Poverty Pornography

I believe that media are thirsting for public attention, and are thirsting over the pornography of poverty. Before I begin, let me ask you a question: Have you ever heard of poverty pornography? According to MATT (2009), the poverty pornography, also known as development porn, is defined as filmed- or photographed media, which exploit poverty. These are often used to create public sympathy and empathy, which are helpful in increasing charitable donations, or selling more newspapers (MATT 2009).

Picture 1.0 – Starving boy and a missionary (image credits: Maria Teresa Santos)

This is not a new thing as there are many identifiable poverty pornographies. First, I would like to discuss about the napalm girl. I believe that this photo is one of the most famous photographs in the history of war photography. This Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, that was taken by an AP photographer Nick Ut, contains the terror of war (AP 2017). This promoted anti-Vietnam war movements in the United States during the period from 1964 to 1973.

Picture 2.0 – Vietnam Napalm 1972 (image credits: AP Images)

Rural poverty in Africa is also often used by numerous media. Do you recognise this photograph? This photo was taken by Kevin Carter, and is also one of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs (The New York Time Company 2009). The photographer has been criticised for standing by and doing nothing. However, the truth is, he chased the vulture after taking some more photos (Rare Historical Photos 2013a). Rare Historical Photos (2013a) states that, “he took a few more photos before chasing the bird away”. Unfortunately, the South African photographer Kevin Carter committed suicide in the same year he won the Pulitzer Prize (Rare Historical Photos 2013a). Perhaps this has been criticised because not all photos tell background stories.

Picture 3.0 – Starvation in Sudan (image credits: Kevin Carter)

And this photograph is perhaps the most well-known poverty pornography these days. The photograph is also known as the death of Aylan Kurdi (Fantz 2015). A Syrian refugee family Aylan Kurdi’s family was dreaming of a new life in a new land. Unfortunately, the dream has gone because of the miserable incident. A toddler was just two years old.

Even though the poverty pornography has been criticised, some say that the poverty pornography is necessary. The Highway of Death that was taken by Ken Jarecke during the Iraq War in 1991 is one that contains the terror of war. According to Rare Historical Photos (2013b), Ken Jarecke said that, “but if I don’t take pictures like these, people like my mom will think war is what they see in movies”. This showed very clearly why war was a terrible thing. However, according to Rare Historical Photos (2013b), the majority of American media declined to publish that photograph. This is perhaps because the American media learnt something during the Vietnam War.

As mentioned previously, some argue that the so-called poverty pornography is helpful in raising awareness about poverty, aiding poor- and miserable people, and ending poverty. However, some disagree with that. Young (1997) argues that publics would see problems rather than solutions, and they see the Third World as a place of misery. I completely agree with that. I believe that the first thought that comes to our mind when we see African countries is hunger, HIV/AIDS, and orphans instead of solutions, such as charitable donations.

How are poor- and miserable people portrayed on media? Perhaps they are misrepresented as lazy people, or terrorists. Who is identifying these people? Or is it made by themselves? Of course, I do not think so. This is created by someone looking for excessive public attention, including media, journalists, and non-government organisations (NGO). For instance, as monetary donations are somewhat important for NGOs, the organisations focus on publishing the so-called poverty pornography. Perhaps merchandising poverty is another name of the poverty pornography. What if an individual commercialises poverty so as to get any monetary benefit? I believe that Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is a bad- and sick movie.


AP 2017, PHOTOGRAPHER NICK UT: THE NAPALM GIRL, viewed 25 March 2017, <http://www.apimages.com/Collection/Landing/Photographer-Nick-Ut-The-Napalm-Girl-/ebfc0a860aa946ba9e77eb786d46207e>.

Fantz, A 2015, ‘Syrian toddler’s dad: ‘Everything I was dreaming of is gone’’, CNN, 4 September, viewed 25 March, <http://edition.cnn.com/2015/09/03/europe/migration-crisis-aylan-kurdi-turkey-canada/>.

MATT 2009, What is ‘poverty porn’ and why does it matter for development?, viewed 25 March 2017, <http://aidthoughts.org/?p=69>.

Rare Historical Photos 2013a, The vulture and the little girl, viewed 25 March 2017, <http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/vulture-little-girl/>.

Rare Historical Photos 2013b, The Death of an Iraqi soldier, Highway of Death, 1991, viewed 25 March 2017, <http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/dont-photograph-people-like-mom-will-think-war-see-tv-gulf-war-1991/>.

The New York Time Company 2009, why didn’t he help the little girl, they asked, viewed 25 March 2017, <http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2009/04/15/arts/15jaar_CA0.ready.html>.

Young, E 1997, ‘Strategies of Public Engagement’, in Strategies of Public Engagement, McGill-Queen’s University Press, pp. 155-172.


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