Poverty Porn: Do the Means Justify the Ends?

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Poverty-Porn

Poverty Porn / Judith E. Bell

June 7, 2016, Sydney Morning Herald

The Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) has rebuked Australian “humanitarian and Mum to Many” Geraldine Cox, founder of Sunrise Cambodia, for the objectification and exploitation of the children in her care in fundraising campaigns. In other words, for producing “poverty porn.” The orphanage CEO, Lucy Perry, though a self-proclaimed “rule breaker,” defends the charity’s use of the images of “Pisey” and the other children.

When does an appeal go too far? You be the judge. Is this “poverty porn”? This Sunrise Cambodia appeal raised more than $200,000 in Australia. Technically these are not “theft pictures,” as each child whose image was used was paid a fee. But does that add to the offense?

The reporter for this story is Lindsay Murdoch, a three-time winner of the Walkley Award, Australia’s top award for journalistic excellence. His opinion is apparent in the title of his article: “‘Poverty porn’ and ‘pity charity’ the dark underbelly of a Cambodia orphanage.” NPQ wrote in 2013 about this same issue of the exploitation of Cambodian children in “Pity Charity: When ‘Storytelling’ is Abuse.”

In 1981, Danish aid worker Jorgen Lissner wrote the seminal article on this subject called “Merchants of Misery”:

The starving child image is seen as unethical, because it comes dangerously close to being pornographic…it exhibits the human body and soul in all its nakedness, without any respect for the person involved.

CONCORD, the European confederation of relief and development NGOs, has a Code of Conduct on Images and Messages, though there is no binding agreement for organizations to follow the code.

Some of the world’s largest NGOs are still accused of showing their subjects’ most vulnerable moments. Consider this disturbing video from Save the Children that features a woman giving birth to an unresponsive baby. The mother moans and shakes. This distressing scene is followed by the text, “For a million newborns every year, their first day is also their last.”

When Save the Children was widely criticized for another television ad, this time depicting emaciated children, its spokeswoman defended the ad in an email to NPR:

Although we realize that these images may make people uncomfortable, we are committed to showing the reality of the situation and do not shy away from the issues vulnerable children around the world face. This particular advert was one of Save the Children’s most successful of all time in the UK in terms of motivating the public to support our work on food crises and chronic malnutrition around the world.

One problem with the obscenity of using “poverty porn” to raise money is that it works. These images do not aim to tell the truth; they sell a product. Besides its profitability, these images work as tourist brochures. As Lindsay Murdoch wrote in a previous article, “Orphanages are often run as businesses, the children being the assets.”

This 2011 UNICEF report indicates that the number of orphanages in Cambodia had increased by 75 percent in the previous six years. The government in Phnom Penh is cracking down on the orphanage industry:

Seventy-two per cent of about 10,000 children in Cambodia’s estimated 600 orphanages have a parent, though most are portrayed as orphans to capitalize on the goodwill of tourists and volunteers, including thousands of Australians, research shows. Up to 300 of these centers are operating illegally and flouting a push by government and UN agencies for children to be reunited with their parents. […] There is growing criticism across developing countries about “orphan tourism” and “volunteer tourism,” where thinly disguised businesses exploit tourists and volunteers.

Sunrise Cambodia is not under investigation, but as with Save the Children people and organizations are challenging them to change the visual conversation.

NPQ readers may remember other previous articles addressing the transgressions of “poverty porn” here, here, and here. There is even the issue of “ruin porn.”

“Poverty porn” is wrong because it misrepresents poverty. It leads to donations, but not to activism. It misrepresents the poor and denies them their dignity, and it deceives both the helper and the helped. In the end, the images lie about the poor, but not about the photographer and those paying the bill for the advertisement.—James Schaffer

  • CLV

    Although I’ve heard the term “poverty porn” used by many people that I respect, including the author of this story, I am always troubled by the misguided use of the word “porn.” The definition of pornography is sexually explicit videos, photographs, writings, or the like, whose purpose is to elicit sexual arousal. Using the word “porn” to describe an image that is not sexual, but rather evocative in another, non-sexual way, diminishes the impact of the word.

    We in the non-profit world are constantly challenged by those trying to redefine the language that’s used to describe the problems we work so hard to address in order to serve their own agendas. Let’s not be part of the problem by diminishing a word that is so important to a whole segment of non-profit and social justice work.

  • Hi, CLV. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you. The terminology is unfortunate and the word itself is unpleasant to think of. However, NPQ is a news organization and needs to use the language that its readers know and that was used by the reporter of the article on which this review is based. I believe Jorgen Lissner either coined the term in his 1981 essay or at least outraged the world with it, and the term stuck. Here’s my personal take on that word.

    First, the term is always in quotations because it is not my word. I first repeat the word linking it to the Wikipedia definition to justify its use beyond the reporters article.

    Second, and I say this with some emotion having spent many years overseas working in humanitarian aid, I think the word fits and so do not mind repeating it with all the jarring disgust the word implies.

    Third, I believe what is happening in Cambodia and elsewhere is far worse than pornography. Pornography is selling images. What’s happening in Cambodia and elsewhere (not for the charities named) is a form of prostitution and in some cases actual prostitution. Google “Cambodia orphanages” and you’ll see. Crimes against humanity.

    Fourth, that video linked in the article of the distressed mother giving birth to her unresponsive child? That most private and heartbreaking, if not also profoundly traumatizing, moment on film for worldwide consumption? And to depict the mother the way they did with her back to the viewer hardly covered, trembling and sobbing? I’m sorry, but I cannot forgive that perverted breach of privacy. If I worked for the charity, that ad alone would have been grounds for me to resign. If only “poverty porn” were criminalized we could hope to fine that global monolithic charity 10x whatever its miserable appeal raised.

    Perhaps a better term might be poverty obscenity, vulgarity, abomination, and so on. But coining words will never be my fate. That happens to far better writers.

    Jim

  • Dariel Garner

    Seems to me that a better illustration of “poverty porn” night be a photo of an $80 million dollar mansion in Beverly Hills or a $75,000 dollar dog collar and calling out greed and the lust for wealth as the systemic cause of poverty. That would be very offensive to lots of folks and perversely appealing to others.