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Breaking the poverty porn habit

April 3, 2014

I thought this blog by Emily Roenigk was jolly good. “Is it 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” asks Emily. In short, is it OK to perv at pictures of pictures of  starving skinny foreign people?

Ogling the dispossessed misrepresents poverty, says Emily. Poverty isn’t just an individual experience that can be reduced to an image — it’s rooted in social and economic conditions. Poverty porn makes it seem like you can sort out deprivation with handouts when it’s really part of a complex set of circumstances including the behaviour of rich-world consumers and producers. Charity isn’t enough; a change to the system which creates poverty is essential.

Leering at ever-more-grotesque pictures of poor people can actually reduce our understanding of deprivation. Quoting Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s book When Helping Hurts Emily points out that the “helpers” tend to use material words for deprivation whereas the helped defined poverty emotionally or psychologically. The money is only the start of the story; what really matters is quality of life. A lot of foreign-aid-speak harks back to the Victorian idea of the deserving and undeserving poor, as if it’s up to the rich to decide who’s been working hard enough to deserve their gruel and who’s been slacking.

Emily also argues that poverty porn empowers the wrong people. Donors are led to feel as if they can easily fix the problems of the destitute when in reality donors may know very little about the communities which they are targeting. Reducing things to simplistic images also means that the rich can escape looking at their own economic system. Global poverty is a problem of rich-world behaviour (as I say in point number 8 here). We wealthy consumers need low paid workers to make our cheap stuff. We need a huge underclass of unemployed to scare those lucky sweatshop labourers into working hard for poverty-line wages.

Images of defenceless Africans also sap the poor of their humanity, says Emily (let’s not forget that poor people watch TV too). “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.”

Ultimately poverty porn works. It raises more money for charities and donors. But Emily rightly questions whether those fake images are worth the cash they rake in: “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.”

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2014 6:58 am

    As I have said before, poverty and the socio-economic gap have become definitive. There’s no way to effectively mend these tragedies. History just repeats itself, ever since the first, surplus motivated conurbations begun, which needed authorities, taxation, etc. in order to exist.
    It is unthinkable for me that well fed crews would spend days to film the ordeals of poor villagers drinking filthy water, when digging wells and boiling water doesn’t need financial aid. This form of marketing with all its elements should be criminalized.
    These people have reached the bottom line of deprivation, which is inactive abandonment to a vegetative existence, where the only joy is sexual intercourse, resulting in more children.
    Unfortunately there’s no way the balance can be redressed, as this would cause the immediate collapse of a global economy existent only on paper/screen.
    The unjustly amassed “private” fortunes, and the “public” values these slave masters manipulate, are “the” barrier against any hope for an equilibrium.
    But I guess “they” will attempt to “solve” this problem as they always did…
    They will link all the military conflicts they have mostly caused, into a global one, and buy themselves a few more decades of “reconstruction”…
    Good old Marshall plans, they’re always handy…

  2. April 4, 2014 1:27 pm

    But inequality and poverty are made by humans, and we can address them. There’ve been massive global shifts in wealth over past decades and centuries — the current distribution is by no means concrete. Even within the rich world there are enormous differences in income distribution, from Japan and egalitarian north Europe to the UK and US. In the latter government policies have caused an increase in inequality over the past few decades. Better policy, imagination and activism can reverse these trends. So i’m afraid I don’t share your pessimism.

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  1. Poverty porn, exploitative advertising, and disability in America | capitalism: a diary

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