Poverty Porn – Empowering The Wrong Hero

poverty-porn

Poverty porn. The term alone is enough to make anyone cringe. Even worse is the way organizations often exploit the poor through media in order to elicit a high emotional response among potential donors. “In such images,” writes critic Diana George, “poverty is dirt and rags and helplessness.”

Poverty porn can be defined as the words and images that exploit the condition of the impoverished to generate sympathy and charitable giving among donors. According to George, poverty porn shows grotesque crises, often through individual stories, that audiences can easily mend through a simple solution or donation. It also involves in convincing audiences with limited resources that the organization’s work is serving those with the greatest needs, or the “deserving poor.”

Perhaps the best way to examine this problem is by analyzing a specific text that can be classified, in my opinion, as a prime example of poverty porn. While I chose the following text for my analysis, I do not mean to say there is something inherently wrong with this organization’s approach to humanitarian relief or even its communications strategies. I am mainly interested in pointing out a common trend among many nonprofits and the unexpected and often unwanted interpretations.

The text is a public service announcement produced by Save The Children, an organization that seeks to save and improve the lives of children in 120 countries. It aired in the UK in 2012 to increase monthly donors. The PSA depicts a young, starving girl named Amina who is clearly near the point of death. The narrator reveals that the solution to the suffering of Amina and children around the world is a simple donation of two pounds, or about $3.35 USD, per month.

Let’s analyze this text using cultural theorist John Fiske’s Codes of Television. According to Fiske, there are three levels that affect our understanding of a text. Level One refers to the way we encode reality, or our perceptions of how people or events are in real life according to our social codes. Level Two refers to the way we represent reality in television through technical codes like camera and editing techniques, as well as conventional representational codes like narrative, character development and dialogue. Finally, Level Three refers to how we decode these representations using our own ideologies.

Level One – Reality 

For this particular text, Level One describes our pre-existing understanding of Third World poverty, what it looks like and who personifies it. Assuming most of this understanding comes from the media, Americans are probably more likely to associate poverty with non-whites who show visible signs of suffering. In their book, When Helping Hurts, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert write that most North American audiences also define poverty by a lack of material resources. Surprisingly, the authors also cite a 1990 study conducted by the World Bank in which 60,000 poor people from 60 low-income countries were asked to define poverty. The respondents defined their condition psychologically and emotionally, using words like shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness. Notice the lack of physical descriptors.

 Level Two – Representation

Screen shot 2014-03-10 at 12.59.33 AMIn this text, poverty is represented through five voiceless African toddlers and an unseen, male, British narrator. Amina is the only child who is given a name and she serves as the main character throughout the PSA. In the first scene, Amina is shown emaciated, naked, struggling for breath, blinking lethargically and reaching towards the camera. Slow-motion effects dramatize Amina’s struggle to breathe. She is partially covered in patterned blankets that reveal a tribal setting. Slow, melancholy music plays in the background. The narrator says,

 Amina would ask you something if she could. She’d ask you to save her life, but she’s too exhausted. She’d look you in the eye. She’d ask again if someone, somewhere had the heart to help. If Amina could ask you, would you help?

In the next two scenes, more toddlers are shown. Like Amina, the children are attached to various tubes and covered only slightly by native-looking blankets. They look intently into the camera as the narrator reads,

You can help. You can save children’s lives by calling Save The Children today. To help a child survive, will you give just two pounds a month? Please give your support today by calling 0800 048 0023.

Screen shot 2014-03-10 at 1.00.36 AM

Another toddler is shown, sitting upright, staring into the camera inquisitively and nodding. This was probably an ignorant gesture on behalf of the child, but it is manipulated to appear as if the child is asking the audience for help. The narrator says,

 Please, help a child like Amina right now.

The last few scenes are perhaps the most striking. First, one healthy child is shown being held by his mother and fed by a set of hands belonging to an unseen worker. The mother is wearing traditional African clothing and plays no part in the feeding of her child, while the unseen worker is wearing a white polo. Next, another child is shown being fed by a worker in a hat and a similar white polo. Throughout all of this, the narrator reads,

 We know what it takes to save a child’s life. The solutions are simple. But we need your help.

Screen shot 2014-03-10 at 1.01.34 AM

Finally, the camera returns to Amina, who is still lying helplessly with copy reading, “Give just £2 a month,” placed directly above her. The camera zooms in on Amina’s vacant face and prominent rib cage as the narrator reads,

 Two pounds can buy the food to keep the child alive. Amina can’t ask you, but we can. Please, will you stop child dying? Call 0800 048 0023 and give two pounds a month. Thank you.

 Level Three – Ideology

Poverty Porn

According to Unite For Sight, “[Poverty porn] evokes the idea that the poor are helpless and incapable of helping themselves, thereby cultivating a culture of paternalism.” In other words, the damage of poverty porn is widespread because it reinforces dangerous ideologies for the helper and the helped. First, poverty porn tells the poor that they are helpless beneficiaries incapable of self-sufficiency. It objectifies its subjects, defining them by their suffering and stripping them of the vital components of all human life – agency, autonomy and unlimited potential, to name a few. Second, poverty porn tells financially secure donors that they are saviors capable of correcting a holistic, structural problem with the click of a button.

This particular text combines the conventional codes mentioned in Level Two with the ideas we have about reality mentioned in Level One, ultimately capitalizing on paternalistic ideologies held by many in Western cultures. Those with financial resources are represented as the saviors of those withoutPoverty is represented by suffering, a foreign face and a simple lack of material resources. Boston-based reporter Tom Murphy says that merely changing the story is not the solution because poverty is inherently multidimensional. “Suffering is a part of poverty,” he writes, “As is good news, as is a family sitting down for a meal.”

In reality, poverty has “many faces,” as Dorothy Day writes. Contrary to this text, there is no “simple solution” to poverty. According to George, texts like these lead to charity, not activism. They fail to produce both a deeper understanding of the issue of poverty and the necessary structural changes that must occur to effectively address it. “It is important to help individuals,” she writes, “And individuals can certainly raise themselves up out of poverty, but helping the individual without addressing larger structural problems will do little more than help the individual.”

Still, for many organizations, poverty porn delivers on its promise. It works for audiences. George says this is because our culture is “saturated by the image” and graphic depictions of despair may be the only way of convincing American audiences that a real need exists. Murphy also explains that NGO marketing and communications teams are producing these messages because they have been proven effective through rigorous testing. “That kind of messaging,” he writes, “tells people that they have the sole ability to make a difference, as opposed to the people who are being helped actually helping themselves.”

It is crucial that we begin to analyze media in this way. If we aren’t careful, we can let manmade representations of serious issues like poverty shape our understanding of real people. Television has an unmatched ability to perpetuate stereotypes, especially those surrounding the poor. Our efforts in creating lasting change in the communities where we work can do more harm than good if we forget whose story is being told. Co-founder of Regarding Humanity and blogger Lisa Strivastava writes, “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.”

Poverty porn is certainly empowering, but it fails to empower the right people.

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