Poverty Porn: Sensationalism, Paternalism & the White Saviour Complex

Poverty porn is a term used to describe images depicting malnourished children with protruding rib-cages, often wearing ragged clothing, if wearing anything at all. Charitable organisations use this type of unethical marketing in many of their television advertisements.

Photographers catch people during their most vulnerable times of hardship, and use these harrowing images to invoke feelings of guilt and pity in the viewer, which results in them getting more donations . The advertisements used by these organisations usually features a depressing and dismal soundtrack playing in the background as a narrator tells us of how people in the Western world can stop poverty by donating a small sum of money on a regular basis. This type of media has been critiqued as being ‘sensationalist, voyeuristic, and exploitative… [these messages] over-simplify developmental issues and promote a “them and us” mentality’ (Katherine Purvis).

live58.org

The use of the term ‘porn’ when describing sensationalizing those struggling with extreme poverty is quite interesting. Porn has a whole myriad of definitions, as different people and different cultures all have their own idea of what is pornographic and what is not. Oxford English Dictionary describes porn as ‘visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement’. Many of the advertisements we see depicting starving children do not include any sexual imagery and are not intended to sexually excite the viewer, so why is the term ‘porn’ used to describe such media? Porn, at its root, is sensational, thrilling and lurid. Uncensored images of children with protruding bones have the power to shock and upset, much like how an image of uncensored genitalia may have a jarring affect on you outside of a sexual context. The images of children used are designed to shock, as over time viewers become desensitized to traumatic imagery, a growing phenomenon called compassion fatigue.

boingboing.netThe depictions of Africans as destitute and helpless are internalized unconsciously by consumers of poverty porn, ‘feeding the stereotypes of White racism by keeping alive the old idea that three-quarters of humanity are incapable of governing themselves’ (Etienne Balibar). Poverty porn is damaging on a number of levels; it perpetuates the colonialist and paternalistic idea that people of colour cannot look after themselves by portraying singular narratives of what life is like in Africa, and homogenizing their culture into one of suffering and little else.

abagond.word

The white saviour complex is a narrative trope in films depicting a white ‘savior’ solving problems for people of colour and in a sense, rescuing them, however the narrative trope can be seen in celebrity magazines, too. High-profile celebrities such as Madonna can be seen on charitable missions to countries such as Malawi. Madonna poses for pictures surrounded by African children, acting as the archetypal white saviour. Taking pictures with the locals and posting them to sites such as Instagram ‘justify colonialist, paternalistic attitudes and policies, suggesting that the individual in the photograph…must be protected, as well as represented, by others’(Laura Kascak).
Instead of portraying people living in extreme poverty as helpless, charitable organisations should give the people seen in poverty porn more dignity, portray a wider context for their poverty (as opposed to just being needy and destitute), and discourage compassion fatigue by showing people fend for themselves by caring for animals and tending to crops, as opposed to being given a slim pouch of food.

 

 

Soures used to research this topic and for further reading;

> Balibar, Etienne, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (London: Verso, 1991) 

> Dyer, Richard, White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism (United States of America: Worth Publishing Ltd., 2005) 

> Kascak, Lauren, #InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Volunteerism (thesocietypages.org, 2014)

<https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2014/12/29/instragrammingafrica-the-narcissism-of-global-voluntourism/>

> Purvis, Katherine, Date Aid: Are charities sending the wrong message? (United Kingdom: theguardian.com, 2015)

<http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/nov/10/date-aid-charities-messaging-poverty-porn-bond

 

Images credit:

Image 1: live58.org

Image 2:  boingboing.net

Image 3: abagond.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

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