I find this week’s topic interesting because, as a media and photography student, I am totally familiar with the ethics, as well as the power of photographs that can move the toughest person in the world, but never did I think of the implicit threats it may contain. So I did some research.
What is “poverty porn”?
- Poverty porn is “Maury, Jerry Springer, and any show that purposefully uses the extremely poor and/or desperate uneducated people to exploit them for the purpose of entertainment”, according to Urban Dictionary
- Poverty porn is “a tactic used by nonprofits and charity organisations to gain empathy and contributions from donors by showing exploitative imagery of people living in destitute conditions”, according to CNN
There could be many definitions of poverty porn, in general, it is showing suffering on the media for a purpose, normally for a good one. Poverty porn is used for a unquestionably good cause: to help reduce poverty and suffering. But that is also when I found out the problem of it: it serves a purpose. Because it serves a purpose, its images are created in a certain way to serve the purpose, which creates the (wrong) stereotype in audiences’ mind and misunderstanding of poverty and suffering and what is really needed to do to fix it. Here are the 5 reasons why poverty porn empowers the wrong person, listed by The Huffington Post:
- 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. The reason is by showing extreme despair, audiences can easily mend through a simple solution or donation.
- Poverty porn misrepresents the poor: while the poor define their condition psychologically and emotionally, most North American audiences defiines poverty by physical suffering and lack of material resources. As seen on the media, poverty is dirt and rags and helplessness while it actually has many faces and no simple solution.
- Poverty porn leads to charity, not activism: 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, it says that material resources are the problem and the solution, where poverty can be addressed through a simple phone call or monthly donation.
- Poverty porn deceives the helper and the helped: This could be the biggest problem. First, 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, it defining poor people by their suffering and stripping them of the vital components of all human life — agency, autonomy and unlimited potential, it tell them that they are indeed helpless beneficiaries, dependent on the support of the wealthy for any lasting transformation.
- And lastly, poverty porn works: Audiences are more likely to make a financial donation when an ad shows a child that is suffering, rather than happy and healthy. Eventually, poverty porn is the result of well-meaning organisations attempting to raise money for their programs.
But the question is, is the profitability worth the perpetuation of false ideologies and stereotype? It reminds me of other cases like mental illness or countries suffering from war. Not everyone is aware of mental health, so to them, people with mental illness just look like what is seen on the media: they are criminal, violent or they are silly, but the most stupid misconception of mental illness I’ve ever heard is people with illness look different than normal people. “Different” here may be rumpled clothing, or wild eyes, messy hair, or weird gait. But I have to say, on behalf of a person who has suffered from mental illness, these people can be anyone around you, even they could be the most-normal-person.
I guess you all know these photographs. No word can tell how powerful they are and I am grateful and I appreciate the effort of photojournalists who took them to let the world see how war look like in reality. But at the end of the day, as I mention in the title, what do you know about Vietnam apart from the Vietnam War?
- Dortonne, N 2016, “The dangers of poverty porn”, [online] CNN, viewed March 19 2017
- Pirkis, J & Francis, C 2012, “Mental illness in the news and information media: A critical review”, online review, Mindframe National Media Initiative, <http://www.mindframe-media.info/home/resource-downloads/other-resources-and-reports/?a=6322>
- Roenigk, E 2014, “5 reasons ‘poverty porn’ empowers the wrong person”, [online], the Huffington Post, viewed March 19 2017