Poverty Porn: The line between informative and exploitative

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Children playing in rural Peru. “Poverty porn” overwhelmingly effects people from vulnerable backgrounds, such as children in less developed areas.

Think about the news images that are the most memorable and have left the biggest impact on you.

Whether it be the aftermath of a bomb blast in Syria or the lifeless body toddler washed up on a beach in Turkey chances are- it’s graphic.

And if it’s not, it probably shows someone’s emotional reaction or the aftermath to something that was. A whole city destroyed by an earthquake. A tearful mother. A crowd at a memorial.

Whatever the case, chances are it shows vulnerable people in a vulnerable position. War, famine, and disaster are undeniably horrible. But the images that come of them can move and mobilise people in ways that other images can’t.

Take for example Malcom Wilde Browne’s Press Photo of the Year winning “Burning Monk”. In 1963 a Vietnamese monk, Thich Quang Duc, set himself alight in Saigon to protest the treatment of Buddhists by the majority Catholic, US supported, government at the time.

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Photo by Malcom Wilde Browne (AP Images)

Browne’s photo was too graphic to be published at first. But when it eventually was the significance was quickly recognised. It made enough waves for president Kennedy to comment that; “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”

Obviously, graphic images serve more than just our morbid curiosities. They leave a lasting impact on the audience, and allow us to emotionally connect with an event in a way that words can’t.

But when do these pictures stop being informative and start being exploitative? To begin to understand that, we need to understand the concept of “poverty porn”.

Aid worker Jorgen Lissner first talked about it in his 1981 article “Merchants of Misery”. The term came from his claim that, “the starving child image is seen as unethical, because it comes dangerously close to being pornographic… it exhibits the human body and soul in all its nakedness, without any respect for the person involved”.

Lissner coined the term to refer to images of starving African children, but now it’s used more broadly. Matt Collins, development researcher at Oxford university, defines poverty porn as “any type of media […] which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.”

Poverty porn, is by definition, exploitative. And it can be harmful.

“It misrepresents the poor and denies them their dignity, and it deceives both the helper and the helped,” claims writer for Non Profit Quarterly, Jim Schaffer.

Ultimately, in drawing the line between information and exploitation, money is the key.

Was the goal of including these pictures to give the audience a better idea of something that’s happening in the world? Is it to illustrate the harsh reality of a serious situation in a way words can’t? Or… is it to encourage the public to open their wallets?

If it’s the latter, then what you’re doing is probably exploitative.

And although, in the case of charities, this is often with good intentions, Lissner argues that it’s not an excuse.

“Good intentions simply aren’t enough if they are pursued with little or no regard for the political side effects, with little or no understanding of what such images do to the mentality, the attitudes, the political emotions and behaviour of their audience.” He says.

The truth is in a lot of cases “poverty porn”, and those photos your uncle shares on facebook of a kid in hospital with the words “share if this breaks your heart”, don’t really achieve anything tangibly educational. The audience isn’t given enough information to actually become informed about anything.

Nathalie Dortonne, a multimedia journalist, writes that poverty porn “leaves many of us feeling uncomfortable, disconnected and guilty — conflicted between turning a blind eye and re-posting these pictures in hopes that sharing images of human suffering will enlighten others about poverty.”

In the end, Browne’s photo didn’t make waves without context.

Perhaps in some cases the end justifies the means. But unless that end is bettering society by educating the public or helping the people in the images- you’re essentially making bank off someone’s suffering.

And that, frankly, is unjustifiable.

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