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  • LinaSrivastava

    Thanks, everyone, for a great debate. I hope we all can continue it here and elsewhere.

    We've just completed a second salon on the topic and the panel did talk about topics that broach some of the kudos and critiques you all have to my piece. You can take a look at the Storify summary of the salon here: http://storify.com/viewfromthecave/povertyporn-conversation-recap (There was a YouTube video of the entire session, but YouTube has removed it as of this writing, possibly because it contains the word "porn." Ah, the irony. I'll post it here if they restore it.)

    I'm just going to respond to a few points at the moment, and will come back again, but in the meantime, I hope you all keep writing.

    The first point, from Sylvain, (paraphrased) that the problem is not with the images, the videos or the story, it is rather what the organization itself is doing. Ultimately we are and should be most concerned with what the organization is doing, but the way storytelling is framed is very often a reflection of the culture in which the organization works and delivers its services/products, and designs its intervention. This isn't always true, of course, but paternalistic storytelling is often a reflection of paternalism in programming. Additionally, creating and distributing paternalistic storytelling full of negative "isms" (ht to @intldogooder) creates a culture in which fostering true partnerships and true investment is much more difficult. (Then again, there are organizations that create beautifully rendered storytelling, but fail to create effective, respectful projects-- but that's for another post.)

    To another point by Gabhaskar, "what if the realities are really as harsh as they claim in these videos and images?" Then by all means, we need to use them, but again, they have to be used in context, as I wrote above. I'm not calling for whitewashing or a turn to falsely positive imagery, but instead to images, stories, and media that delve into human complexity and contextualized nuance, instead of resorting to marketing tropes like flies-in-the-eyes children.

    Finally for now, to Kara's point about celebrating good media, there are indeed plenty if examples. I put a list together today that talks about independent projects that represent effective storytelling. These aren't NGO marketing campaigns, but I think they're each worth looking at. You can find the brief list here: http://linasrivastava.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-beyond-povertyporn-debate-instances.html

    More soon.

  • endeavoringE

    Here's where this piece resonates with me: it gets to the issue - poverty. There's no question that all of us have "good intentions" - but the NGO campaigns that victimize the beneficiary in order to make the donor a hero is counter productive. Poverty affects all of us, not just those without food or shelter. Lina's point about partnering is what will start to render results. Until we can abandon the gloss, progress is problematic. We need to tackle this issue without psychological manipulation.

    • LinaSrivastava

      I think you, in your work, speak beautifully to the concept of partnering for progress. Just repeating for emphasis what I wrote in my comment above -- "creating and distributing paternalistic storytelling...creates a culture in which fostering true partnerships and true investment is much more difficult" -- because I think we might benefit from looking at reporting around social entrepreneurship in emerging markets as one possible model?

  • Sylvain Romieu

    To tmsruge's point (as well as most people's points here): "There's nothing wrong with helping the poor, there's something wrong with doing it poorly." Fully agreed, we have the NGOs (and for that matter the companies, politicians, prisons and so on) that we deserve or fight for and in that context, Lina's post is a welcome addition to the debate.

    But doing it poorly could be spending donor money on ineffective campaigns - as in showing respectful images which don't trigger donations - , thus cutting the revenue streams and the work which NGOs conduct.

    This assumes people give more after seeing shocking / disrespectful images than they do after seeing empowering / respectful images. I would agree that this is a big assumption.

    In my mind that assumption would be well worth checking. To check that, one could ask NGOs to provide two ads where the same medium (billboards, magazines, TV ads) was used with one ad - which could be viewed as disrespectul and one as respectful. Donations made thereafter would then help understand what works and what doesn't. If that sounds too complicated (and that would definitely be a huge task) perhaps NGO ads on youtube could be a good basis to check if respectability of an ad impacts viewership. That in turn would provide for a rough idea of how successful a NGO campaign is.

    Indeed, if one could prove that respectable photos / videos / PR sells more than the disrespectful type, it wouldn't take long for it to disappear :)

    • LinaSrivastava

      "This assumes people give more after seeing shocking / disrespectful images than they do after seeing empowering / respectful images. I would agree that this is a big assumption." Unfortunately, I think the research bears this out. We are programmed, and I think we need to shift that paradigm.

  • Katalina Mayorga

    I work in international development and have struggled for years on how to best respect individuals I work with or visit abroad when I take their picture. The picture might be to put up on my own blog or for an organizations website. I usually use them to tell a story. I decided one way I could go about this in a more positive way is 1) to always take positive pictures and 2) to always ask permission of the people's whose picture I take and 3) to tote along an instax camera. Anyone whose picture I take, I leave behind a picture with them so they also benefit from the interaction as well. Thanks for your insight and bringing this up!

    • Riya de los Reyes

      Agree with your points, especially asking for their permission and giving them back the pictures! I do not photograph the poor, but in the instances that I did I tried to make sure they were 'in action', meaning they are working, plying their respective trades, with dignified postures. Not ALL the poor want help. There are the destitute, the really down-and-out AND then there are those who try their best to get out of their less than privileged circumstances. In my experience, children are more aware and sensitive to the people they meet more than we think - they can sense when you are 'using' them, which means they will either use you back to get your attention/beg for your money or they will despise you for doing what you are doing.

      Thinking about the ethics of representing the poor is very important. I am originally from the Philippines and for a while, I think most independent films that came out from the country in the 2000s have been labelled as 'poverty porn' as well. The films mostly dealt with the lives of the poor, the delinquents and the criminals in squatter areas...which only perpetuated the image of a chaotic capital (Manila) and the people, incorrigibly corrupt. This is a personal opinion, of course, but while I think it is justified to get angry at structural oppression...it is also important to know that the poor can be empowered, that they are still individuals with their own capacity to help themselves and the capability to contribute to society.

      Katalina is right to mention that pictures are often used to tell a story. The narratives constructed through and from the pictures are therefore crucial in how to preserve human dignity in representing the poor. If the aim is to 'change things', then there has to be allowance for the possibility of change for these people, and representation is one way. We want to lift them up, and also show the world that things are improving, or at least, that things can improve. This doesn't mean glossing over the harsh realities out there. "Shock images" still work, but only up to a point... after all, it can lead to desensitization? We do not want to devalue the devastating truths of poverty by saturating the media landscape with "shock images" that lose their power once overused.

      I agree with Sylvain's points, but I do not think critiquing the ethics of representation means moving away from helping the poor, or avoiding our responsibilities from helping them. No. I think it functions as a check-and-balance for those involved in the non-profit orgs industry. Like someone said here, I think non-profits should be run as businesses and competitively, as much as possible. They should be competing as to which company is getting the most number of abused/trafficked children back in school or in therapy/care, the most number of houses built for post-disaster areas and the most number of entrepreneurial initiatives/skills-training courses started for the poor. Accountability and sustainability are important. If a company wants to hold fund-raising events/get donations, we need to see outcomes...not merely appeal to sentiments using pictures of the poor.

  • Kara Pecknold

    For me, this is the key takeaway: "Our platform aims to 1) shift the way communities are portrayed and media is produced, 2) advocate for communities to be brought into the conversation about how they are represented, and 3) celebrates innovative, effective narrative and image."

    Shift. Advocate. Celebrate.

    To me, this is an exciting opportunity to learn. In age that suggests we might already know everything there is to know, this article suggests that we still have an opportunity to exercise a posture of humility and reflection in the face of the temptations of quick and repeatable. Because we don't know what we don't know, it can be easy to jump to conclusions using the last known thing. This can be (and has been) a problem throughout history. But when we do know something and have some form of responsibility for it (or him or her), much is required of us to handle it with care, respect and wisdom.

    Media (and the digital realm in general) becomes a space where this platform is asking how we might respond more appropriately and with more care when we are asked to be the creators or producers of such media with the knowledge of how this media could impact others.

    For me, this type of discussion is a good reminder that there is power in reflection before any action (shift/advocate) is taken.

    Thanks for writing it, Lina!

  • Gabriela Bhaskar

    And what if the realities are really as harsh as they claim in these videos and images?

    I do believe in self empowerment but I also agree with Sylvain Romleu that they do need help or else they would have done it already. I don't think the problem is with the images, the videos or the story, I think it is what the organization itself is doing.

    Too many NGOs and aid organizations exist without proper organization, funding or insight into what is happening in these communities and does little to engage and involve the community. In addition, these organizations are not sustainable because they are not run like businesses but are ad hoc.

  • Priyanthi Fernando

    I think the key sentence in your post is " a cultural signifier of doing good, but also of being righteous and allaying latent guilt brought on by the spectrum of western history from colonialism to corporate greed" - it's this phenomenon that we must explore - in a globalised world positive social change cannot happen just by partnering with communities, it requires more reflexive action, more assuaging of guilt by changing our own lifestyles and ensuring that our institutions are not exploitative...

  • Sylvain Romieu

    Not to mention: “poverty porn is damaging to those it is trying to aid because it evokes the idea that the poor are helpless and incapable of helping themselves, thereby cultivating a culture of paternalism.” That's right a starving kid needs to get his act together because he can, become entrepreneurial and then pay for his well earned Coke. He certainly isn't helpless and incapable of helping himself now.

  • Sylvain Romieu

    That's right: privacy rights for Africans in a country at the other end of planet earth is exactly what a starving kid should fight for and "cultural signifiers of doing good, being righteous and allaying latent guilt" in the West is exactly what a starving kid should fight against. And "initiatives grounded in respect with an attention to complex realities requires critical thinking and an educated eye" is the most effective way to spend donor money to raise more money. At that rate why not advertize your NGO with a PhD dissertation?

    • tmsruge

      Sylvain, I am not really sure how to respond to your comments as I don't know exactly what your criticism is. There's nothing wrong with helping the poor, there's something wrong with doing it poorly. One of the first ingredients to true poverty eradication measure is self-empowerment. If this ingredient is not exercised in the application of aid, then the solutions to poverty will never stick or become transformative for the "starving kid"… instead they become the problem as opposed to being a trigger to the solution.

      All that Lina is asking for is that donors & do gooders alike engage the process aware that maximum impact means less of them as agents of change and more of the partner recipient as the hero of the exchange.

      We mustn't lose the war on poverty for the short-term feel-good success of doing good.