Why Poverty Porn Needs to Stop

why poverty porn needs to stop

For decades, development charities have turned to imagery of extreme suffering and destitution to raise money for their campaigns. Labelled as poverty porn, these depictions of people in poverty as helpless and hopeless aim to evoke an emotional response from viewers and move them to give generously. It’s a means to appeal to the kindness of humanity but at the cost of dehumanising others, and it’s doing more harm than good.

The term poverty porn began to spring up in the early 80s. In an article published in 1981, Jorgen Lissner, director of a Danish voluntary aid agency at the time, condemns the images of starving children in fundraising campaigns as social pornography. “It puts people’s bodies, their misery, their grief and their fear on display with all the details and all the indiscretion that a telescopic lens will allow,” he wrote.

Almost 40 years on from that article, you would think poverty porn would be a thing of the past. Sadly, it’s not. Just last March, a Comic Relief video featuring Ed Sheeran came under fire for its outdated portrayal of a white saviour coming to the rescue of a helpless victim. It even won the Rusty Radiator Award at Radi-Aid, a contest put together by the Norwegian Students’ and Academic’s International Assistance Fund (SAIH) that highlights issues of stereotyping in third sector fundraising campaigns. To receive a nomination for this category, campaign videos must be guilty of using clichéd visual tropes and overly simplistic messaging.

So why do charities continue to use poverty porn? The main reason is that it often works for them, at least in the short-term. Shocking imagery grabs people’s attention and brings in more donations. It’s an easier sell, as it were. It can even appeal to a saviour complex, pushing the false notion that poor people are incapable of helping themselves.

In a series of blog posts, we’ll be exploring the dangerous effects of poverty porn and why this practise needs to give way to wider representations of poverty and need. The lasting consequences should be reason enough for charities to find alternatives in their fundraising communications, which may prove more effective in the long run.