When I heard the expression ‘Poverty Porn’ I was deeply confused. From what I understood the two words had no contextual correlation whatsoever. It wasn’t until I delved a little deeper, I realised that a whole sub-genre of content we see on a frequent basis can be dedicated and put beneath this exact banner.
Like mainstream sexual porn that depicts sexualised content from the viewer’s gaze for sexual gratification, poverty porn produces objectifying images of the poor through a privileged gaze for privileged gratification (Threadgold, 2015). “Poverty porn” is particularly associated with, and regarded as effective moral condemnation of, representations of “distant” poverty. A ‘horrified bourgeois gazing at the undisciplined classes’ (Law & Mooney, 2011).
It seems via reality TV and ‘documentaries’, invite viewers to adopt this filtered perception in order to challenge their moral judgement of social inferiority, cultural and domestic ignorance , and, in the process, claim for themselves qualities of superiority and class. Conflicting perspectives have speculated the genre of poverty porn, the way it has been represented, received by audiences and the ramifications (if any) after content has been made public.
The SBS series/Australian-based documentary, Struggle Street, depicts the stories of real-life individuals and families that live below the poverty line resided in the Western Sydney Suburb of Mt Druitt. The series deals with internal and external struggles that the sufferers deal with on a day to day basis; from unemployment, substance addiction, the disabled and ultimately those that never really had the chance to escape the environment. However the series has received great backlash in regards to the portrayal and stereotyped images that they gave the people living in the suburb. It gives the responder a glimpse of these harsh realities for the few shown on screen; but besides entertainment purposes, how does this show help the community? – Well for me (and probably a lot of people), I find it extremely hard to empathise with, not only are the stereotypes on the extreme end of the spectrum, things like the narration sound like a football commentator adding an element of satire to the documentary. It prioritises entertainment over the power to influence change or action, and if it does, it doesn’t give any avenues for the audience to pursue in order to make the changes that it expresses need to be done.
Even though publicity describes the show as “uncensored, unfiltered, raw, confronting…honest…heart-warming and inspiring”, the mayor of Blacktown launched an online petition to stop the show from screening, as he regards the depiction of his community as ‘trash reality television’.
The practice of photojournalism has and is still a huge contender in this issue, whether it be depicting poverty stricken communities/nations, past and modern warfare or the results of natural disasters. The coverage itself demands images that are likely to be disturbing and focused specifically on the suffering of individuals. What if that one photo of the child starving in the desert will rally millions to make donations that could save thousands of lives? It’s hard to argue that poverty porn is immoral in that sense. Still, exaggeration of poverty and suffering through the camera lens perpetuates an image of the helpless, which questions the integrity and ethical nature of the information.
This was shot by a photojournalist named Kevin Carter in 1993-94 when he had gone to Sudan on an assignment to report about the famine. He and his group Bang-Bang Club – a group of photojournalists, that were operating in southern Africa from 1990-1994 to educate and display to audiences on the suffering epidemic in some parts of the continent, in hopes for exposure and external support. Are respect/dignity shown and/or maintained in capturing of images like these?
“Journalists in Sudan had been told not to touch famine victims, so instead of, at the very least, holding and caressing the child to give human comfort, or trying to get her to the nearest field hospital, she was left alone.” (Ekine, 2013)
Carter won a Pulitzer for his image, though internal damage to his wellbeing had already been done from his exposure and role in the poverty prevalent country. In July 1994 he took his own life, writing, “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain.”. Through media perception and action, are taking these images really worth it? I believe if a strong connection lies between one’s ability to document and the direct help to those deserving it, justification is achieved. But if these stints are done purely to evoke emotive thoughts from viewers to make a buck which too exploit the subjects, I believe media morality and mentality have stooped to ineffable levels.
Give a name and a story to the faces of the suffering, and through practice, elevate their lives to more than just poverty porn.
Threadgold, S 2015, ‘Struggle Street is poverty porn with an extra dose of class racism’, The Conversation, 6 May, viewed 17/03/17
Ekine, S 2013, ‘Haiti on camera: photojournalism or poverty porn?.’, New Internationalist. Available at: < https://newint.org/blog/2013/10/10/haiti-photojournalism-or-poverty-porn/> Date accessed: 17/03/17