Poverty Porn: The Power of the Picture

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About a year ago I saw a YouTube video shared on Facebook called “First World Problems Shared by Third World People” from an organization called Water is Life. The way it was spreading through my Newsfeed, shared mostly by my “First World” friends, told me that it struck a chord with them. Additionally, it was popular with many of my friends who work in social justice, environmental law and public health. When I clicked on the link myself and began to watch the video, however, I had such a violent reaction watching it that I began to feel nauseated. After growing up in the “Third World,” I found it to be the most voyeuristic, exploitative and paternalistic piece of propaganda that I had ever had the misfortune to witness. If you haven’t already watched it, click below and think about your reactions. Be honest with yourself.

 

What was it that I found so reprehensible about this video? Emily Roenigk, sums it all up very well in her piece 5 Reasons Poverty Porn Empowers the Wrong Person. I find that two of her five points are particularly salient to my response to this video. First, Poverty Porn Misrepresents Poverty. I agree with her statement that “poverty porn defines poverty as merely the observable suffering resulting from a simple lack of material resources” and it is clearly so much more of a structural issue than this definition encompasses. The issue, however, goes further than this. In many cases the images that are presented in this video and in other visual forms of digital media for “First World” consumption depict scenes where the people themselves may not feel particularly disadvantaged or miserable.

Does this little girl really look as if she is suffering, or is it just your idea of what you think she “should” have that tells you she is?

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 11.20.26 AM

 

Or as Glendora Meikle states when writing for the Guardian about Ugandan women suffering from obstetric fistulae, the women “do not conform to the stereotypical image we have of them” as is evidenced by the photograph below:

waiting for fistula treatment Photo by Seth Cochran

 

This disconnect leads me to the second relevant point: Poverty Porn Deceives the Helper and the Helped. Simply put, it “tells donors that because of their position in society and because of their resources they have the ability to be the saviors in vulnerable communities they might know nothing about.” But more importantly, poverty porn debilitates the very people that it purports to help. I think this point is especially important in the era of digital media. A simple picture defines the subject by their suffering, as viewed through the eyes of the photographer. In the eyes of the audience, this robs them of their agency, autonomy and personal potential.

poverty-porn

 

With the spread of digital media to all corners of the globe, it is becoming increasingly likely that the people who have been objectified in such images are actually going to see them. Perhaps they did not think that they were so “disadvantaged” until they discovered that they were a poster child for pity. And pity is an emotion that is not positive for either the giver or the receiver.

So what is my point with all of this? As public health professionals – or as Nap Hosang likes to tell us, future leaders in public health – it is our responsibility to be aware of the fact that when we use an image to further the mission of our organization, we are creating that image through our own eyes and within our own context of reality. That image will be spread far and wide. Further than it has ever gone before. So before you post your picture on Instagram or upload your video to YouTube or Vimeo, close your eyes for a few minutes and try to place yourself in the reality of the subject. How would they feel when they see it? Do the donations you receive from the campaign merit the loss of dignity of the recipients?

………..and now I will step down from my soap-box.

 

Adding on Edit as I have only  just found these….Unicef does a great job on its Instagram page at creating infographics with incredible photographs that encapsulate humanity alongside the statistics that show support is needed. Perhaps this is the way forward to get the donations AND support individual human rights. Here are a couple:

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16 thoughts on “Poverty Porn: The Power of the Picture

  1. Rachel, thoughtful as always. Maybe it’s because we are so used to seeing these clips but I did not have the same strong reaction as you. I enjoyed Roenigk’s article and agree with her conclusions but I wonder if the promoters are thinking “the end justifies the means?” But I think you hit the nail on the head with the comment about how the subjects would feel. I would love to read some research on that topic.

    • Thanks, Randall. One of the reasons I chose to deal with this subject for my post this week was precisely because of the differing reactions that people who are used to First World ideals have when they view this kind of content as compared to those who grow up in less consumerized (for want of a better word) surroundings. And I also don’t think that this kind of depiction is necessarily limited to global issues. I think it is rife in many parts of the US as well, where inner city neighborhoods are depicted as complete lost causes. It would be really interesting to see research on this. In some ways this feeds into what we learned about internalized racism in the Health and Social Behavior course. Does you self-efficacy decrease when you see that you are perceived as pitiable?

      • Yes, your self efficacy does decrease when you perceive yourself as pitiable. I have seen it with my own eyes. In addition, I had never thought about how the kids see themselves. I wrote a book on my experience in Liberia. Not once did I ask the question, “How would the photographed think of this book?” I am going to go back through the book and see if I have perpetuated poverty porn.

  2. Great Post Rachel and YES!!! to all of your points. I felt the same way watching the video because simply they most likely do not feel like they are a poster child of pity. Yes, there are some places in the world where there are individuals that need help but there is a fine line in how to visually portray or use a person without affecting their autonomy like you mentioned. I get where the person was coming from in terms of the video at least on my western understanding of being thankful for what you have but….on the other side if those individuals knew how this video would be used or in the context of what it would portray would they have even agreed to do it?

    • Yes – I agree. I can see where the person was coming from when they made the video, and it was an important point. What frustrated me most was that the message was generally how terribly disadvantaged the subjects were, when the real message should have been “do you really need a giant house and 2 internet routers to be happy?!”

      • Exactly! Its all about context and how he portrayed. They could have said that rather than the “I hate it when..” but again I feel like no matter how they spin it, this will still come out looking like they are disadvantaged. We should make our own version 🙂 I am sure we can come up with a poignant way of saying you have more than enough.

  3. Rachel, what a great post. I would double-like if I could. One of my (many) takeaways from reading this blog entry was, is appealing to people’s pity really necessary in order to solicit support and donations? And I thought your first photo with Angelina Jolie hugging the child was a powerful illustration of your entire post, too.

    • Yes – Debora. The photo of Angelina Jolie is particularly awful. The photographer made her the absolute subject of the image and concentrated on doing everything to make her as beautiful, luminous and angelic as possible. It is almost as if the child is just a prop.

  4. Another great post Rachel:) I agree that it’s the context. That person is putting forth an important point but at the same time I wonder what would be the outcome if the person making this video actually put himself in these people’s shoes! Like Randall, I would also like to read some research on how the subjects would feel.

  5. Thank you Rachel for this post. This is the first time I have seen this video and I have to agree with you, I find it offensive and has a strong emotional response (anger and shame). I think this is an important reminder for us “Future Public Health Leaders”. I really like how UNICEF is using more positive images and outcomes. Focusing on the outcomes and impact support can and has been having is such a more effective strategy than voyeuristically misrepresenting other’s needs.

  6. Excellent post! Love the way you brought it around to the empowered approach at the end. In a fundraising driven public health world, it is a challenge to focus first on maintaining dignity and integrity among ourselves and those we seek to advocate for, while also addressing the truths of a situation. Helping point to good examples of how to do it right, will start to change that culture though. Also admitting that we are all likely to screw this up at some-point will help too. Thanks for a great post!

    I would love to hear the classes’ thoughts on why these adds persist and are those same factors influencing how we operate as public health professionals?

    • I think that these ads persist as they are successful at raising money, which is pointed out in the article. And giving money is a lot easier than giving time, plus it assuages guilt in a simple fashion without having to confront the complexities of the problem and the knowledge that fixing things will take a lot of time and emotional investment. I do think that this constant search for funding streams does influence how we operate in public health in more structural ways than just thing one issue. I think it contributes significantly to “mission drift” in many organizations.

  7. Rachel, after watching the video I was …….shaken. Also, I must say that reading about poverty porn was enlightening. I am so happy to have had that assignment, because I have always had problems with the “Help Africa” commercials. From one angle, I thought that giving to the “non-profit” that helps people in East, West, or even Central Africa was more about enriching the executives in the organizational structure than about helping. Thanks for the post. You can stay on your soapbox a little longer if you like.

  8. Rachel, I agree with my fellow classmates, excellent post. I just cannot stop thinking of the video. Feel “angered and helpless”. The projection of “pity” in western world feels like of exploitation. I like the last three pictures and how you showed the right way to represent a good cause. Thank you for the post.

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