Response: What is Poverty Porn and What Does it Matter for Development?

AID Thoughts: What is “Poverty Porn” and What Does it Matter for Development?

Excerpt:

«Why is poverty porn (as I’ve defined it) so dangerous? As my passenger in my car argued: it serves a purpose. For UNICEF or Oxfam, the use of poverty porn is another tool to garner support for an unquestionably good cause: the reduction of  suffering and poverty. We may be exploiting them to achieve this, but surely the end outweighs the means?

The reason I find this argument unpersuasive is due to the culture that poverty porn breeds. The statement that this sort of media makes is “We have a group of people who are utterly helpless, and only you can save them.” Please take another look at the Madonna photograph above. I will not argue that places like Sub-Saharan Africa are without need, but the argument that the poor are completely incapable of rescuing themselves, either at the micro or at the country-level, removes all respect for their own agency and cultivates a culture of paternalism which is damaging to the development process.»

«The reason poverty porn is so pervasive is that it promotes a popular stereotype, one that has always existed in Western literature about Africa. Binyavanga Wainaina wrote a brilliant piece several years ago in Granta about this practice called “How to write about Africa:”»

My Response:

I think everyone should read this.  The argument for exploitative images of poverty-stricken, hungry, war-displaced peoples only diminishes their humanity and agency.  If they are only “starving Africans/Afghans/etc” they are incapable of helping themselves, thus they require the paternalistic and self-serving help of their former oppressors [helloooo neo-liberals!].

I posted that image of a child in Sudan, because her malnutrition and poverty is near and dear to my heart.  I have a heart for my fellow human beings.  However, we cannot say that she consented to the photograph, or even speak to the fact of whether she could consent to this arguably exploitative image.  Yes, we need a face for the abject poverty that plagues much of the world, BUT we should consider these 2 things: 1) the relationship btwn the subject [photographer, relatively privileged] and object [photographed, presented as helpless and less-than], as well as 2) the big picture.  WHY?  Ask “why is a previously-prosperous region of the world racked by war, famine and a myriad of human rights abuses?”  ”Why are the ravages of European colonial conquest still present 40-70 years after the beginning of post-colonial movements?”

Consider that instead of wasting your breath to defend the right of photo-journalists to photograph the dead, dying and helpless.  Why not present these human beings as fully- capable, but historically disadvantaged?  I know why- this question raises the point of our complicity in their suffering.

2 Comments

  1. Poverty porn was immediately on my mind as I watched a video on malaria in Ethiopia during one of my classes last week. I was so bothered by the images, I kept thinking if any of the people suffering from malaria consented to being filmed. There was a woman with her chest bare and I thought they should have had the decency to cover her up. She’s still a human being, not an object for viewing pleasure. They talked about UN efforts, the use of poisonous insecticides, the supposed nature of prayers and songs for protection and desires to live another day, etc. It just wasn’t a full picture of Ethiopia and it didn’t show much agency on the part of Ethiopian people, doctors, scientists, etc. My class is mostly white, so I really don’t want a bunch of people to develop an over-inflated sense of white savior complex. I’ve looked up natural insect repellents and it seems neem oil incense and lamps are much better alternatives to the poisons people were using in the video. But I honestly doubt that these previous European colonizers are doing much beyond making themselves seem like benevolent heroes. The paternalism, taking away of agency and interference with commerce, indigenous crops and economy . . . I mean, for me, the video didn’t do Ethiopia justice. What it stands for for black people everywhere. It was free for so long, a free black nation except during Mussolini’s rule of five years. To have almost all nations of an entire continent conquered by a bunch of European nations would have also affected Ethiopia to some extent. I mean, no nation can be an island unto itself, you have to rely on others for trade and commerce among other things.

  2. <>

    *sigh* And i’m trying to get my parents to stop using Raid…

    I’m so sick and tired of so-called “liberals” and “neo-liberals” co-opting the voices, experience and agency of their darker brothers and sisters. It’s amazing how they are able to make everything about themselves…

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