Thoughts on the definition of poverty porn

While I frequently grumble at examples of poverty porn on this blog, I have to admit that my characterization sometimes appears arbitrary. At the end of the day, such designations are subjective – my aim has just been to convince others that my subjective beliefs are correct.

One of the images that bothered me a few weeks ago was this one attached to a Guardian article arguing that aid critics are wrong:

One could perceive poverty porn as being a distinct artistic criticism. Imagine flipping through all of the shots this photographer took. There would have been multiple photos of this same boy, looking slightly different in each one. In some he might not quite have been gazing up the way he is, or holding the pot out at the same time. When viewed alongside all these alternate images, would the above constitute poverty porn?

I don’t think it would – I think the context of the photo’s viewing matters, especially when the photo is used to enhance an argument or induce behaviour in the viewer. I responded strongly to this photo, not just because it existed, but because it was attached to an article arguing for more aid. Its selection, out of what probably are dozens of photos of the same child, indicates a desire to portray him in a way that will help convince the viewer that the argument is correct. Some have argued that photos like these accurately reflect what’s happening on the ground – but remember that there are dozens of photos that do this, but this one was chosen because it would be the most powerful.

Contrast the photo above with this advertisement I got in the mail last week:

Fight that urge to pull out your wallets or go off and adopt a kitten. There has been some photoshopping, and the message “they can’t survive without our help” is more explicit, but while the attempt to manipulate the viewer is more obvious here, it is the same type of manipulation that I believe underlies poverty porn.

Yet I am more upset by the image of the boy in Haiti, because it is a person’s image being exploited for another purpose (even if it arguably serves him in the end). Adorable kittens have somewhat less agency in this world.

There is no central argument to this post – just sketching some thoughts. Your thoughts are always welcome.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on the definition of poverty porn

  1. Tom

    December 3, 2010 at 2:18pm


    I absolutely am with you on your struggle when it comes to the subjectivity of such an issue. I am inclined to, and in this case do, agree with your concerns about poverty porn. I think Glenna Gordon did a post on the way that subtleties in an image can speak differently to an audience.

    Ultimately, I feel that most will not see that image with a critical eye. So, even if you and I are being unfair, it can cause some to rethink the way that images are used. To that extent, I say keep at it.

    (I have to recognize that it is also a bit of an apology for myself. Grain of salt?)

  2. terence

    December 6, 2010 at 6:50am

    You know, try as I might, I never seem to be able to get as heat up about ‘poverty porn’ (which is a daft term by the way) as the rest of the development blogosphere.

    It may be distasteful, it may be inaccurate, but what harm does it actually do?

    On the other hand, I presume it’s quite a good fund-raising tool for those NGOs that use it. Which, assuming they spend it well (granted that’s an if), ultimately ends up contributing to the net good in the world.

    Just to be clear – the I don’t donate on the basis of such images (and the NGOs I do donate too are all pretty responsible with image policies). And I wish we lived in a world where it didn’t take a certain type of image to elicit moral actions from people. But we don’t. And NGOs and campaigners and the like have to work with the world they’ve got, not the one we all wish we had…


  3. J.

    December 6, 2010 at 9:26am

    Great post. Two thoughts:

    1) We’re humans. We’re humanitarians, or so we claim. So, people trump animals. I’d guess this is at least part of why the photo of the boy in Haiti bothers you more than the photo of a homeless kitten.

    2) To further MJ’s point above, no one – it seems – can really define regular pornography. “I know it when I see it” is hardly a definition. It’s very contextual, often nebulous. Some Bollywood movies are considered “pornographic” in Afghanistan, for example.

    Applying a “porn” label to other kinds of communication or art seems obviously meant to inflame emotions, to make an over-the-top point. It’s meant to tar something with a black brush in a way the defies specific pinning down. And I say this even as one who frequently uses the term “poverty porn.”

  4. Dave

    December 28, 2010 at 3:22pm

    Do you think that the end can justify the means? That by providing unsuspecting viewers with this “Povery Porn”, that they’ll give their hard earned cash over to the charities to help people like the boy (or kitten) in the example above….

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