By: Angela Li
In 1993, photographer Kevin Carter traveled to Sudan to capture the tragedy of the famine occurring then. His subsequent photograph, “Struggling Girl,” won a Pulitzer Prize. This picture showed a young emaciated Sudanese boy, with heavily protruding ribs, bowed over, having collapsed in the dead grass and dirt. A vulture lingers dangerously from behind. There’s a haze of yellow and brown at the front, the only color available in the verdant trees at the very back. After the picture was released in The New York Times, there was rush to donate to any organization that had to do with Sudan, and the public was anxious to hear of what happened to the child. Organizations reused the photo for their own campaigns, and news outlets published it repeatedly. However, there was an incredible amount of backlash against Carter due to how he waited to take the perfect picture before helping the struggling child. Carter waited for 20 minutes to see if the bird would spread its wings. Eventually, he scared the bird off and watched as the child moved again towards the feeding center. He lit up a cigarette and conversed with God before crying, thinking about his own young daughter. Carter would later commit suicide, referencing the suffering he saw in Sudan in his suicide note.
“Struggling Girl” is one of the most notorious examples of poverty porn. Poverty porn is any form of media which exploits the impoverished and their conditions. It glamorizes the idea of being poor and in pain. The purpose of this form of media is to gain charitable donations through sympathy and shock value, or to draw attention to a specific cause— especially when the audience is a privileged group. The consent of the subject is usually disregarded for the sake of creating this shock value. These forms of media reduce people in poverty to flimsy stereotypes that are then broadly applied to entire countries. These stereotypes are used as necessary justifications to even aid the destitute. One specific stereotype is the idea that the communities depicted are completely and utterly reliant on outside sources, generally “white saviors” or the West. While the goal is arguably noble, generating attention or sympathy leading to donations, it is worth questioning whether this type of media is worth the detriment it may inadvertently cause. Oftentimes poverty porn does nothing to address the underlying causes of those suffering, or it may distort or oversimplify the reality of poverty and lead to desensitization. By appealing to people’s sympathy so as to bring in donations, the processes of the actual organization— whether they respect the cultural boundaries of whomever they’re helping, how much of their funding actually goes to those shown in the media, whether transferable skills are being taught, and whether public infrastructure is being erected— are ignored. The extreme nature of poverty porn also reveals a tendency to wait until crises get to a place of no return before those in need are actually helped. The issues prevalent in poverty porn must be so shocking that they must be addressed. Only the most striking causes are worthy of attention and solving rather than broad, systemic issues. Fundamentally, poverty porn shows a lack of decency and awareness towards global issues. However, knowing this, NGOs and the public can learn to critically readjust how they put out and consume media, respectively, so as to effect real, empowering change.
About The Global Health Soap Box
This blog evokes the spirit of UC Berkeley -- the home of the Free Speech Movement. The Global Heath Soap Box provides a platform for GlobeMed at Berkeley chapter members to explore and discuss their thoughts on relevant public health issues. Whether it's an expansion on what we discuss in ghUs or a topic of interest--The Global Health Soap Box covers a wide range of topics.