What is ‘poverty porn’ and why does it matter for development?

Madonna in Malawi - by Publicity handout/Reuters

Madonna in Malawi - by Publicity handout/Reuters

It was a hot day in mid-summer Lilongwe and my passenger and I were driving towards ‘Old Town,’ the commercial district of Malawi’s capital. The main highway took us through a roundabout overlooked by a gargantuan UNICEF sign promoting their birth certificate registration campaign. The sign featured an extreme close-up of a Malawian toddler, a bland and helpless look on his face and a single tear running down his cheek.

“Look at that,” I said, “Isn’t that awful the way they are using that child to get what they want?”

“Maybe,” said my passenger, “but if it helps them achieve their aim, proper birth registration, isn’t it worth it?”

In one of the very few posts I’ve made so far – and likely often in the future – you’ll see me refer to certain projects or images as being examples of poverty porn. The phrase has been thrown around a lot, and is growing more and more popular. What does it mean and why does it matter? My thoughts on the subject are often not complete and coherent, so keep this in mind while reading!

The first time I became aware of the concept was during the flurry of discussion over the fashion photographer Rankin’s exhibition of photos of DRC refugees. A number of blogs discussed whether or not Rankin’s attempt to shoot refugees as he would celebrities was more or less exploitative than the usual Western portrayals of Africa (for a fantastic discussion of the Rankin photos see The Scarlett Lion and Wronging Rights). Neither SL or WR mention the term “poverty porn,” but I seem to recall learning about it around this time.

As I’ve come to believe, poverty porn, also known as development porn or even famine porn, is any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause. Poverty porn is typically associated with black, poverty-stricken Africans, but can be found elsewhere. The subjects are overwhelming children, with the material usually characterized by images or descriptions of suffering, malnourished or otherwise helpless persons. The stereotype of poverty porn is the African child with a swollen belly, staring blankly into the camera, waiting for salvation. I ask you to take a look at the image above of Madonna and children from a Malawian orphanage. The photo was part of her campaign to adopt a second child (an interesting analysis of the choice of color here).

There is another use of the term, to describe the glamorizing or beautification of poverty. This meaning was part of a major critique of Danny Boyle’s recent hit Slumdog Millionare, which many felt was wrong to create entertainment out of childhood strife and destitution. Given my definition of poverty porn, I don’t believe Slumdog Millionaire qualifies. I’ll explain why shortly.

Why is poverty porn (as I’ve defined it) so dangerous? As my passenger in my car argued: it serves a purpose. For UNICEF or Oxfam, the use of poverty porn is another tool to garner support for an unquestionably good cause: the reduction of  suffering and poverty. We may be exploiting them to achieve this, but surely the end outweighs the means?

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