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What is Ethical Storytelling? Poverty Porn

Our first topic for this new series is non other than Poverty Porn! Poverty Porn is something that we see especially when it comes to INGO/ Development photography. It is a type of photography that is generated in certain parts of the world and quite frankly, is something that we should be moving away from within the photography industry. The main question though, is what is Poverty Porn?


According to Wikipedia, Poverty Porn is ‘any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits vulnerable peoples condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers, increasing charitable donations, or support for a given cause’. Despite this being a way for INGO’s and charities to raise money and awareness for a certain cause, it also serves as a form of entertainment for a more privileged audience.


The concept of Poverty Porn first came about in the 1980’s during the ‘golden age of charity campaigns’. Many charities decided to make use of hard-hitting images depicting malnourished children and individuals suffering from diseases and famine. These styles of images quickly became a trend, with many charities including notable INGO’s also using these type of images to raise money, and despite some of them raising millions of dollars, the damage that has been created is still something that we are tackling today.


Images that illustrate suffering, poverty and pain is indeed a strong tool in getting a reaction from a more privileged audience but unfortunately, it has played a huge role in presenting many third world countries as being incapable of taking care of themselves or solving their own problems, they are seen to be impotent and completely dependent on western societies for survival. Poverty Porn has opened the way for voyeurism and dangerous stereotypes depicting an entire country, continent or race as being ‘poor’ and inadequate which is a stereotype that is still being fought against today.

With this recognition of the dangers of Poverty Porn, over the years, some photographers have found different ways of documenting individuals living in difficult situations without being voyeuristic or leveraging of suffering. Utilising participatory forms of making work or more intimate ways of taking pictures (such as photo stories and portrait series) and getting the contributors (people who are being photographed) involved in the image making process, are ways to tackle Poverty Porn and create compelling images that still get the message across but portray the contributors as individuals who are capable of taking care of themselves but need a little bit of help in order to do so.


There is so much more to Poverty Porn than what has been covered in this article, and of course, I am well aware that tackling such an issue is not as simple as taking portraits or creating photo stories! Poverty Porn is a detailed subject that every Photographer should research and get to grips with, especially if they have a desire for ethical storytelling. Ethical storytelling requires for us as storytellers to return to the drawing board and think of ways that we can tell stories differently than how is has been done in the past. This requires, time, effort and dedication. It consists of constant learning and unlearning but the benefits of doing so has the potential to change the photography industry for the better!


Keep your eyes peeled for next weeks continuation on the series ‘What is Ethical Storytelling?’

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