THE OTHER: POVERTY PORN

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As a society, it is frowned upon to objectify and exploit human beings in the media. It is troubling when the media simplifies humans, women and men, in order to generate profit. Examples of this are in advertisements, films, and pornography.

This is similarly seen in the way we represent the poor in our media, exploiting their condition and even their suffering for financial gain. Is it really ethical to be producing explicit content of a human being to Western audiences in order to create an emotional response and ultimately, money? This is Poverty Porn.

Many organisations use this practice in order to attract donors as a fundraising tactic, specifically I will be focusing on homelessness. Research on homelessness charities suggests ‘people use poverty porn because it resonates with false perceptions already held by the public and as such is relatively easy to sell’ (Hasan, 2015). In homelessness this ‘perception; is very simply what is easily observed rather than the whole problem.

What words do you think of when you hear the word ‘homeless’? The image that first comes to my mind is an old bearded man sleeping on the streets with cardboard and newspapers as bedding. This is the stereotyped image that we have been all exposed to through the media and some charities. However, does this form poverty porn help charities or hinder them?

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The British journal Sociological Research Online published research in 2015 that detailed a case study exploring how people saw and associated with the homeless. The study asked 41 university students to draw what they believe homelessness looks like. Out of the 41 images, 24 depicted old men with beards or stubble and a dishevelled appearance (Dean, 2015). Many also depicted a person sleeping on the streets. In the United States, 44% of the homeless population is male; families constitute a significant 36%. Furthermore, while 35% of the homeless are living on the streets, the majority are more hidden, diverse and largely indistinguishable from many of the rest of us (Dean, 2015).

The occurrence of the more recognisable image of homelessness led the researchers to conclude:

“It is a risk for homelessness charities to divert significantly from the images which have historically formed the basis of a large proportion of their campaigns. Given the homogeneity of the images produced in this research, and further studies which show complex, contextual information can lessen the impact of a fundraising campaign, we could argue that charities are acting rationally in continuing to fundraise in such a way, even though in rooflessness they are focusing on a relatively small element of the overall problem of homelessness: ‘the public must be given what they appear to want: images of charitable beneficiaries that fit comfortably with widely held stereotypes about ‘victims’ and which prompt the largest amount of donations.’”(Hasan, 2015). 

Many charities, of course, prefer to use a respectful depiction of poverty and manage to raise funds nonetheless. This may be a choice between the ‘easy’ way of fundraising and the respectful and social change oriented way of fundraising.

Poverty Porn has two sides, you have the actual social analysis of what the problem is and what would improve conditions, but you also have the way that people perceive that problem and what they think the solution to be. Personally, it is difficult to identify whether poverty porn is moral or immoral. It can create active participants who seek beneficial change, or it can lead to passive participants who view the images and do nothing. The way poverty is presented effects the way an audience will react, this may lead to the ‘feel good’ effect of poverty porn or it may not.

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Reference:

S Hasan. March 17, 2015. Nonprofit Quarterly (NPO). Truth or Charity? The Lure of Poverty Porn for Nonprofits. Available here: https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2015/03/17/truth-or-charity-the-lure-of-poverty-porn-for-nonprofits/ [Accessed: 16 March 2017]

J Dean. 28 February, 2015. Sociological Research Online. Sheffield Hallam University. Drawing What Homelessness Looks Like: Using Creative Visual Methods as a Tool of Critical Pedagogy. Available from: http://www.socresonline.org.uk/20/1/2.html [Access: 16 March 2017]

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