Another unsettling thing I’ve learned while blogging – the definition of poverty p0rn

If you want to stretch your brain farther than you thought possible, start blogging.

You can stop laughing now. As a cautious, restrained, introverted CPA, it is usually a half-inch journey to travel the entire distance of my comfort zone.

Starting my own business stretched that zone. Blogging shredded it.

One of the opened frontiers for me was looking at fundraising and international aid in a completely new way. A while back I saw some materials from one of the international aid NGOs. With my new vision I could see the manipulative story and oddities in the video. Evoking pity was the goal throughout.

Having already been stretched, I was able to see things differently. Like noticing every helping face in a brochure was white. Like realizing every needy face was brown or black. Further reflection revealed the only happy black face was next to a newly painted hut (which was probably provided by an aid organization and the cause of the smile).

I now know the name for that:

poverty p0rn.

I’ve also learned stretching your brain can leave you sad.

Regarding Humanity is a new website focused on expanding the discussion of how to present need in an ethical and fair way by humanizing the recipients and presenting them in their full humanity as capable and able.

One of the reprints on the web site leads you to an article at Unite For SightEthics and Photography in Developing Countries.

The author describes an experiment.  Check out the two photos of a man in Malawi. The one on the left was taken after the photographer asked the man, named Edward, to dress poor. The result?

The photo on the left does not reflect Edward’s success, portraying him instead as a hopeless, dirty, hungry and impoverished beggar.

Yup. Helpless. Starving. Desperately in need of rescue. By me. Hold on a second while I get my checkbook.

The photographer gave Edward instructions to change clothes and look as rich as possible. The result?

Looks like a successful businessman, with that nice suit, tie, big smile, and talking on a cell phone. Just needs to straighten his tie and he would fit into any downtown business district in the U.S. Looks like any bank AVP working towards promotion to VP.

Neither picture is accurate. Who is he?

In reality, he is very successful as an area mechanic and grower of tobacco, and he also works for a basket weaving business. He is also thinking of investing in a truck to start a transportation business.

In other words, a successful laborer wanting to start his own small business.

He is trying to make his good life even better for himself and family. Hmm. Just like me.

The author of the article, who I can’t readily identify, then goes on to explain the problem.

These images have been termed “poverty porn,” which is defined as “words and images that elicit an emotional response by their sheer shock value. Images like starving, skeletal children covered in flies.”  (emphasis added)

What’s the problem?

Poverty porn is harmful because it “exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.” 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. Poverty porn is also detrimental because it is degrading, dishonoring, and robs people of their dignity.

Ouch. Read that paragraph again.

Exploitative. Violating privacy. Violating human rights. Helpless poor. Incompetent poor. Paternalistic culture. Degrading. Dishonoring.


The author goes on to provide 11 guidelines for ethical application of photography.

I don’t know what to say or do other than keep learning.

Please journey with me – check out the website and article linked above.

Previously touched on this idea in my post Gaining a new perspective hurts.

Thanks to J for the link to Regarding Humanity.

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