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Poverty porn

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Dharavi slum in Mumbai, India, was featured in the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire.

Poverty porn, also known as pornography of poverty,[1] development porn, famine porn,[2] or stereotype porn,[3][4] has been defined as "any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor's condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers, increasing charitable donations, or support for a given cause".[5][6] It also suggests that the viewer of the exploited protagonists is motivated by gratification of base instincts.[7] It is also a term of criticism applied to films that objectify people in poverty for the sake of entertaining a privileged audience.[8][9][10]


The concept of poverty porn was first introduced in the 1980s, known as the "golden age of charity campaigns".[11] Charity campaigns during this period made use of hard-hitting images such as pictures of malnourished children with flies in their eyes. This quickly became a trend and there were several notable campaigns such as Live Aid. Though some of these campaigns were successful in raising money for charity (over $150 million to help combat famine), some observers criticised the approach, claiming it oversimplified chronic poverty; this apparent sensationalism was dubbed by critics as "poverty porn."[12]

In the 1980s the media used what some believed to be inappropriate use of children in poverty. [13] However, towards the end of this era more positive images emerged to tell their stories, although, in recent years it has been noticed that the disturbing images are being highlighted once more.[14]

The term "poverty porn" itself was introduced years later. One of the earliest examples was the review of the film Angela's Ashes (1999) published in the January 2000 edition of the e-newsletter Need to Know.[15] In this review, the term was not defined but was used to describe the film's depiction of poverty as a "ponderous vomit-packed poverty porn".[15]

In charity[edit]

The practice is controversial, as some believe it to be exploitative, whilst others praise the way it can allow organisations to reach their objectives. It has been common for charity organisations such as UNICEF and Oxfam to portray famine, poverty, and children in order to attract sympathy and increase donations. Although poverty porn can be seen as a tool to generate further donations, many believe it deforms reality as it portrays the image of an impotent society, entirely dependent on other western societies to survive,[5] as well as being overly voyeuristic.[16]

It is a common debate to have as to whether it is justifiable or not to portray stereotypes and to use sensationalism in order to generate empathy. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer, notes that "The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."[17]

Throughout fundraising campaigns, charities attempt to interview those who they are trying to help, in order to get the word across to the general public. However, it is common for them to encounter ongoing refusal from those in desolated situations to take pictures or to publicly share their traumatic story. This further emphasizes the concept that being in an uneasy, not to say miserable, situation is a shameful one, and poverty porn in media exposes those who do not necessarily have the desire to be exposed.[18]

In one case, this "need" for voices to justify this style of fundraising resulted in an organization creating fictional "needy children", and sending out emotional letters, "written by" these nonexistent individuals. CNN exposed a school in South Dakota that raised millions of dollars by using "the worst of poverty porn,"[19] saying that "a school run by non-Indians is raising a fortune off of racial stereotypes."[20]

In media[edit]

Poverty porn is used in media through visually miserable and disturbing images, that aim to trigger some sort of emotion amongst its audience. It is commonly thought however, that to expose one's misery publicly through images, interviews and other means, is an impermissible invasion of privacy.[18]

The use of one photo to label an entire country as destitute makes the audience falsely assume that the entire country share the same story.[21]

Alli Heller, a Nigerian writer and anthropologist says: "Imagine for a minute that you were chronically incontinent. Now imagine that you didn't have access to adult diapers or sanitary napkins ... Imagine how the acidity of the unremitting flow of urine burned away at your thighs, cracking your skin and leaving you vulnerable to painful infections. Imagine the shame you'd feel – a grown adult incapable of avoiding the small pool of urine you'd leave behind on a friend's chair after a visit ... Why must we highlight the extreme cases when the norm is bad enough?"[17]

In politics[edit]

In the West, "poverty porn" also found prominent usage in the political sphere. It is referenced by the left as an expression for deliberately misleading impressions of the lives of the poor in the process of victimizing them while the right deploys the term as part of its indictment of the welfare state.[22]

In popular culture[edit]

Poverty porn is highly exposed in today's pop culture, as the concept has become pervasive in films and TV shows.[16]

Reality TV[edit]

The British television program The Hardest Grafter illustrates this as it portrays 25 of Britain's "poorest workers," all having the shared ultimate objective of winning £15,000 through the completion of various tasks. In this case, the contestants' poverty attracts a television audience which was, before the show even started, contested as various petitions were made in order to stop what was believed to be a "perverted audience and profit making operation." It is considered to not only be perverted, but also discriminatory as the contestants can only be poor.[16]

BBC Two replied to these accusations by affirming that it would be a "serious social experiment to show just how hard those part of the low-wage economy work" as well as "tackling some of the most pressing issues of our time: why is British productivity low?"[23]

A spokesman from the show's production company, Twenty Twenty, stated that: "the show will challenge and shatter all sorts of myths surrounding the low-paid and unemployed sector."[24]

Broome, a reality TV show creator, states that it exposes the hardship of some families and their ability to keep on going through values, love and communication. He assures that he would much prefer to create these shows rather than those like Jersey Shore which depicts "a group of strangers from New Jersey as they party throughout six seasons."[25]

Associated works[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shahghasemi, E. (2020). Pornography of Poverty: Celebrities’ Sexual Appeal at Service to the Poor?. The 2nd International Conference on Future of Social Sciences and Humanities, Prague.
  2. ^ "famine porn « An Africanist Perspective". kenopalo.com. Retrieved 2016-05-25.
  3. ^ "Famine Africa stereotype porn shows no letup". Development Research Institute. Retrieved 2016-05-25.
  4. ^ ""Famine Porn" and the Marketing of Poverty | Subversive Influence". subversiveinfluence.com. Retrieved 2016-05-25.
  5. ^ a b Matt Collin (July 1, 2009). "What is 'poverty porn' and why does it matter for development?". Aid Thoughts. Archived from the original on 2015-12-22. Retrieved 2014-01-19.
  6. ^ Flinders, Matthew (January 8, 2014). "Down and out in Bloemfontein". Oxford University Press blog.
  7. ^ Quinn, James (2015-09-21). Adventures in the Lives of Others: Ethical Dilemmas in Factual Filmmaking. I.B.Tauris. ISBN 9780857739766.
  8. ^ Wilson, Beth. "What is 'Poverty Porn' and are we guilty of indulging in it?". Trespass Mag.
  9. ^ a b "Benefits Street: Channel 4 boss resents poverty porn accusation". Digital Spy. January 10, 2014. Retrieved 2014-01-19.
  10. ^ "'Poverty porn'? Who benefits from documentaries on Recession Britain?". Joseph Rowntree Foundation. August 23, 2013. Archived from the original on February 2, 2014. Retrieved 2014-01-19.
  11. ^ Bendtsen, Daniel. "Controversial poverty advertisements are making a comeback". Deseret News. Retrieved 6 January 2019.
  12. ^ "Controversial poverty advertisements are making a comeback". DeseretNews.com. Retrieved 2015-11-02.
  13. ^ Bayram, A. Burcu; Holmes, Marcus (2021). "The Logic of Negative Appeals: Graphic Imagery, Affective Empathy, and Foreign Development Aid". Global Studies Quarterly. 1 (4): 1. doi:10.1093/isagsq/ksab032.
  14. ^ "At What Point Does A Fundraising Ad Go Too Far?". NPR.org. Retrieved 2015-11-02.
  15. ^ a b Korte, Barbara; Regard, Frédéric (2014). Narrating Poverty and Precarity in Britain. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG. p. 205. ISBN 9783110367935.
  16. ^ a b c "It's a bit rich moaning about poverty porn | Rachel Cooke". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-11-02.
  17. ^ a b Meikle, Glendora. "Poverty porn: is sensationalism justified if it helps those in need?". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-11-02.
  18. ^ a b "Poverty porn: look at these vulnerable people". Canberra Times. Retrieved 2015-11-02.
  19. ^ Fitzpatrick, David (2014-11-17). "U.S. Indian school's fundraising letters sent to millions signed by fictitious kids". CNN Investigations. Retrieved 2015-03-30. "They are raising money in the name of Indians, using the worst of poverty porn of all Indian country to raise money on all our social ills" - Michael Roberts, president of the First Nations Development Institute
  20. ^ Cooper, Anderson (Anchor), with David Fitzpatrick and Drew Griffin (Reporters) (2014). 'Poverty porn' helps school get millions (Television news report). US: CNN Investigations.
  21. ^ "Africans are fighting media poverty-porn by tweeting beautiful images of their real lives". The Plaid Zebra. Retrieved 2015-11-02.
  22. ^ Collective, E. D. A. (2015-05-29). Twerking to Turking: Everyday Analysis. John Hunt Publishing. ISBN 9781782797517.
  23. ^ "Kim Shillinglaw, Controller BBC Two, announces raft of new commissions". bbc.co.uk. BBC. 2015. Retrieved 2022-12-25.
  24. ^ "BBC's new 'poverty porn' TV series has everyone raging". The Independent. Retrieved 2015-11-02.
  25. ^ "'Poverty porn' reality TV: Does it have the capacity to do good?". www.cbc.ca. Retrieved 2015-11-02.
  26. ^ Miller, John (2020-11-25). "Is Netflix's 'Hillbilly Elegy' poverty porn?". America Magazine. Retrieved 2020-11-30.
  27. ^ "The Scheme: Gritty TV or poverty porn?", The Guardian TV & Radio Blog, 28 May 2010
  28. ^ "The Scheme: A brutal eye-opener or poverty porn?", The Scotsman, 28 May 2010
  29. ^ "Debate over housing estate portrayal on The Scheme", stv.tv, 19 May 2010
  30. ^ "The Scheme, a TV documentary of life on a Kilmarnock estate, has already been dubbed Scotland's Shameless. But what's life really like there?", The Scotsman, 20 May 2010
  31. ^ McTague, Tom (January 13, 2014). "Benefits Street: Iain Duncan Smith uses 'poverty porn' show to justify savage Tory welfare cuts". Mirror Online. Retrieved 2014-01-19.
  32. ^ TV and Radio (April 23, 2013). "Paralympic star Tanni Grey-Thompson attacks Channel 4 over its 'poverty porn'". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2014-01-19.
  33. ^ Charlie Brooker (January 12, 2014). "Benefits Street – poverty porn, or just the latest target for pent-up British fury?". The Guardian.
  34. ^ Kanter, Jake (January 10, 2014). "C4 rejects Benefits Street's 'poverty porn' tag". Broadcast. Retrieved 2014-01-19.
  35. ^ "Richard Chin: Slumdog Millionaire: Debate Poverty not "Poverty Porn"". Huffington Post. March 6, 2009. Retrieved 2014-01-19.
  36. ^ Evan Selinger and Kevin Outterson.2009.The Ethics of Poverty Tourism.Boston: Boston University School of Law
  37. ^ "The Risks of Indian Poverty Porn". Indie Wire. Retrieved 2023-11-01.
  38. ^ "After Benefits Street, it's another round of poverty porn – with added celebrity". The Guardian. March 5, 2014. Retrieved 2014-03-20.
  39. ^ "Get on Up: From Rhythm to Richness". National Review. August 1, 2014. Retrieved 2014-08-02.
  40. ^ Nick Galvin. "Struggle Street: SBS ponders how to follow ratings smash". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 22 December 2015.
  41. ^ Tiny. "Performing poverty in 'Nomadland' and 'White Tiger'". 48hills. San Francisco Progressive Media Center. Retrieved 28 May 2021.