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.