Poverty Porn

Child

I’ve heard the phrase ‘poverty porn’ being used quite a bit, in the news, in videos, by friends, and a bunch of other places, and if I’m honest I didn’t really understand it, I didn’t know why it was an issue, until I did my own research.

So for those of you, who like me had heard of poverty porn but didn’t understand exactly what it meant, I hope I can present what poverty porn is and why it’s an issue.

So the definition you’ll find on Wikipedia reads like this, Poverty porn, also known as development porn, famine porn, or stereotype porn, has been defined as “any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, 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”.

And that definition works, but I think we can unpack that a bit.

 

Firstly why is it called poverty ‘porn’ why are the images, videos, and stories of poverty likened to that of the pornographic industry?  Well to paraphrase Jamie Folsom, a lecturer at Colorado State, like porn they’re a great way to get our attention. They have the power to not only draw us in, but also the power to repel us. They can make us feel a little guilty, and like porn they make a lot of people uncomfortable.

Secondly why is poverty porn a bad thing? What’s the issue?

Well there are two things I really want to touch on. First is that society has a habit of removing itself from other groups. Let me explain what I mean, when we see these stories of poverty we tend to separate ourselves from the people that the stories about, and the people in the story become ‘them’, not one of us. The issue there, is that these people that we’ve removed ourselves from, are like us, are connected to us, and they can see what where saying about them.

This brings us to the second problem. Poverty porn tells one repeating story. It may have different faces, starving children in Africa, desperate asylum seekers, teens from the lower socioeconomic group, but the story is always the same. The poor, helpless people needed help and one of ‘us’, the hero of the story has stepped in and saved the day, and nothing was going to get better without ‘the hero’.

We can see now where the two problems intercede. If where telling the same story of desperate people who need help and can’t do  anything to help themselves, and then those same people  see those stories again, and again, and again, and again, those people start to believe that what’s being said about them is true. The truth is that is a lot of those communities poverty may exist, but not everyone in that community lives in poverty, and there are people in that community helping those that are in poverty. That doesn’t matter though if we only tell the story, all that does is tell us that they’re helpless and it makes them believe that they are.

 

So now hopefully we can see why poverty porn is harmful, but if we know that it’s harmful why haven’t we stopped? Well there’s a reason it’s still such a popular depiction of poverty, and this especially applies to humanitarian organizations, and it is that when it comes to getting donations, poverty porn works. It gets the profits to do what it wants.  Tom Murphy, a journalist who focuses on the humanitarian/aid/development industry, states that non-governmental organizations marketing and communications teams are creating these messages because they have been proven effective through rigorous testing. The fact is that 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.

The question we have to ask is, does the work that these organisations are able to do with this money out way the harm it causes by perpetuating the same false story of hopelessness? I don’t think so. According to Strivastava, if we want to truly transform the communities in these stories we have to create avenues for their voices to be heard. We cannot impose our ideas on them, because they know there community 100 times better than we ever could.

Hope this can get you thinking

Thanks for reading

Hayden

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