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Five provocative points about “Poverty Porn”

Five provocative points about “Poverty Porn”

Poverty porn, the practice of playing up the suffering of needy people to elicit an emotional response, and perhaps a donation, is a knotty problem, writes the blogger Emily Roenigk.

In an essay called “5 Reasons Poverty Porn Empowers the Wrong Person” she raises a number of difficult questions. Such as:

[I]s ethical to depict the graphic qualities of a human being to Western audiences for the sole purpose of eliciting an emotional experience and ultimately, money[?] ….

According to critic Diana George, organizations have a hard time convincing Western audiences that real poverty exists outside their day-to-day life in a culture that is completely saturated by images. She writes that showing extreme despair may seem like the only solution. Poverty porn shows grotesque crises, often through individual stories, that audiences can easily mend through a simple solution or donation. Poverty porn makes a complex human experience understandable, consumable and easily treatable. ….

To be clear, this kind of giving has the potential to make significant impacts once in the hands of organizations that address poverty in a sustainable way. However, along the way, it perpetuates dangerous ideologies along the way that do more harm than good. It tells the poor that they are helpless beneficiaries and it tells financially secure donors that they are the saviors. In this dynamic, donors are told that they are the only ones with the ability to make a difference. Nothing is said about what it would look like to empower the poor and walk alongside them to help them realize their inherent ability to be the change agents in their own communities. ….

This raises an important question – is the profitability of poverty porn worth the perpetuation of false ideologies and stereotypes? I say no. This may sound counterintuitive to the capitalist nature of Western culture, but it’s really not. Sustainable change in poor communities is more than the sum of its financial donations. According to Strivastava, if we want to truly transform communities so they are economically and socially just, we have to create avenues for their voices to be heard. We cannot impose our constructs on them.

I am mostly in agreement with this, although, I believe poverty porn can have two salutary affects: In introducing the issue of global poverty and western privilege to people in a highly emotional way, it can set at least some of them on a path toward a deeper interest and a true commitment to issues of justice and inequality. And, in cases where the need is immediate and overwhelming, it can raise the funds necessary to bring a modicum of stability to a situation so that long term development strategies can be considered. These are small exceptions to what she is saying, however.

And rather than illustrate this item with a heart wrenching image, we offer this short film on how micro finance is making a difference for girls in one community in Uruguay.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

(Hat tip: David Creech.)


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David Kendrick

And the extreme despair shown can also provoke a form of despair that ends up blaming the poor, which seemingly relieves one of despair, and the guilt that underlies it.

it's margaret

Yeah. It happens. Porn happens in every facet of our lives. Taking something good and twisting it. Even the so-called documentary photos of the 1930 dust bowl refugees that turned out to be manufactured could be called porn.

And, frankly, I have seen those willing to “sell” themselves or their children to make a buck in any which way they can. It’s called desperation.

I think Laura is right –the bigger issue is our understanding of poverty to begin with –that you aren’t poor unless you are half dead –and the issues of the understanding of what money is for.

Should so-called middle class money values (pulling yourselves up by your own boot straps as micro-loans imply) really be the societal values we want to perpetuate?

–and, Uruguay is a whole different ball of wax than the poverty and third world conditions in our own Nation.

I think it is very important for everyone to read “What every Church Member Should Know About Poverty” by Ehlig & Payne before any of us talk as though poverty has only to do with how much money we have –there are whole cultural shifts in attitudes about what money is FOR, and how we relate to money that are very important to understand.

–margaret watson


Oh, I totally agree. It makes it very difficult to convince people that poverty may look “middle class” at first glance. I remember when Fox news did a segment on the “so-called poor” who had refrigerators. Poverty porn sets up a situation where unless you look like you are starving, people believe you cannot possibly be poor.

Laura Darling

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