During high school, whilst learning about historical wars and international issues, I came across poverty porn. Back then, I didn’t realise what it was and the impact it had on people, including myself. I distinctively remember the first time I saw the iconic image of the Napalm girl, photographed from the Vietnam war in 1972 by photographer Nick Ut. She was naked, running through the streets of Vietnam terrified, with smoke and dismay behind her. I didn’t understand the overall purpose and just thought it was a ‘good shot’ demonstrating the occurrences of the war. I remember thinking, why would you just simply stand there and take a photo? Why didn’t he help her?
But, I understand now. Poverty porn is ‘any type of media- 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’ (Aidthoughts, 2009). It serves a purpose as a tool to gain viewers’ attention and promote anger and outrage from the conditions that the stereotypical poverty porn photographs demonstrate. However, does it work?
Well I can say that it worked for me. Witnessing images of malnourished children on the verge of their lives definitely causes an emotional impact. It makes people feel uncomfortable, disconnected and guilty. It made me want to donate and involve myself into charitable organisations. However, as bad as it sounds, I didn’t. Yes, I do donate towards poverty stricken countries when I can, but I didn’t become an advocate. And this is an issue with the purpose of poverty porn. I don’t believe it causes activism but rather charity. It presents an idea that those that are financially secure can donate and are the only ones that can make a difference, depending entirely on western countries. It lacks to identify the empowerment and dedication to actually treat poverty rather than its symptoms and to generate a deeper understanding of poverty to structurally change long term.
Another issue with poverty porn is the argument that it’s exploiting the subjects and invading their privacy. It’s hard to distinguish what is fake and over exaggerated. When we think of Africa and the people, we think of malnourished children with pot bellies in the hot scorching sun, with no water and food and flies flying on their faces. Why? Because that’s the image we are presented with, through media. It’s hard to recognise and promote equality when we are using these exploiting images to create meaning and awareness; because ultimately, we are identifying these children as poor, and identifying ourselves as saviours.
Most of the time, the communities we are faced with from poverty porn are just a small fraction of that country. Diana Salah introduced a hashtag #TheAfricatheMediaNeverShowsYou that demonstrated accumulated images from users of glass skyscrapers, beautiful landscapes and loving communities in Africa that are seemingly forgotten.We risk cultural misunderstanding from poverty porn and associate it with the country as a whole. Ultimately, we must question the use of poverty porn and ask if the result outweighs the means.