Should charities use pictures of poverty to encourage donations?
There are many dilemmas and potential benefits that arise when utilizing images of poverty or suffering, but first it’s important to question why they’re needed. Photographs of poverty have long been used by charities and NGOs to encourage sympathy and guilt, donations/state aid, or to raise awareness about a certain issue. Hugo Slim, a leading scholar in humanitarian studies at the University of Oxford, argues that ‘part of the reason for this kind of post-colonial choreography by NGOs is because they are still required to be the visual mediators of the poor world to the rich world. In western society, our INGOs are intercultural gatekeepers’ (Slim, 2007). So, what do these images look like, and how can they be effective? Poverty may be more visible to us today – on television, in newspapers and social media, even on our mobiles – but what we see is shaped by certain values: ‘All pieces of news are eventually subject to a process of selection and symbolic particularization that defines whose suffering matters to Western spectators’ (Chouliaraki, 2006: 187). Ever more, poverty is becoming picturesque. A good or powerful image must contain certain features, else it will never draw the viewer’s attention. Binyavanga Wainaina tells us with great wit How to Write about Africa (Wainaina, 2006): ‘Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African…an AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these’. Children must ‘have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies’, while they wait ‘for the benevolence of the West.’ Wainaina underlines brilliantly with this satire, the implicit traits that charities often look for.
In the largest, and perhaps most obvious sense, many see the employment of these images by charities as ethical, because they evoke feelings of pity and compassion from the viewer. They’re then more likely to donate money or support the campaign in other ways, which helps the people in the pictures – it’s all for the ‘greater good’.
At the same time, NGOs can use photographs to expose atrocities and events that take place around the world. Without a record of what’s going on elsewhere, the public would be ignorant about international news, or perhaps unwilling to believe it. Susan Sontag describes the infamous photograph of a South Vietnamese child running towards the camera, after having been sprayed by American napalm during the Vietnam War. It ‘probably did more to increase the public revulsion against the war than a hundred hours of televised barbarities.’ (Sontag, 1977: 18)
Kim Phuc, the girl in the picture, originally hated the photo and was embarrassed by it, ‘but in time she realized that if her pain hadn’t been captured in that way the bombing might have been lost to history’ (Elliot, 2015). Surely this strengthens the notion that charities have a duty to report the truth, even if it’s difficult to look at or seemingly pessimistic. Media outlets also take this approach with The Guardian stating, “If we are going to do journalism that investigates poverty and people who are affected, then surely we have to show them?” (Elliot, 2015). By publishing this suffering, organisations can try to capture the situation at hand and translate this to others in order to affect change.
However, these contrasting motives for using pictures of poverty create problems, and consequences beyond the production of the image that make them unethical. The main effect is that of objectifying the subject’s poverty. By showing them in an impoverished state, the NGO risks degrading them and making an exhibition out of their status and lack of wealth. The people in these photographs fall into the category of the passive victim and are denied a voice.
Another major risk with these kinds of images is perpetuating ‘poverty porn’, otherwise known as ‘development porn’. Poverty porn promotes a popular stereotype, which has existed in the global North for a long time and depends on the superiority of white Westerners, while maintaining that the poor are completely incapable of helping themselves. Though many people are in need, this ‘removes all respect for their agency and cultivates a culture of paternalism which is damaging to the development process’ (Collin, 2009). Charities promote this stereotype, when they could be the very ones to combat it.
Once this method is applied, of using poverty to gain donations, organisations can become trapped in a fierce and competitive cycle, which recognises that in order to supply more aid, more pictures like this need to be published. This also affects the charity itself, which depends on donations to keep running. The viewer can then become desensitized to these repeated images of poverty: ‘The hunt for more dramatic images drives the photographic enterprise, and is part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value.’ (Sontag, 2003: 20)
There is no definitive solution to the moral dilemmas that arise when charities use pictures of poverty as a form of communication with the Western public. Lilie Chouliaraki suggests that a shift in representation of ‘distant suffering’ is needed ‘because it is now evident that the language of pity – essentially the currently available language of politics and community – is insufficient to properly translate distant suffering for the Western spectator’ (Chouliaraki, 2006: 217). Clearly, these ‘intercultural gatekeepers’ (Slim, 2007) still need some form of visual stimulus to encourage donations and support. So, how can the dignity of the poor be preserved in photographs? I think images should aim for an empathetic response, rather than a pitying one. Campaigns could replace images that emphasize destitution and dependence with ones that highlight the aspiration and agency of the people they depict, such as the photograph below of a Botswanan woman (a member of the Bushmen indigenous people who have been fighting for years for the rights to their land).
There are also ways to change the enterprise and raise awareness about these issues amongst NGOs themselves. Andrea Perera, Associate Director of Communications at Oxfam says, ‘for us the trick is to be true to what we see without undermining the inherent dignity of each person we meet’ (Perera, 2009). Photographs that help us try to understand the feelings, thoughts and goals of people living in poverty could encourage more people to act. I believe charities and NGOs should be using positive imagery to make a change and encourage donations.
Carter, K. (1993) ‘From the archive, 20 July 1994: Photojournalist Kevin Carter dies’, The Guardian [Online]. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/jul/30/kevin-carter-photojournalist-obituary-archive-1994 (Accessed: 10 December 2015).
Chouliaraki, L. (2006) The Spectatorship of Suffering. London: SAGE Publications.
Collin, M. (2009) ‘What is ‘poverty porn’ and why does it matter for development?’, Aid Thoughts [Online]. Available at: http://aidthoughts.org/?p=69 (Accessed: 10 November 2015).
Elliot, C. (2015) ‘Can you picture poverty without humiliating the poor?’, The Guardian [Online]. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/29/can-you-picture-poverty-without-humiliating-the-poor (Accessed: 3 December 2015).
McCullin, D. (1969) ‘Starving Twenty Four Year Old Mother with Child, Biafra’, National Galleries Scotland [Online]. Available at: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/collection/artists/don-mccullin/25137 (Accessed: 10 December 2015).
Perera, A. (2009) ‘Poverty Porn?’, Oxfam America [Online]. Available at: http://firstperson.oxfamamerica.org/2009/01/poverty-porn/ (Accessed: 10 December 2015).
Slim, H. (2007) ‘Viewing the poor through Western eyes’, Folksonomy [Online]. Available at: http://folksonomy.co/?concept=448&go=62 (Accessed: 10 December 2015).
Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. USA and Canada: Penguin Books.
Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. USA: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Tyler, D. (1990) ‘Bushman woman, Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana’, Survival International [Online]. Available at: http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/bushmen (Accessed: 3 December, 2015).
Ut, N. (1972) ‘Napalm Girl’, AP Images [Online]. Available at: http://www.apimages.com/metadata/Index/Watchf-AP-I-VNM-APHS021000-Vietnam-Napalm-1972/e674e44489a54fbca89b41a7d821b89e/1/1 (Accessed: 9 December 2015).
Wainaina, B. (2006) ‘How to Write about Africa’, Granta [Online]. Available at: http://granta.com/how-to-write-about-africa/ (Accessed: 1 December 2015).