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Everything you need to know about poverty porn

Close your eyes and think poverty.

If you’re conjuring emaciated brown bodies, lolling limbs and “Africa”*, you’ve been exposed to poverty porn.

Ed Sheeran is among the latest to unwittingly stumble into unethical territory. In his plea for the poor, hero-Ed narrates his sorrow while the camera zooms on nameless children sleeping rough on a beach. The message: we can save them.

That’s the pornography of poverty.

Why it’s toxic

The “porn” part of poverty porn

Like pornography, poverty porn is voyeuristic. It captures human beings in vulnerable, deeply personal moments, and packages that trauma (and humiliation) for consumption.

The White Man’s Burden

Poverty porn draws a binary between viewer and subject. They are victims. We are saviours.

The "us" and "them" binary has existed since the colonial period, when colonising countries believed “The White Man’s Burden”the duty to "civilise" people of colourjustified their violent subjugation of foreign peoples.

Poverty porn breathes new life into this racist binary.

Like an Insta-blogger’s “candid” pics

Poverty porn is deceptive. It screams: “we’ll take anything you’ve got!”, over-simplifying poverty and complex issues like famine.

It spins a fiction that we can fight poverty without structural change. We can't. 

Without an understanding of the complex obstacles that prevent people from lifting themselves out of povertylike conflict, social isolation, or gender inequalitywe can become frustrated when band-aid solutions don’t work.

The game is rigged

Our global trade system is set up to serve the interests of the wealthy, and low-income countries are often collateral damage.

And multinational corporations exploit cheap labour in these countries and avoid paying what they owe by stashing their profits in offshore tax havens.

Poverty porn fails to explain the ways that wealthy countries are complicit in global poverty. It frames fighting poverty as an act of charity, not justice.

Compassion fatigue

Fighting poverty is a marathon, not a sprint. But poverty porn undermines our ability to stick it out.

Guilt and pitythe bread and butter of poverty pornpeak early and quickly trough. Over time we become desensitised to poverty porn.**

Feeling bad is exhausting.

If we’re going to make it to the finish line we’ve got to fight poverty with a good dose of empathy and respect.

The alternative?

There is no easy line to draw between what’s ethical and what’s not. But there are some shining examples of powerful, uplifting representations of people who experience poverty and trauma.

Our own video “I Must Not Make Assumptions” turns stereotypes about poverty on their head.

In the refugee sphere, War Child’s “Batman” is a touching portrayal of a refugee boy’s life in a camp.

Or there’s “Deng Unlimited”, the true story of a Sudanese boy soldierripped from his family at age 6who sought asylum in Australia, taught himself to read, and now runs his own law firm. His story has 2.7 million views.

“Deng Unlimited” doesn’t shy away from his painful past. But Deng is the hero of his storynot some teary-eyed celebrity. And when the clip ends we’re left with a profound respect for Deng and empathy the refugee struggle.

Eduardo Galeano says it best:

“I don't believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.”

More on Ed Sheeran’s fundraising film:

On poverty porn in our own backyard:

Learn more about poverty porn and ethical images:

* Poverty porn often imagines "Africa" as a single countrya wild land of desperation. Africa is a continent and contains 54 diverse nations.

**The Institute for Public Policy Research’s report “Understanding public attitudes to aid and development” is a useful window into the long-term negative effects of poverty porn on public perception of poverty and fundraising.

Want to keep reading? Check out RIP First World Problems, or When TV tries to make colonialism cute.