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July 14, 2013

Catch-up Post: What is Poverty Porn?

by leahericachung

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As I am here in Uganda to do research on poverty porn, I feel it is crucial to define it as best I can. Firstly, no. It is not a type of pornography. I’m not sure who coined the term, but I have mixed feelings about it. It’s provocative for sure and grabs people’s attention, but it’s a very biased term, in that it already takes a firm stance against the use of poverty porn. By predisposing readers to think negatively about it, it narrows and simplifies the debate to a pro and anti-poverty-porn banter. You’re either for it or against it. You use it or you don’t. And as we’ve seen in national debates, when we simplify debates to a pro vs anti competition, you get, for example, people who think the abortion debate is about stopping abortion, not unwanted pregnancies.

This project does not intend to take sides. Instead, it intends to understand what the problem really is. That’s as specific as I will get for now, but I expect that by the end of my time here, my project won’t be about poverty porn at all. But to begin, here is a primer on poverty porn as we know it now:

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THIS is the type of photo often criticized as “poverty porn.” It is also a classic example of the white savior complex, captured in a black and white photo. Angelina Jolie’s pale white face contrasts against the darker surroundings, where the anonymous child’s face is excluded from the shot, possibly for fear of detracting from Jolie’s savior spotlight. Who knows what was going on in this photo. Perhaps it was a truly candid shot that nobody can blame. But why is it in black and white? Who made that intentional editing choice? And for what purpose?

I don’t intend to micro-analyze every pixel of poverty-porn-guilty photos, but some photos just get you thinking – what in the world are they trying to say? Anyway, here is a more technical definition of poverty porn that doesn’t single out Angelina Jolie.

Definition from Aid Thoughts

“…any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause. Poverty porn is typically associated with black, poverty-stricken Africans, but can be found elsewhere.”

Though this is the technical definition of poverty porn, the issue goes deeper into problems with NGO marketing, post-colonial legacy (!), donor dependency, flawed business models, brand psychology, and approaches to development to name a few.

Current Status of Project

This introductory post should have come weeks back but there were some internet troubles as I was traveling to eastern Uganda for the field research component of my project. For the remaining 2.5 weeks, I will be analyzing the folders full of questionnaires and files and files of audio recordings and film to see what people think of poverty porn here. In the meanwhile, I will be posting several catch-up posts about the planning process, my workplace, my research partner, our approach, and the challenges in the field. Stay tuned.

Cheers,

Leah

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