A History of Poverty Porn

If you’ve ever spent hours in traffic cursing the cars ahead of you for slowing down to take a look at the accident ahead, only to find yourself unapologetically doing the same by the time you get your own glimpse of the twisted metal that leaves you to believe “someone must have died in there,” then you are familiar with the fact that humans have a bizarre attraction to tragedy. There is something mutually perverse and fascinating about coming face to face with the fear of death, poverty, and catastrophic disaster.

The first time I heard about Kibera was shortly after I arrived to volunteer in Kenya in 2007. Young volunteers buzzed about Kibera — the infamous slum that was highlighted in a dramatic scene in the popular 2005 film, The Constant Gardener. While some volunteers were placed there to work, many others prepared camera equipment for a day spent in the largest slum in all of Africa. Like ghost tales at a pre-teen sleepover, stories were shared about the horrors they had heard, speculations stirred about what they might see and recommendations were exchanged on how to dress and what (not) to bring. Day tours were a service provided, at a small fee, to foreigners who wanted to see the spectacle. A safari of human suffering.

In the 1830’s, the way in which humanity documented history would be forever changed with the invention of photography. The entire history of humanity before this point had been documented in writing, spoken word, stone or paint. If the daguerreotype had been invented by the time of Jesus Christ, we may have saved ourselves from centuries of war. Nonetheless, we don’t have a selfie of Jesus, and many wars have remained rampant in his name.

Approximately 30 years after Louis Daguerre created one of the most significant inventions of history, the American Civil War was bracing for its close-up as the fourth war ever to be caught on camera. The portability and short exposure times allowed for almost-but-not-quite-real-time documentation. Timothy H. O’Sullivan was among the first photographers to document war, and is most recognized for his photo “The Harvest of Death,” portraying dead soldiers from the Battle of Gettysburg. After the war, photography increased in popularity and the demand for photographers to document the earliest images of America’s “Wild West” sent O’Sullivan to work with Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. The US government wanted to attract settlers to the west and subsequently hired photographers to capture the majesty of America.

Almost 100 years after the invention of the daguerreotype, the US government funded photographers’ expeditions to the American west with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). This time, as a part of the New Deal, documentary photography would be used to withstand rural poverty by humanizing the effects of the Great Depression. Dorothea Lange was among the first photographers to document the struggle of life found in everyday America. Lange’s poignant “Migrant Mother” depicted a listless woman with her children, in both hunger and desperation, which appropriately led to the US government rushing aid to prevent starvation.

Documentary photography served an unprecedented, charitable purpose. Where imagination was once required to picture distant people and places, photographic film remarkably produced reality. Not to mention, the government was using the footage gathered to determine where specialized efforts needed to be made to support the suffering. This was progress.

In the years since, documentary photography and journalism has thrived with the use of subversive subject matter. Poverty, bloodshed, shock and awe continue to make headlines and readers continue to tweet, re-tweet and share these very images that make for controversial and provocative conversation.

The problem with poverty porn is that more often than not, in our modern age, it’s produced with shameless exploitation of the subject. There are thousands upon thousands of stock images available of homelessness, poor children or poverty in Africa to make a big impression on websites worldwide. The subject or person is at the mercy of the photographer and whether the photographer is an amateur or professional, there is an inherent responsibility of the person shooting. The subject will remain the same, and the struggle will exist long after the photographer has boarded his or her flight home. The photograph itself must never be at the expense of other human beings — propaganda that aggrandizes the photographer while exploiting the misery of humanity is simply wrong.

The way to move forward is with sensitivity and understanding of the subject. The dignity, privacy and humanity of the subject must be treated respectfully above all else. We need to start conversations that bring about awareness and help promote change. We need to talk about solutions. And if the subject in front of our lens is a human being, then that person deserves to be compensated for being the subject of our stories.

While cameras may have replaced rifles on safari, and humans remain as captivating as animals, the ethical responsibility remains the same to shoot with sensibility and reverence.

 







Amy Martin

Amy was born on the wrong side of the Holland Tunnel, and has considered this just-missed connection to be a metaphor for her life ever since. Later, she traveled north to New England and received her degrees in Philosophy, Theatre and French. The years to follow have been spent traveling the world and working on multiple projects in Kenya, in a desperate attempt to save humanity. Amy spends most of her free time daydreaming about being French — but you can also find her in the garden, in the kitchen or on her yoga mat. Amy writes about travel, ethics, life and everything in-between.

3 thoughts on “A History of Poverty Porn

  1. Lisa Kauffmann Reply

    In Rio de Janeiro, there are tours offered that will take you through the largest ‘favela’ (slum) in South America. I have a hard time with that. I lived in Brazil for many years and it bothers me that the poor and unfortunate are made into ‘tourist attractions’ for tourists to take photos of. They are humans, not animals.

  2. Steve Velazquez Reply

    I like and agree with much of what is said here, but I would question the idea of compensating people for being the subject of a photographic story. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the suggestion, but if it becomes expected for photographic journalists to compensate their subjects, this could discourage some of these stories from ever coming to light or it could even result in a muddying of the truth as desperate (or unscrupulous) people compete to have the most tragic story / image worthy of the photographer’s compensation. I fully agree the subject’s story must be told with respect and sensitivity, but I believe this can and should be done without direct compensation from those covering the story.

    1. Amy WeinerAmy Weiner Reply

      I think you make a valid argument on the case of compensation. However, I do believe that the topic is complicated and one that deserves further discussion.

      The problem I have with photographing the poor is that more often than not those of us who are privileged enough to have not been born in a developing country have a perverse fascination with the poverty itself. An existence completely unknowable by most foreigners, is treated more like the Other. Exploitation is found in these places where we are so separate and unlike the subject of our fascination that we forget that although it is an experience unknowable for us — it is very much the reality of another. In this process, we find the interest of our intrigue more important than in solving the poverty crisis itself. Not to mention, there is a problem with photographing the poor for arts sake — and in that particular process, it inevitably keeps the poor, poor.

      If compensation is an unacceptable solution, it seems as though in the very least, photographers should ask permission. However, I have found that there is inherent unconcern for the privacy and respect of a subject who is poor. Photographers ask permission in developed countries but somehow disregard that same level of ethical responsibility when the subject is poor. For some reason, asking permission seems a futile process not deserved of the poor.

      I remember when I was in Kenya for the first time and we befriended a Maasai man who came along with us for the day. He asked if all of our photos would be sold to National Geographic. This question blew me away. It had never even occurred to me that from the Maasai perspective they see expensive equipment around the necks of foreigners that they could never afford and photos from Nat Geo and other publications of their tribe — and come to the conclusion that their faces are being sold for millions (which in some cases, they are). Ultimately, I explained that we take photos for the same reason they tell tribal stories — it’s a way to remember the people and places that we have known in our lives. However, from their perspective, they believe that travelers are well-fed and well-traveled for gratuitously photographing lives of poverty. And when one thinks of it that way, one can’t help but reconsider the whole process from an ethical perspective.

      It is certainly not a topic that has an easy solution — however, I’m glad that people are thinking about this with greater concern, instead of what has only previously been ignored.

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