Have you ever seen one of those photos where there’s a starving child with distended belly, looking forlornly up at a camera, asking you to save them?
On the TV news, in magazines, and occasionally on advertising for charities. Playing on our fears and sympathy, they try to push a giant button on our forehead labeled “GUILT.”
These images make me angry. They make me angry because that’s just not what extreme poverty is really about. Yes, it’s real – people really do live in such challenging circumstances, but when it’s the only image we see, it sends all the wrong messages.
It’s poverty porn – gratuitous and explicit images that strip away people’s identity and personality, making them out to be little more than meat.
It makes out that people in extreme poverty aren’t willing or able to do things for themselves. It makes out that people in extreme poverty are victims, that they need us to save them. And, without really even thinking about it, it reinforces the idea that people in extreme poverty are somehow less than us – less valuable, less capable, less intelligent … and less human.
I had a chance to reflect on this recently when I caught up with Ann Cotton, founder and Director of girls’ education charity CAMFED. We were chatting about some of the amazing people we’d met who lived in extreme poverty, and how they were nothing like the photos we sometimes saw.
The people we’d met and the lives we’d have the privilege to share in, if only briefly, weren’t victims at all. They may have been hungry, some may have been sick, but these weren’t their defining features. They were mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. They were working hard in their community to create a better life for themselves and their families. They were worried about the same things that I was worried about – being able to pay the bills, making up with a loved one they’d recently had a fight with, and hoping that their football team would win on the weekend.
As Ann and I chatted, we agreed that the sorts of images that we should be seeing of people in extreme poverty are images of everyday life, that respect people and show them as they’d like to be shown. Positive images – the sort that we use on this website, in our films and in our presentations.
So, next time you’re thinking about using some images of poverty – for awareness raising, for a report, for a fundraiser – ask yourself if you’re picking the right images. Ask yourself if you’d be happy for someone in Asia or Africa to show the photo if you were in it – or if you’d like to be more methodical, you can use the sort of criteria that we use in deciding what images to show:
• Permission – Do I (or the photographer) have the person’s informed and explicit permission to show their image?
• Do No Harm - Am I creating and using material in a manner that will do no harm to those involved?
• Do Good - What is my intention or purpose for creating this material?
• Fidelity - Am I using content in a way that fairly represents the real situation?
• Justice - Am I portraying people and communities with the same respect I would show to neighbors and strangers
in my home country?