The job of the media is to keep us informed and educated about what is happening in the world around us. Larger scale tabloids, news enterprises and magazines tend to at times over exaggerate, promote and exploit the suffering of others for personal gain in the form of views. This in return makes it difficult for us as viewers to distinguish whether an image has been edited, cropped or skewed in anyway that may suggest there is more to the story that what we are presented.
Suffering has become a normality today through the constant reminders on social media and television as they have been immortalized through photographs. Poverty porn for one is constantly seen everywhere.
Photo by Kevin Carter during the ’94 Somalia famine
In ‘How to write about Africa‘ Binyavanga Wainaina not so subtly writes a satire piece on the art of writing about poverty, that surprisingly fits every journal article on the topic I have ever read.
… you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering.
Although showing suffering so that we are aware of external issues in the world is extremely important, most articles do little in explaining the situation in full. Poverty is a result of individual and systemic problems. Roenigk suggests that poverty involves personal circumstances along with social, economic and issues in their justice systems (2014). Unfortunately, poverty porn defines the suffering as lacking material resources and while donations may help they do nothing in targeting the main cause.
Marketing and communication teams for charities and NGOs are constantly using images of poverty porn accompanied by small snippets of background stories, containing hardship and suffering (often of a small child). This is done order to promote the cause and raise awareness of issues such as famine. Although the reason may be just, we must ask ourselves is exploiting another’s suffering really the right way to go about it?
Charities often experiments with different elements and ways to paint an image, in a way the evokes a strong emotional response from its audience. In order to enhance the importance of their campaign, celebrity endorsements are event used. Using emotive tactics such as these arouses empathy in viewers and gains pity from the audience, increasing their acceptance and willingness to donate as they otherwise feel guilty for not acting. Matheson miller stated “A lot of times in our charity, we have tended to treat poor people like objects — objects of our charity, objects of our pity, objects of our compassion,” ( Horan, 2016) and this unfortunately, is not too far from the truth.
One example of showing suffering that provoked activism and changes was during the height of the refugee crisis.
On September 2015 Aylan Kurdi, a 3 year old boy was found washed up on the shores of Turkey. Faced down, limp, and unmoving, a result of a life threatening journey he and his family took to find refuge from the Syrian war. The images of this boy spread like wild fire across all platforms including social media. That day all newspapers spread his story some showing his face while others refused to, wether this was for the safety of the viewers or for respect to the boy and his family. This in itself greatly affects the impact the image will have on its audience.
Personally, I remember seeing this image of the small boy, his face still partially visible. A victim to the decisions of the government to close their gates to the asylum seekers, and I was filled with dread. A disturbing and uncomfortable feeling washed over me, and yet I was unable to look away, because in doing so would only fill me with more guilt and anger. Guilt because it would be as if I was denying the reality and severity of their situation and anger that anyone be so heartless as to refuse them safety. As hard as it was to see these images and read these stories it was an important turn of events. His story, brought understanding and created a shift in the way people were talking about the crisis, triggering change.
No matter the culture a dead child is seen as tragic and preventable and often results in us creating connection to the situation through children we know. Unfortunately medias main priority is often the wellbeing of viewers. Channel Ten for example refused to publish the image to protect us from it, but how much protection does ignorance buy us?
In the end we must decide, do we ignore the suffering of others in order to protect ourselves and remain ignorant to the world we live in? Or do we stay informed facing the issues head on, in hope or creating change?
Horan, A 2016, Against Poverty Porn: Why Our Approach To Foreign Aid Is Outdated, Paternalistic And Misguided, Junkee, 23rd March 2016, accessed 24th March 2016, <http://junkee.com/against-poverty-porn-why-our-approach-to-foreign-aid-is-outdated-paternalistic-and-misguided/75081>
Roenigk, E 2014, 5 Reasons ‘Poverty Porn’ Empowers The Wrong Person, HUFFPOST IMPACT, weblog, 16 april, viewed 23 march 2016, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/emily-roenigk/poverty-charity-media_b_5155627.html>
Sontag, S 2003, Regarding the Pain of Others, Chapter 3, Hamish Hamilton, London, England, pp. 36-52