We’ve all seen the images, a malnourished child (usually African) with a bloated belly, a tortured look and a fly which has landed near an eye or mouth. The child seems to be begging us for help and with that image comes an easy answer. For a certain amount of money you can save this child by helping them have daily food, water and an education.

Matt Collin of Aid Thoughts describes poverty porn 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. The subjects are overwhelmingly children, with the material usually characterized by images or descriptions of suffering, malnourished or otherwise helpless persons.”

As a photographer and co-founder of Love146 I think daily about the images and language we use to communicate. We have one of the strictest child protection policies that I have ever seen (you can find it here). Several other NGO’s (non government organizations) have modeled their own policy after our own. One of the tenets with which we use to check our images and communication is “does this respect the individual(s) which we are communicating about and to?”

At Love146 communication is usually focused on an individual. By focusing on an individual, you are able to see the story of advocacy, prevention or aftercare as it is happening. You are able to meet a life that has been transformed through your partnership, learn from a child’s own words or be educated on effective action.

Poverty porn is also usually focused on the individual but the individual is not speaking for themselves, they are portrayed as helpless, voiceless and in need of ‘savior.’ It implies that they are incapable of contributing to their own development. Poverty porn is designed to make you feel good about contributing to the rescue of the individual in need. It does illicit an emotional reaction but in doing so through these methods, it continues the ‘us and them – poor person and ‘savior’ mentality.

Andrea Perera of Oxfam says “Poor people are just like us in many ways; they’re just trying their best to make a go of it. We hope relating the honest truth, not some stylized, overly dramatic version of it, motivates our constituents.”

Poverty porn has a tendency to turn people into an issue instead of portraying them with dignity and respect. Poverty porn will speak for people instead of listening to them. Poverty porn plays on emotion and the tantalizing temptation of a quick feel-good fix.

Love146 is not perfect. We have and will make communication errors. These days, when I think about images and language, I think about my trip this coming fall to Asia. I think about the stories I will hear from field workers, children and parents. I think about our Task Force members across the globe and the change they are making in this world and I think about you and others who partner with us. There is no need for poverty porn when the truth is so much more powerful. 

~Desirea 

6 Comments

  • http://www.thebusynothings.com/ Heidi

    I’ve never heard it called “Poverty Porn” but I agree with you about it! It is really disrespectful and makes us think of the people we think we are helping differently. I never though about it, but you see the commercials and it does give one a “savior” complex. I followed an idea camp online (I couldn’t attend) specifically devoted to this topic. Thanks for the post, I really respect your approach b/c it’s not as “easy” as showing dramatic pictures. Truth first!

  • Erin

    Hi Desirea,

    Thank you for posting this. I knew there was something so different and safe about how Love146 communicates. I’d noticed that you rarely show faces. But I couldn’t quite figure out what made your organization’s presentation of itself so comfortingly different. I think you’ve put your finger on it for me.

    Thank you!

  • Pingback: It’s All About Dignity: Our Response to Designers Stop Feeling Sorry For Africa | Rule29

  • Pingback: Charities: Damaging Society and hurting the poor, since 1886 | Shantnu Tiwari

  • Desirea Rodgers

    Thank you Heidi and Erin for your comments, it is great to hear your feedback and thoughts.

  • http://craigsnedeker.tumblr.com/ Craig Snedeker

    They are exploiting the poor people to earn money, and they use our guilt to do it.