When I photograph vulnerable people I always try to do it as if those pictures should become a part of my personal family photo album. Whatever the condition under which these people are living, I want to capture all their strength and resilience, all their beauty and kindness.
I want them to be proud of the image that they offer to the world. And they should be proud to watch or show off the photos also in the future when their current difficult conditions — maybe — will be nothing more than distant memories.
Having said that, it is normal that I can not stand the way poor and vulnerable people — especially those living in developing countries — are treated by the mainstream media.
That is a practice called poverty porn, and it does almost nothing to address the real structural problem of poverty. In the next part of this story Emily Roenigk* unfolds the major issues with this common practice.
Five reasons “poverty porn” empowers the wrong person
Generally, the objectification and exploitation of human beings in the media bother me. I’m bothered when media simplify humans, women, and men, down to the characteristics that can be used to prove a point, elicit a high emotional response and generate profit. We see this in advertising, movies, pornography.
There is a similar 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.
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. However, poverty porn defines poverty as merely the observable suffering resulting from a simple lack of material resources. And there’s a reason for this.
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
According to George, poverty porn leads to charity, not activism: donors, not advocates. Poverty porn fails to produce both a deeper understanding of the issue of poverty and the necessary structural changes that must occur to effectively address it. Instead, poverty porn says that material resources are the problem and the solution, where poverty can be addressed through a simple phone call or monthly donation.
To be clear, 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.
Gary Haugan, president & CEO of International Justice Mission and co-author Victor Boutros recently released The Locust Effect, a compelling book about why the end of poverty requires the end of violence. Haugan addresses this necessary shift from treating the symptoms of poverty to treating poverty itself. He writes:
“The history of the world’s effort to fight severe poverty is largely a story of seeing what’s obvious and simple and trying to do something about it, and in the process, discovering the hidden and complex realities of poverty, and then trying to re-engineer solutions that better fit those realities.”
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. In their book, When Helping Hurts, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert explain that the helper and the helped define poverty very differently. Most North American audiences define poverty by physical suffering and a lack of material resources, while the poor define their condition psychologically and emotionally. They use words like shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness (World Bank, 1990).
Additionally, poverty porn becomes competitive because organizations must constantly convince audiences that they are dealing with the most needy or the “deserving poor,” as opposed to the “undeserving poor,” according to George. It is about staying relevant and attractive to donors and it is almost never about the subject, writes critic Lina Srivastava.
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. It fails to awaken Western audiences to the mutual need for transformation they share with their poor brothers and sisters and instead perpetuates dangerous paternalism.
Second, poverty porn debilitates the helped. Poverty porn objectifies its subjects, defining them by their suffering and stripping them of the vital components of all human life — agency, autonomy and unlimited potential. Advertisements and marketing materials depicting the suffering of the poor and soliciting financial support may inadvertently tell subjects that they are indeed helpless beneficiaries, dependent on the support of the wealthy for any lasting transformation.
In reality, successfully addressing poverty means empowering the poor to transform their own communities, even admitting our own inadequacy and ignorance in understanding the true nature of poverty. I have the honor of working for World Relief, a humanitarian agency committed to empowering the local Church to serve vulnerable groups around the world. I love the words of World Relief President & CEO Stephan Bauman in the book Shared Strength when he writes, “Seeking ways to allow the poor to become helpers or actors in their own community change represents the difference between a program and a movement.”
5. Poverty porn works but doesn’t change anything
There’s a reason this depiction of poverty has become so popular among humanitarian aid organizations. When it comes to profitability, poverty porn delivers on its promise. Tom Murphy explains that NGO marking and communications teams are producing these messages because they have been proven effective through rigorous testing.
In fact, audiences are more likely to make a financial donation when an ad shows a child that is suffering, rather than happy and healthy. At the end of the day, poverty porn is the result of well-meaning organizations attempting to raise money for their programs, and it works.
This raises an important question — is the profitability of poverty porn worth the perpetuation of false ideologies and stereotypes? I say no. This may sound counterintuitive to the capitalist nature of Western culture, but it’s really not.
Sustainable change in poor communities is more than the sum of its financial donations. According to Srivastava, if we want to truly transform communities so they are economically and socially just, we have to create avenues for their voices to be heard. We cannot impose our constructs on them.
*This article was originally published on Huffington Post Canada. Emily Roenigk works in social and digital communications for World Relief. She is passionate about telling stories in a way that empowers and honors the vulnerable.