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Exploiting the Poor Through the Images We Use?

Antonio Lambino's picture

Stereotypical images of the developing world include overpopulated and underserved urban slums, backward agricultural and fishing communities, environmental abuse and degradation, and political and social instability.  Although many of these portrayals are most certainly products of serious photojournalism or efforts to render explicit social ills around the world, numerous warnings have been issued against perpetuating these pictures in our heads and using them in development work, more generally.

News broadcasts, documentaries, and more recently, social media, often reduce developing countries into images of shanty towns, garbage dumps, denuded forests, dead coral reefs, and of course, people who have been beaten or killed through military and police brutality.  Charitable fundraising efforts also use evocative images, from children suffering from cleft lip to those with distended bellies.  Many have argued that these images take advantage of the poor and downtrodden, reify exclusion of subaltern groups, and raise awareness (and funds!) at the high cost of damaging the development process

It is definitely the case that people need to know and should be urged to do something about these issues.  And we also know that visuals are considered potent weapons in the arena of persuasive communication.  Findings from communication studies suggest that evocative visuals tend to be more powerful than words, and that “visual-verbal redundancy” (when a picture and accompanying text, or vice-versa, reinforce each other) can be an effective component of attitude, opinion, and behavior change efforts.

But social scientific evidence also suggests that these efforts could have unintended negative consequences.  For example, if over time, particular groups are depicted as helpless and in constant need of aid, those who have the means might help initially, but then develop “donor syndrome” rather quickly and eventually stop charitable giving.   Alternatively, people might cultivate the belief that no matter what one does to help, nothing will really make a difference.  Or worse -- which is a finding from some applied research -- media audiences might end up blaming the poor for their own plight as opposed to attributing responsibility to market failures and bad governance wherever these conditions exist.  All of the possibilities mentioned above might even influence attitudes and opinions of the public and elites alike, turning them against policies that are meant to help those most in need at the individual or structural level.

Admittedly, we can’t really know for sure, although we can take measures to avoid being completely blindsided.  Applied communication studies can help mitigate these unintended negative consequences by testing, through formative and evaluative research, the likely effects of using some types of images over others.  And if we must resort to a rule of thumb, then I think we can reasonably argue that honest portrayals of victimization and destitution should be accompanied by images of genuine empowerment and human dignity. 

Photo credit: Flickr user Findsiddiqui


Submitted by Mark Ruiz on
thank you for writing this Tony! absolutely agree and is in fact something we've been very conscious to avoid with Hapinoy and Rags2Riches. exploitation via poverty porn is just way too tempting to get sympathy but i really feel that it's definitely NOT the way to go. in fact, recently blogged tangentially on this theme thanks for putting this topic out there! poverty porn really gets to me :p...

Submitted by Chrissy on
I completely agree. The poor are not helpless and our work should focus most on ensuring people have the tools and opportunities for self-determination. Thanks for your commentary and spelling out the consequences so clearly.

Submitted by Liz on
I agree. The poor, like all human beings, should be represented in a dignified manner. Degradation and exploitation should not be viewed as fundraising opportunities - no matter the ends.

Submitted by Jon on
Antonio, fantastic post and I especially agree with your summation. There is of course an effect of constant representation of the way those living in poverty are represented, and media does often tend to portray the poor in ways that reduce the dignity of people who live poverty. My only caution is - and this is why I loved your summation - is that media can't swing too far in the other direction. We need only look at representations of poverty in the developed world. While constant depiction's of the poor at their worst can have the unintended consequence of negatively impacting the public's perceptions of poverty, the opposite is also true. Not showing poverty as it really allows those in a position to help to believe that the plight of the less fortunate 'isn't so bad' so why should they help. Images of life in the inner city in developed countries - where the poor are sometimes depicted as happily coping with their lot - have had this effect. The aim should be to simply tell/show the truth, and let it speak for itself. If the image of a shanty town horrifies; then it should. While all the joys of life can occur there, we all know that this is not the ideal place for anyone to live. Don't engage in poverty porn as Mark mentions - its tacky and counterproductive - but avoid the temptation to sugar coat the very real and very stark realities of poverty. As you say, use the see/say (visual verbal) method. Show the conditions, tell what people are doing to improve, get out of those conditions, and I think the right balance both for those living with poverty and those who can be moved to help can be struck.

Submitted by Mark Lopez,SJ on
Good one, Tony! We were just talking about this the other day with our volunteers here in Cambodia. If your work ever takes you to this side of the developing world... let me know. All the best.

Submitted by Margarita antonio on
Antonio gracias por este articulo!!! Muy necesario. Tendras una version en castellano para compartir con otros colegas!

Submitted by Tin Aquino on
Great post, Tony. Mediated representations are always, always tricky especially when dealing with oft-disadvantaged identities (multicultural identities and the poor, for instance). Other than the gut-level issue of aesthetics, there is the more contextual quandary of what makes a tasteful and ethical--and not just honest--portrayal of these identities in a way that is both fair to the subject and the would-be audience (donor agencies or not). After all, overexposure and too-played-out representations of suffering in the media has been known to lead to compassion fatigue (Moeller, 1999). While images of suffering mean to call on the "human face" of ideas such as poverty and injustice, these very images can have extremely problematic consequences: human strife is whittled down to a spectacle that often furthers cultural and economic divides when they should be bridging them. However, as visual representations can be an extremely effective way of communicating, we really cannot do away with them. Again with the trickiness, as there are no rules set in stone--one can only approximate the ideal of a just and compelling representation.

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