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Poverty Porn and A New Way to Regard Social Impact

“Regarding Humanity” creates a space for learning and commenting on poverty porn and issues of representation.

A camera pans onto a young black girl from a perspective slightly above her. She stands alone in a field in an unnamed, unidentifiable location, looking away with a forlorn look on her face, never meeting the camera’s gaze. The voiceover: “This is Daniella. She’s nine. And her body is racked with pain from parasites; the same kind that killed her sister. Without help, Daniella could be next.” A single tear falls down Daniella’s face, as she now sits in a concrete doorway with no door, looking down.

This is a segment of an aid organization’s 2010 commercial that still runs on television and on various web channels. It’s the kind of advertising that we in North America have grown up seeing every night, the Sally Struthers-type infomercial that sold poverty, 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 is what we now are calling “poverty porn” in some circles, and simply bad aid in others.

The website Unite for Sight defines poverty porn as “words and images that elicit an emotional response by their sheer shock value. Images like starving, skeletal children covered in flies…” that exploit “the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.”

The use of media, film, and design has burgeoned in the social impact fields. There are numerous examples of effective, innovative uses of image to communicate or drive social impact—which should be encouraged and built into program design. But there are just as many ways poverty porn has increased and morphed into new forms of manipulation.

So in today’s social impact landscape, what is poverty porn? It could be: Photos of rape victims in the Congo used to raise funds in annual reports. Images of squatting South Asian women looking up at Western aid workers. The “bad black man” trope reinforcing the “savior complex.” Short films featuring emaciated children lying in the rubble after Haiti’s earthquake. “Darfur for Dummies.” Celebrities, DIY activists, or NGO marketing departments creating photo opportunities with children swarming at their knees, saying the experience has changed their own lives. Initiatives that seek donations of used underwear to send to Africa. “Clitor-aid.”

How do we know it when we see it? The use of media, image, and design in any social impact field is of course dependent on context. It isn’t simply about the image—which in and of itself may be innocuous, or in a different context, realistic or even powerful. Images and media sink to the level of manipulation depending on what they are used for, and how they are shaped and placed. Understanding how to see propaganda and instead create initiatives grounded in respect with an attention to complex realities requires critical thinking and an educated eye.

And how do we know poverty porn is a bad thing, ultimately? There is power in engaging westerners through a language that we know, through tropes we are used to, through allowing us to feel good about the work we do—and when done well, it’s both good business and good storytelling. But as Unite for Sight says, “in addition to violating privacy and human rights, 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.”


It is the leveraging of pity, whose flip side in the world of aid and development is a combination of guilt and superiority, which sets a cultural stage for disrespect and disconnect. There are countless organizations and projects that keep falling into the savior trap, trying to do what they think is best, but creating output that is outdated and misguided and old-fashioned. It is Victorian and 20th Century social action swathed in 21st century storytelling technologies. As one commentator has said, poverty porn is the result of an organization’s desperate attempt to keep itself relevant and attractive to donors, and is considered necessary for sustainability. It is never about the subject.

And therein lies our solution: with the subject, the partner communities. I have recently co-launched an initiative called “Regarding Humanity” with a set of partners and advisors to create a space for learning and commenting on poverty porn and issues of representation. How much success can we really have in the social impact industry if the communities we are trying to work with are ignored, used as pawns, or manipulated? Our platform aims to shift the way communities are portrayed and media is produced, advocates for communities to be brought into the conversation about how they are represented, and celebrates innovative, effective narrative and image.

It’s time to catalyze a paradigm shift. If we want to advance positive social change—striving towards vibrant, participatory, open, just, economically stable communities in which the entire world can actually invest—we must partner with communities, not impose our constructs. And if we seek to truly collaborate with people, we need to think of each other as equals. We need to educate ourselves—donors, NGOs, and creatives—that our narratives and design need to reflect that equality and shared humanity, without whitewashing challenges people face, and while engaging audiences with good storytelling. We need to co-create stories with our partner communities, and build avenues for us to listen to their voices.

Image via Marco Dormino/AFP/Getty Images


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