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Problematic ‘Poverty Porn’ And How To Identify It

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A friend of mine decided one day to practice ‘gratitude’ by spending the day at an orphanage, and later thanked her house help, her building watch person, and many others (you get the drill, right?) and wrote a long paragraph on how one should be giving ‘smiles’ to people by taking off time from our busy lives.

What Is Poverty Porn?

This idea might sound very pleasant to a lot of people. Don’t worry, you’re not alone if you think this is pretty sweet, too. For a long time, I could not differentiate among the various types of movies, images, and stereotypical narratives that portray the lives of the poor and the deprived. Until I came across this particular image I had taken.


(P.S. I had taken consent of the child and his parent before taking this picture)

In 2019, I was reporting a story in the slums of Surat for an independent digital media organization. I was in a neighborhood in Surat that mostly had migrant people trying to make ends meet through contractual and daily wage work. Months after taking this picture I thought to myself if I had taken this picture, with a particular background and expressions only to further support my story and gain sympathy out of it.

I did not have an answer. What if I was? What would that be like?

After reading about the representation of the poor and the vulnerable in our mainstream media I realized what I could have done was indulged myself in ‘poverty porn’. It’s not a recent concept. Movies, media stories, NGO interventions often have come under the radar for Poverty Porn.

However, the concept of poverty porn is not just limited to photographs. “any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.”

Save the Children is another one of the names that have come into scrutiny for poverty porn. Reinforcing stereotypes for generating donations is a reason why many of their campaigns have been criticized.

This video of Save The Children encourages people (the rich and the privileged) to donate so that midwives can be trained and there could be fewer deaths of children. The video and the way of using this media for collecting funds were criticized saying it was poverty porn.

How would you look at the video?

“The strategy seems to be absolutely on point for it plays on the guilt of the privileged, and to free themselves of this gut-wrenching guilt, they must make donations to charities.” – The Print

Some Of The Problems With Poverty Porn

– It objectifies and glamourizes suffering. Period.

– In most cases, it deprives the poor of their agency. A lot of sessions I attended talked about the ethics of photography especially when documenting the lives of the poor and marginalized. Consent is extremely important is photographing someone, and even if there is consent, there is very less free will in saying no and rather obliging with the photographer. Think about the times you have clicked pictures like these of the marginalized people. Additionally, in the context that the people are photographed in, they are in their vulnerable states and are not aware of the purpose of the photograph or how it may be used.

a poor hand begging

Images glorifying or capturing the poor in moments of vulnerability is one of the major forms of poverty porn.

–       The idea behind campaigns in poverty porn is usually someone ‘saving’ the other by donating to the cause. It enhances a sense of superiority to the privileged. Ultimately, it’s more of charity than understanding the cause and correct representation and working towards alleviating the problems. Charity is not the solution to these issues.

–       Poverty porn is toxic. It is not the right way of depicting the poor in a susceptible state and selling the idea for aesthetic pleasure or to get more attention for a cause. There are other ways to do so without glamourizing poverty.

–       Poverty porn makes issues of socio-economic realities of disparity very simple. You can ‘save’ the poor just by donating, or charity. One must look into the complexities of different systems that lie beneath the reality and work on addressing them, rather than paint a pretty and simple picture as the solution.

What can we do about it?

I am not sure where to draw a line. I guess reading and being mindful when we see a piece of talking about poverty and understanding how it can help the poor without exploiting them further and glamourizing their condition to raise awareness and charity could be the first step. (however, I will list a set of resources for us to read and understand poverty porn better)

P.S. ‘Helping’ the poor just to feel good about your privilege and feel less guilty is not the right way. Educating ourselves of this systemic inequality, listening and amplifying the voices of those affected, and working towards the root causes of them, could be.

Further Reading:

1.     Poverty Porn: Education or Exploitation

2.     Poverty Porn Sells, But It Isn’t Helping the Poor – The Print

3.     Debating Poverty Porn on Twitter: Social Media as a Place for Everyday Socio-Political Talk (University of Bath)

4.     Poverty, Porn, and the Picture: Exploring the representation of exploitative media through the case of Oxfam

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