Exploiting the vulnerable: poverty porn

The video above highlights and mocks a dominating issue in mainstream media across the Western world – poverty porn. Whilst featuring too many similarities to regular porn – wildly exploitative, dripping in disease and with the same actions happening in each video – poverty porn has been defined as “any type of media, be it 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”.


Like the above image, there is a definite stereotype evident within today’s perception of humanitarian work. Hunger, poverty, crime, disease – most campaigns follow the same basic structure: define the problem, determine the cause, make moral judgments, suggest remedies and predict likely results. But these images often create apathy, rather than action, offering simple monetary solutions to complex problems that may do more harm than good. The campaigns pull on our heartstrings and compel us to pull out our wallets, an action that does not go unappreciated; but, the stereotypes that emerge from such campaigns can be seen as “deforming reality”, as it “portrays the image of an impotent society, entirely dependent on other Western societies to survive, as well as being overly voyeuristic.” The use of poverty porn to label an entire country as deprived makes the audience assume, falsely so, that the whole country shares the same story. If the only videos we see of Africa are that of extreme poverty, we might start to believe that all of Africa is suffering, but “not only is that totally outrageous, it’s offensive” since “Africa is made up of 54 diverse countries, countries with both prosperity and poverty.

Exploitation of the poor?

My question is that if we are publicly exposing people’s misery all over our media, are we not invading their privacy, without full consent, purely for financial gain? Authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert write that the helper and the helped define poverty entirely differently: “Most North American audiences define poverty by physical suffering and a lack of material resources, while the poor define their condition psychologically and emotionally. They use words like shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness.” So, if those who are suffering describe poverty as being shameful, isn’t poverty porn exploiting those who do not necessarily have the desire to be exposed?

A simple solution for a complex problem

Poverty porn, moreover, fails in producing a deep understanding of the issue of poverty as well as the needed structural changes that must occur in order to effectively address it; rather, poverty porn just provides temporary relief by offering material resources obtained through a simple phone call or monthly donation. “Poverty porn makes a complex human experience understandable, consumable and easily treatable.” Sure, many people living in poverty may not have enough food to eat, and so food aid would be greatly appreciated – but this is not going to break them out of poverty, this is not a sustainable solution. Poverty porn puts a blanket over the huge, harder to solve issues such as a lack of access to education and healthcare. Obviously, poverty porn is hugely successful in gathering donations – clearly there is a reason it is so popular – and the well-meaning collectors have done a lot of good, but it leaves behind the perception that the donors are the only ones with the ability to make a difference. Nothing is done to empower and walk alongside the poor to transform their own communities and produce sustainable solutions to make a long-term, widespread impact without enforcing our own ideas of betterment.



Further information:
a good example of a successful campaign video