Debating “Poverty Porn” Photographs

Posted by | · · · · · · · · | Ethics · Photography · Video & Film

EthiopiaMomSon_LauraElizabethPohl

Haymanot Aimro prepares to feed supper to her nine-month-old son Bokallu Mosfon in Guraghe zone, Sodoo district, Kela kabele, Ethiopia. Earlier in the day, Bokallu received his last of nine mandatory childhood vaccinations, an event memorialized with a certificate from the local health center. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl for Catholic Relief Services

The international development blog “Wait … What?” has a nice summary of a recent Google Hangout debate on NGOs using pictures of emaciated children (aka “poverty porn”) as a marketing and fundraising strategy. Daniel Ramirez-Raftree writes:

Poverty porn is effective as a means for raising funds because it elicits strong emotional responses. This can be a problem, however, because people are not necessarily driven to help or donate because of a comprehensive understanding of the actual work that’s being done, but rather by feelings of pity, sympathy, and guilt. Education systems in “the global North” don’t always teach students about the world as it exists in its entirety, they tend to rely on stereotypes that uniformly categorize “developing” countries around the world as poor, miserable, and disastrous. This sets the general public up to respond to marketing and advocacy campaigns that utilize poverty porn, and, in turn, the marketing strategy further reinforces the stereotype.

Most humanitarian photographers I know stay far away from the stereotypical sick/starving/war-torn/orphaned children pictures. But it’s what many people in the West expect to see; it’s usually a heart-rending and emotional picture and thus it’s the “easy” photograph to publish. How can we change this?

Read the full “Wait … What?” blog post.


2 Comments

Laura says:

July 27, 2013 at 10:26 pm

The camera is a powerful thing, just think about the words we use when we speak about photography. We ‘shoot’ images and we ‘take’ photographs, we ‘capture people’. Totally glad so many people are discussing the power the images we take can have. The ‘poverty porn’ discussion falls into that area of discussion.

There have been many chats with ‘industry experts and big players’ on this issue of representation in recent years and whilst I welcome this I do not believe the power is in their hands. The reason some (not all!) NGOs use images of the stereotypical ‘flies-in-their-eyes-sad-looking-skinny-African-child’ is because they sell (as you rightly suggest in this article)! I will not name charity names but a very large NGO in the UK has a wonderful ethical framework and policy on image use but they do not stick to it as they make more money when they use the negative imagery. I honestly believe that the public have the biggest say in how images are used – if we started writing to NGOs and saying they cannot support them because of the images they use things might change. In the UK there has been talk of an official ethical guideline being produced for NGOs but until the public stop ‘buying’ these images they will not cease.

I also think we have to be careful not to go too far the other way. Thousands of images of people grinning is not a great replacement for ‘poverty porn’ either! We then lose the gravity of some of the situations people face. Instead the focus should be on finding ways to illustrate with honesty the dignity and hope within the struggle. We must also be careful to make sure we do not confuse photojournalism and news imagery with charity fundraising images. There is a place for the shocking – we should be shocked out of our comfort sometimes.

For those that want to think more on this I suggest checking out the International Guild for Visual Peacemakers. As a photographer I belong to this group as I think the ethical code is a great one http://visualpeacemakers.org/about/ethical_code/

I also love participatory photography projects that allow people living in poverty to be able to take their own images of the situation they are living in. As digital technology is used widely we should hopefully see more and more images taken by talented photographers living in the majority world.

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Laura Elizabeth Pohl says:

August 26, 2013 at 11:39 pm

Thanks for the comments, Laura, especially the Visual Peacemakers resource, which I’d never heard of before. Appreciate it!

I agree with you that the push for change needs to come from the public and that there does need to be a balance between showing reality and maintaining dignity. I think more and more organizations are getting the message from those people who speak out about poverty porn. There’s a large American NGO famous for a certain kind of photograph. I’ve noticed recently that this organization runs fewer of those kinds of pictures in their advertisements, which I’m THRILLED about. I should get to the bottom of what instigated the change.

I also love participatory photography projects. One of my most exciting moments filming for an NGO was when I was in a small Bengali town where about a dozen people whipped out their cell phones and photographed me working. I could tell a couple of them were real naturals. Now granted, the people did not have the distribution platform I had for my film, but the act of them making a photograph made me feel there was a small leveling of the storytelling playing field, and for that I’m happy.

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