The dangers of poverty porn

Story highlights

  • Poverty porn is used by nonprofits to create empathy and inspire contributions
  • Subjects of the pictures don't always grant permission for their images to be used

This story was originally published on CNN.com in 2015.

(CNN)It's the time of year when social media is inundated with posts about the importance of being thankful for family, friends and well-being because there are starving children in Africa who wish they had a quarter of your good fortune.

Cue the images of an emaciated child with flies buzzing around his face, protruding ribcage, runny nose and extended hands toward the camera -- also known as poverty porn.
    Poverty porn is a tactic used by nonprofits and charity organizations to gain empathy and contributions from donors by showing exploitative imagery of people living in destitute conditions.
    It leaves many of us feeling uncomfortable, disconnected and guilty -- conflicted between turning a blind eye and reposting these pictures in hopes that sharing images of human suffering will enlighten others about poverty.
    "There is a human tendency, by some more than others, to want to be helpful," retired photographer Chester Higgins Jr. said. "The ads make it easier. You call a phone number, donate, and you've done a thing."
    How many of us have considered the possibility that rather than help others, poverty porn does considerable damage?
    Higgins, a former New York Times photographer, said it's time to change the visual conversation. He has been traveling to Africa since 1971. For the past 20 years, he's taken trips along the Blue Nile, through Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, to "make photos," live and create relationships.
    Oftentimes, when he see pictures of African people, they are "theft pictures," which means the pictures were made without the consent of the subjects.
    "A photograph never lies about the photographer," Higgins said.
    A distinct mark of poverty porn advertisements and photographs made by non-African photographers is the lack of decency, dignity, virtuous character, or that it shows the subjects' most vulnerable moment, he said.
    He refers to photographers, charities and nongovernmental organizations that exploit the situations of people in dire need as "poverty pimps."
    Save the Children, one of the most-well known aid organizations, operating in more than 120 countries, has come under scrutiny for controversial advertisements some have deemed poverty porn.
    A 2014 Save the Children commercial features a woman giving birth at a clinic in Liberia to an unresponsive baby. As the mother moans and shakes, a midwife cleans and rubs the blue newborn, Melvin, to kick-start his lungs. The graphic and distressing scene is followed by text: "For a million newborns every year, their first day is also their last."
    Justin Forsyth, CEO of Save the Children UK, said in a statement that the organization has robust guidelines for the images and stories used, and its priority is safeguarding the children.
    "Our image guidelines ensure all our communications reflect the truth, balancing the huge child suffering we witness with stories of hope and progress," Forsyth said.
    The idea that only impoverished Africans, South Americans, Asians and Middle Easterners need Western aid detracts from the impact poverty has in our own backyard, say some experts.
    Mark Rank, professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis, said poverty is an issue that touches the majority of Americans.
    Compared with other Western industrialized countries, the United States has by far the highest rates of poverty, as well as the highest rates of income and wealth inequality, he said.
    Approximately 60% of Americans will experience at least one year in poverty between the ages of 20 and 75, said Rank, who included this statistic in his book "One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All."
    Rank said poverty porn is a graphic way of portraying extreme economic distress, and we mimic this practice in the United States to some extent.
    "We focus a lot of time on ... inner-city, minority groups living in dilapidated housing as an image of poverty in this country," he said. "But the majority of folks who experience poverty do not fit that image. In fact, they're more likely to be the person down the block going through a spell of unemployment."
    In 2014, 17.4 million U.S. households didn't have reliable access to food, according to the USDA Household Food Security in the United States report.
    According to 2013 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 40.2% of SNAP food aid recipients are white, 25.7% are African-American, 10.3% are Hispanic, 2.1% are Asian and 1.2% are Native American.
    Rates of infant and maternal mortality/morbidity in the United States, some of the highest among industrialized nations, are also concerning, said Dr. Wanda Barfield, director of the Division of Reproductive Health within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    "The successes of modern technology can only go so far. There is still high burden of premature birth," Barfield said. "They're not just small babies; their entire organ systems are immature, (and) until they are full-term, they run risks of complication."
    The risk factors for premature birth include being African-American, stress, multiple births, obesity and diabetes, Barfield said.
    It's not only mothers in Africa, like the one in the Save the Children ad, who are at risk of infant mortality, but that's the prevailing narrative: that all Africans are in need of saving.
    Twitter user Diana Salah helped jump-start the hashtag #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShows to showcase the continent's diversity on social media. Users post images of grand architecture, fashion, cuisine, culture, engineering, universities, diamond mines and female heads of state.
    So, now that we've heard a few of the problems associated with poverty and poverty porn, what are some solutions?
    Barfield said people can help support the health of infants and pregnant women in their communities by joining organizations like the March of Dimes, which has state chapters to help educate the public and community about risks of preterm births.
    Communities can help support families and children by educating them about opportunities to get good nutrition, and making sure young girls grow up into healthy women.
    Demanding transparency from NGOs and charities is crucial to differentiate legitimate causes from "poverty pimps," Higgins said.
    To avoid being duped, Higgins said potential donors should ask questions like:
    • How much of the money is transferred to local causes?
    • Can the charity/NGO provide an audit?
    • Are the locals given agency to handle their problems with the money raised?
    • Is the charity or NGO building local infrastructure?
    • Are skills being transferred to locals so they have the ability to use your money to do good?
    • Is the programming respectful of the cultural norms and local perspectives in the country it serves?
    Don't donate money to a charity or NGO based on emotions; instead, ask for a measurement of what good they're doing, because "good" is a variable word, he added.
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    Websites such as Charity Navigator, GuideStar, Charity Watch and Give can help bring transparency about charities and NGOs to the public.
    Higgins pointed out that poverty of material things and poverty of spirit are two different things.
    "There is an African proverb that if you give a man a fish, he would eat it and come back for another fish tomorrow, but if you give him a boat, he'll go and be able to fish for a day for himself," he said.