Poverty Porn: Where the suffering of others becomes ‘art’

You’re walking through the streets of the city on your way home on a Thursday afternoon. It’s just on dusk. The sun is beginning to set and people are hurrying, in a rush to get out of the cold.

You come across a small child siting in the street. The child is wearing minimal clothing, clearly not dressed for the middle of winter. He looks scared, cold, tired and hungry. You notice him clutching onto a plastic bag. Inside are the remains of somebody’s lunch as the young boy attempts to feed his small, fragile body. Your first instinct is to go over and help him right?

Now step into the shoes of a photo journalist. You see the same child. Sitting on the sidewalk. You notice that he is cold, starving and scared and know the pain on his face is real. Real tears. Real fear. You instantly take the $6000 Nikon D4 out of your bag. The pain on that poor child’s face would look even better through the lens of a camera. The blur of the crowd in the background. The sun that has almost disappeared gives the shot the perfect contrast. The lighting is perfect to capture the look of devastation on that child’s face. After all, this picture would look great in a coffee table book, right?

Poverty-by-Myempty-Bliss

‘Poverty’ by Myempty Bliss

Welcome to photo journalism. Where the suffering of others suddenly becomes an art form. Somewhat captivating. Where beauty is not pain, but pain is beauty. Capturing images that I would describe as poverty porn.

According to Collin (2009), poverty porn is “any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploit’s the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for…increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for giving to charity, but do images exploiting the pain and suffering of others take it too far?

When it comes to photography, and in particular, photojournalism, there is a code of ethics that one must abide by when capturing images. According to the National Press Photography Association (2017), when taking photographs one must “give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims or crime or tragedy.” If one were to take a photo of an emaciated child and ask for charity money after posting it on the internet, does that count as an act of compassion?

The above photo titled ‘Starving Child and Vulture’ by Kevin Carter (1993), was an award winning shot, gaining a Pulitzer Prize for best feature photography (The Pulitzer Prizes 2017). However opinions were divided with many people arguing that the steps taken by the photojournalist were “unethical” and “inhumane.” Harsh criticism was recieved by Carter for his work, despite claims by the photographer that the child was making her way to a nearby feeding centre (Neal 2017).

It is a natural human response to want to help someone who is in pain. But do images like this show the suffering of others for all the wrong reasons? In the words of Dortonne (2016), images that can be defined as ‘poverty porn’, “leaves many of us feeling uncomfortable, disconnected and guilty.” We feel pressured into donating to a charitable cause in the hope that we have ‘done the right thing’. Donations may help, but it still doesn’t stop the exploitation of impoverished human beings in order to generate sympathy.

Not only do these images exploit the conditions of people in poverty, but they seem to be mainly focused on undeveloped countries. A quick google search of ‘poverty porn pictures’ yields thousands of results of children from Somalia, Ethiopia, Chad and the like. The images are centered around some of the most undeveloped countries in the world. But did anyone stop to think about poverty in Australia? Are there not people suffering in Australia? Living below the poverty line? Sleeping on the streets because they can’t afford to live in a house?

A study by the Australian Council of Social Service (2016a), found that 2.9 million Australians live below the poverty line. 730,000 of these people are children. Those at the highest risk of poverty are the unemployed who rely on centrelink payments to get by.  “Those doing it the toughest are overwhelmingly people living on the $38 a day Newstart payment, 55% of whom are in poverty” (Australian Council of Social Service 2016b). Sadly, even with government assistance, some families are still far below the poverty line, barely affording to pay rent each week. But when it comes to poverty, the media turns a blind eye towards these Australians, shifting the focus to children in Uganda or women in Somalia.

So whilst these images exploiting starving African children are trying to make a change, it causes us to ignore the issues of poverty in our own backyard. The photographs have too much of a focus on areas outside our reach, exploiting children in Africa to try and make a buck. Meanwhile it could be our own neighbours who are suffering, living below the poverty line and struggling to survive.

Think about it.

Until next time,
Sophie

References:

Australian Council of Social Service 2016a, Poverty, Australian Council of Social Service, viewed 20 March 2017, <http://www.acoss.org.au/poverty/&gt;.

Australian Council of Social Service 2016b, Child poverty on the rise: 730,000 children in poverty, Australian Council of Social Service, viewed 20 March 2017, <http://www.acoss.org.au/media_release/child-poverty-on-the-rise-730000-children-in-poverty/&gt;.

Collin, M 2009, What is ‘poverty porn’ and why does it matter for development, Aid Thoughts, viewed 19 March 2017, <http://aidthoughts.org/?p=69&gt;.

Dortonne, N 2016, ‘The dangers of poverty porn’, CNN, 8 December, viewed 21 March 2017, <http://edition.cnn.com/2016/12/08/health/poverty-porn-danger-feat/&gt;.

Neal, L 2017, How Photojournalism Killed Kevin Carter, All That is Interesting, viewed 21 March 2017 <http://all-that-is-interesting.com/kevin-carter&gt;.

National Press Photographers Association 2017, NPPA Code of Ethics, National Press Photographers Association, viewed 21 March 2017, <https://nppa.org/code_of_ethics&gt;.

The Pulitzer Prizes 2017, Kevin Carter, The Pulitzer Prizes, viewed 21 March 2017, <http://www.pulitzer.org/winners/kevin-carter&gt;.

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