Poverty Porn: Who’s story are we telling?

Poverty porn is a well-established trope in media-studies circles. Violent deaths. Bone-chilling rapes. Diseases that leave bodies ravaged and mutilated. Hunger that is evident in the rib cages of small children. These ubiquitous images practically define today’s perception of humanitarian work.” (Meikle, 2013)

Within western society, there has been an over-saturation of images across the media that advertise poverty within third-world countries. However, when I used to see images of poverty, I didn’t recognise it as poverty porn, until now.

I used to think that these images were accurate portrayals of what life is like in desperate, poverty-stricken countries. Only now, after fully understanding what poverty porn entails that I understand that we constantly consume images of poverty because it is sensationalised in the media.

However, poverty comes in all forms and is visible within every country–so why is the western world moved with compassion with images of poverty from third-world countries rather than images of poverty within immediate proximity.

The answer comes down to: who’s telling the story.

People within the western world are considered as ‘privileged’ in comparison to those living within the developing world. This is only re-affirmed with the existence of poverty pornography which further increases the gap between the developing and undeveloped world.

The post-development theory, coined by Arturo Escobar, James Ferguson, Majid Rahnema and Serge Latouche, states the idea of ‘underdevelopment’ as an invention developed by US. President Truman. In 1949, the continents of Africa, Asia and Latin America became labelled as ‘underdeveloped.'( Zia 2007)

“On that day, two billion people became underdeveloped…from that time on they ceased being what they were, in all their diversity and were transmogrified into an inverted mirror of someone else’s reality.” (Esteva 1998)

 

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‘Flavio da Silva’, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Gordon Parks 1961

This image of Flavio da Silvia was taken as part of a photo series by Photo Journalist Gordon Parks who went to Brazil to photograph poverty for Life magazine. He came across Flavio who was the eldest of eight children who was forced to grow up well beyond his years in order to keep his family alive.

This photo series published under the headline: ‘Freedom’s Fearful Foe went on to become the magazines most successful photo essay every published.

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Isabel, Rio de Janiero, ‘Flavio’ 1961

However, the photo journalist decided to frame the story from the angle of the children where most of these images focused on the hardship endured by the children.

Children were chosen in order to depict the image of innocence. However, focusing on children in poverty is a strategic tactic. It is proven that images of children who suffer at the hand of poverty evoke a feeling of compassion amongst the viewers. It is for this fact that humanitarian and reporter, Tom Murphy states that audiences are more likely to make a monetary donation to a cause if they see a child who is suffering. (Roenigk 2014)

This brings us back to the question: who’s telling the story?

In this photo series, the photo journalist Gordon Parks is telling the story. He is seen as a poverty pimp who exploits the situations of people in need in order to evoke a reaction from the audience. (Dortonne N 2015) Rather than telling the story of a child living in poverty, the story was instead a compilation of edited and selected images portrayed from the outside looking in. Thus, telling the story that the audience within the developed world wants and expects to see.

This notion of framing a story of poverty for audience reaction is a constant theme that runs throughout the SBS’ ‘Struggle Street’. This documentary television show aired in 2015 depicted selected and extremest stories of poverty that surround the Western Sydney suburb, Mt Druitt.

The show looked at a handful of people and framed each story differently in order to evoke a different reaction from the audience. Although, in the process of framing characters and situations within the documentary, they also omitted crucial information which had potential to change the audiences outlook on the ‘characters’ within the show.

 

Peta, one of the women depicted on ‘Struggle Street’ was painted as being a helpless, jobless woman with no drive to change her current situation. In fact, she does countless hours of community service, which SBS filmed but never aired. Much like Gordon Parks photo series where he selected what to portray, SBS selected certain information about Peta’s story that would appeal to audiences rather that telling the true story in it’s entirety.

We as a society are positioned in a way of consumption.  This means that the media has the power to manipulate the real story and only show us what they want us to see in order to create a different response. Thus, they are not telling the story of poverty, they are telling the story of an imagined version of poverty told only for the consumption of the developed world by the developed world.

 

References:

Dortonne N 2015, The Dangers of Poverty Porn,’ CNN, 24 December, viewed 19th March <http://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/24/living/poverty-porn-danger-feat/&gt;

Esteva. G and Prakash. M. S. 1998, Beyond the Search of a Paradigm? Post Development and Beyond, 43, p.11-14

Meikle, G 2013, ‘Poverty Porn: is sensationalism justified if it helps those in need?,’ The Guardian, 6 July, viewed 19th March 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2013/jul/05/poverty-porn-development-reporting-fistula&gt;

Roenigk. E 2014, ‘5 Reasons Poverty Prom Empowers The Wrong Person,’ The Huffignton Post, 16 April, viewed 19 March <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/emily-roenigk/poverty-charity-media_b_5155627.html&gt;

Zai A 2007,  ‘Exploring Post-Development: Theory and Practice, Problems and Perspecitives’, Routledge

Zabrodski. S 2015, ‘Gordon Parks’ Haunting “Flavio” Photographs,’The Iris, 9 November, viewed 19 March

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