saviour complex in the world of philanthropy where developing nations are seen as the saviours to developing nations[6]

When intentions are not in the right place, the self-serving attitude of a cash-rich donor or organisation against a backdrop of needy people only serves to put ‘do gooders’ on the pedestal instead of shedding light on the actual issue[7]. In this dynamic, donors are the only ones that can make a difference and that those receiving help are dependent and powerless in bringing transformation.  

While poverty porn may be effective in raising funds, it disregards the dignity, ability and potential of a person to rise on their feet and make a future for themselves. It focuses on the symptoms of poverty instead of a deeper understanding of the issue of poverty and the necessary structural changes that must occur to effectively address it[3]

Additionally, donations can only go so far in helping alleviate poverty. Long-lasting change requires advocacy, a fresh lens to see people as people and not just an issue or problem and fresh strategies in empowering communities. 

How Can We Communicate Humanitarian Issues Realistically While Upholding Respect For The People Photographed?  

The current dominant narrative of poverty that is told is one narrowly focused on charity, aid and philanthropy. It tells us that poverty and inequality can be overcome simply by “us” giving to “others”. While aid and charity are vital, this narrative on poverty and inequality is limited, skewed and damaging. It acts as a smokescreen distracting the reader from understanding the issue holistically and from demanding action on the real issues that create and perpetuate poverty – issues such as systemic problems and equity and equality for all. 

With a more conscious approach to how we communicate humanitarian issues, we can move beyond this damaging narrative, ensuring that we share effective and holistic messages on poverty and inequality and inspire people to take effective action and minimise any unintended harm we may be doing. 

For Changemakers: 

Be clear about the purpose of our communications. Put people at the heart of our message and have their best interests in mind. Some of these questions will help us to make wiser decisions on what to publish and photograph and what not to. 

  1. What do we want people to think, feel or do when they read our communications?
  2. Does the image devalue, disrespect or disregard the people we are representing or helping? 
  3. What are the intentions of sharing the photos? 
  4. Do the images help to tell the full picture or perpetuate a single perspective on poverty? 
  5. Have we sought the consent of those photographed? 
  6. If we are using photos from other publications, are they credible publications? 

As Changemakers we can do our part in committing to only sharing and taking photographs which: 

  1. Have the informed consent of all relevant parties (eg. the individual, the parent or guardian);
  2. Protect the privacy of those individuals who have been victimised by abuse and exploitation;
  3. Are neither manipulative, dishonest or disrespectful about the circumstances;
  4. Strive to promote respect, dignity and empowerment instead of sympathy and stereotypes.

Organisations can invite supporters to learn more about poverty. By initiating efforts to educate people about the different dimensions of poverty and its effects on people, who are at the heart of it, they would be promoting long term impact. These organisations also have the power to challenge the perception of how people see the poor and their own[8]

A level of understanding needs to be created to properly advocate for the vulnerable and the best way is by letting them tell their own stories. There is no ‘one size fits all’ image when it comes to poverty. Every poverty story is a different one[8]

When fundraising, we need to remember to always portray people with dignity, respect and increase their hope to see the potential in themselves. Believing, advocating and empowering are important in this line of work but the bottom line is that we need to see people are people – not as problems or programs.

We need to move to communications that portray people with dignity and respect and as people with existences full of things that aren’t just misery and desperation. – Diana George, a critic[4]

For Donors: 

Donors should always be particular about the organisations that they are donating to. It is not wrong to donate from a place of an emotional connection because that is where most of us start – but why not take things a step further and ask, “What response does this image provoke in me?”, “Am I empowered as a donor to do more than just give money?”, “How has my perception changed or not changed after I see the images or read the articles?”, “Do I understand the issue better?” 

A donor’s money should be channelled towards those committed to using images and stories that showcase empowerment alongside the need. In a globalised world, more and more individuals are aware of the danger of using images that objectify those in need and exploit their circumstances. By supporting organisations that are committed to an ethical approach to storytelling, we can reduce harm and provide dignity to those we support.

Explore Our Sources:

  1. M. A. Mascovich. (2017). Poverty, Porn and the Picture: Exploring Representation of Exploitative Photography through the Case of Oxfam. Link
  2. G. Allan. (2020). Understanding Poverty Porn, White Savorism & Volunteerism. The Good Problem. Leigh Matthews. Youtube. Link
  3. E. Roenigk. (2014). 5 Reasons Poverty Porn Empowers the Wrong Person. One. Link.
  4. C. B. Moorcroft. (2021). Development with dignity, campaigns with creativity: A Case Against the Use of Poverty Porn in Charity Appeals. PR. Academy. Link. 
  5. G. Roberts. (2020). What is Poverty Porn and Why is it such a Problem? But More Importantly… How can we be better? How can we still achieve charitable goals without objectifying suffering? Good Things Guy. Link. 
  6. SSAP. (2020). Poverty Porn and the (white) saviour complex. Video. Link
  7. The Guardian. (2016). White Saviour Barbie’s world of orphanage selfies and charity startups. Link.
  8. Educate. (2020). “Poverty Porn” and Decolonizing Non-Profit Media: A How-To Guide. Link
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