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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Poverty Porn

Just as images of destitute and poverty stricken villages in Uganda began to fill a class full of students at the University of Massachusetts Boston with sympathy, sadness, and overwhelming hopelessness, one shot of five young boys with gleaming smiles running towards the lens managed to capture their universal childlike innocence and sense of play.

In Cuba, in front of decadent buildings of faint hues of once vibrant, revolutionary colors with articles of clothing on clothing lines blowing carelessly in the wind, a man stood with a saxophone emitting music so poignant we could almost hear it in our hearts.

Amidst old tires and broken down buses in India, trying to compete for camera space with a wandering cow, three young men, arms crossed, posed for the woman with the instrument that froze time.

In another humbling shot, a group of older Ugandan men sat, just watching, as mesmerized by her as she was by their strength. One of them, looking either proudly or solemnly at the camera, sat on a wooden log, one prosthetic leg hanging limp. Another was suffering from elephantitis extending from his hips.

While the rest of the class was busy fixating on these photos on a modern projector screen as the rain fell peacefully outside, thousands of miles away from the developing world, one student’s cell phone rang, another stared out the window watching raindrops slither down the glass like tears down a cheek, and one girl checked her complexion in a pocket size mirror.

Breaking our concentrations like a bolt of lightning, one man, at the front of the class, after pausing in a moment of clarity almost, asked: “Do you ever feel as if, maybe, these people don’t want you to take their pictures?” He swallowed a knot of hesitation before courageously continuing. “As if you are exploiting them almost?”

The class grew silent, and I had a feeling I wasn’t the only one that sighed with relief, glad he was the one to ask, and not one of us. It took guts. We all waited for her response.

“Poverty porn,” she said boldly, before admitting that these ethical questions have haunted not only her, but paid professionals in the competitive and de-sensitized market of photojournalism since, well, since the beginning of suffering and modern technology’s ability to capture it.

Poverty porn deals with the delicate balance between having sympathy for someone and voyeurism; a business that “debases the subject for the tittilization of another”. Stories of intense suffering fetishized by intrusive eyes thousands of miles away begs the question of one’s exploitation of dignity for another’s entertainment.

The ethical roadblock that has been termed ‘poverty porn’ is not a new phenomenon. In fact, poverty porn has been at the center of a hushed debate concerning the circulation of for-profit images of war, destruction, pain, and poverty long before pictures of executed Vietnamese prisoners and lifeless American corpses created a sense of guilt, responsibility, and shame in the American population that eventually prompted an end to the war.

Even so, today one can’t help but wonder if those days are long gone. Decades after images of war and hardship acted as a catalyst in spurring discussion and awareness for global atrocities, today’s newspapers are swarmed with sights that are so appalling, so morbid, so banal, that we don’t even flinch.

Readers of newspapers and viewers of TV have now become one and the same: consumers. And photojournalism, a market; people making money off of death, horrendous living conditions, rare diseases, and suffering. Poverty porn is becoming media’s new aesthetic, preaching that it’s cool to be fortunate. After all, pictures are moments in time, their true meanings often lost in translation.

Besides further widening the divide between the haves and the have-nots, this time visually, this kind of indulgence isn’t proactively addressing the problems of war, hunger, totalitarian regimes, natural disasters, or genocide. Nor are these images being sold in return for aid, and the individuals that were subject to these photos are never reimbursed. Instead, poverty porn only further distracts the situation it tries to ‘de-glamorize’ and creates a state of amnesia for the consumer, dizzy in a plethora of catastrophic images with not a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

In a twisted yet completely natural way, people begin to crave and fetishize sensationalist images such, explaining the complacency of dozens of morning commuters all blankly starring at a photo layout of yet another bloody bomb blast in the Middle East.

No permission, no license, no smiles adorn the photos whose abundance we often take for granted. Conveniently too, they are free; free of price, free of commitment, free of concern. But not for all. Hundreds of daring journalists pay with their lives every year, and citizens pay with the consequences that the image so sharply captures every exposure.

Alternatively, it would be a lie and an insult to call all daring, beautiful and often times progressive photojournalism poverty porn. However, the state of malaise in which viewers respond to these images is in hasty need of a global revolution in thought and action indeed. Unquestionably, more needs to be done at the public policy, legislative, and most importantly, personal level, to compensate for the evils poverty porn is doing both to the subject in the frame and the object looking in.

For a few moments after she finished, students couldn’t move. Many were captivated by what they had seen, still frozen with a mixture of both shock, grief, and a familiar culpability. But after a short while, another cell phone rang, our professor discussed the assignment due the next week, and bodies started shifting from their seats, eager to make it to their next class. As I walked up the aisle that the man who’d asked the most important question of the day was sitting in, we exchanged an indignant glance, and I slowly left the room, still partially numb.