The photograph of deceased Syrian infant Alan Kurdi laying face down on a beach in Turkey is one of the saddest images I have ever seen. Shot in 2015 by Turkish Photo Journalist Nilüfer Demir, the image quickly gained international media attention and became somewhat of a symbol for the global refugee crisis that was emerging as a result of the ongoing civil war in Syria. I recall seeing the photo for the first time when it was trending (and subsequently igniting a debate) on social media shortly after it’s initial publication. The emotional response evoked within me back in 2015 was much the same as it is today: sadness.
Wait a second, why did I start this paper by immediately addressing my feelings? I set out to write this paper about the western media’s portrayal of poverty, and how problematic it is, yet here I am, unintentionally beginning my rant by selfishly concentrating on my own emotions, rather than the broader issues present within the portrayal of poverty by the media. Why did I not start by attempting to empathise with the Kurdi family, who’s pain and sadness no doubt dwarfs my own? Or perhaps I could have begun by focusing more specifically on the situation in Syria, which has now reportedly claimed up to 400,000 casualties.
Sadly, the egocentric response I have exhibited here is fairly common in the media landscape, especially when the topic at hand is poverty. The term poverty porn has been invented and is now widely used, to categorise the behaviour I am describing here. Put simply, poverty porn, also sometimes referred to as development porn, is any type of media which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for generating profit or increasing charitable support for a specific cause.
Be it a photo of a deceased Syrian baby washed up on a Turkish beach, or Kevin Carter’s famous 1994 photo of a vulture waiting to devour a dying child in Sudan (above), the media has long been addicted to poverty porn. Here I will highlight the western media’s tendency to focus primarily on the suffering experienced by the western audience when confronted with these images, rather than the suffering of the non-western subject.
The first example is a promotional video (see below) produced by the charity organisation Red Nose Day and starring comedian Jack Black. The video begins with Mr. Black giving an introduction and explaining to the viewer “what your donations will be going to”. After the cheerful introduction, the video quickly descends into a gloomy mood as a sullen piano tune begins playing. Mr. Black cries whilst being interviewed about what he has witnessed during his time in Uganda. A large portion of this four-minute video is dedicated to footage of Mr. Black crying as he describes the pain elicited by witnessing other people’s suffering. The video is clearly intended to provoke an emotional response from a western audience, and in many ways, it does a good job of that. Mr. Black uses the closing sequence of the video as an opportunity to plea for public donations towards the Red Nose Day charitable campaign. This video serves as a clear example of the above-mentioned definition of poverty porn in which the producer uses the suffering of the poor to generate sympathy and garner support for a charitable organisation. Seeing the usually jovial and affable Jack Black crying creates a sense of sadness that a western audience can relate to, albeit without addressing the causes of issues present in Uganda.
A second and perhaps more famous example is Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1994 photograph, titled “The Vulture and the Little Girl” (pictured and mentioned above). The image was first published in the New York Times over twenty years ago the image still to this day is regarded as one of the world’s most famous examples of western photojournalism. Some have argued that Carter’s photograph is poverty porn, while other’s argue that his work did a tremendous job of raising awareness toward the famine in Sudan at the time. After careful consideration, I have concluded that it is probably a bit of both. The photograph is no doubt striking, and as a result, it has become famous, which in turn has raised some level of awareness of the public perception of issues in Sudan during the 90’s. The issue, however, is that Carter’s photograph was captured as a commercial endeavor. The fact that it heightened western awareness about Sudan would have only resulted in a bigger payday for Carter, and for the New York Times. It would be unreasonable to assume that either party was present in Sudan purely on humanitarian grounds. The goal of both the photojournalist and his employer is to earn money.
It is quite easy to argue these two examples above as being ‘poverty porn’. What is much harder is deciding whether the good outweighs the bad when it comes to poverty porn. There is obvious good that comes from the sharing of images which highlight suffering, as there too is negatives. Perhaps what we need more of though is explanations as to the causes and solutions to said suffering. There is no humanitarian side to the poverty porn sccenrio unless the genuine intent is to use it to create a better world.