Big applause to Audrey Wilson of the Phnom Penh Post for her article this last week on ‘poverty porn.’ and the murky ethics of poverty fundraising. She wrote when Weh Yeoh, the director of OIC Cambodia, tweeted the images from an Australian fundraising ad that portrayed young children, Cambodian, as trafficked and homeless. The photos positively rubbed the readers’ noses in the children’s shame.“I’m pretty sure this breaches all kinds of standards around positive portrayal of children,” he wrote. It turned out the children in the adverts were child models, dirtied up and paid to look like victims – and the fundraising agency said the imagery had kickstarted a very successful fundraising campaign. They were angry to be called out by the media, and went on to attack critic via twitter, arguing that donors don’t respond to images of happy, employed children.
On that front I disagree, and I base my opinion on market research I’ve expressly carried out for the charitable sector which tested various children-need-your-help scenarios – without pictures.
But that’s hardly the issue. The main focus of the criticism was about ‘poverty porn’ and the portrayal of disadvantaged children for gain – whether charitable or otherwise.
“The ’80s are calling – they want their pics of fly-covered starving African children back,” wrote Celia Boyd of Phnom Penh’s SHE Investments, on Twitter, in response to the recent advertising. “Just because it raises money, it doesn’t make it right,” said fellow Australian Leigh Mathews, of Re/Think Orphanage. (I’m citing the PPP piece here.)
The ethics of how we use images of poverty is a blurry topic. Last week I taught a local high-school class in New Zealand and we discussed just this issue, and Exhibit A were a stack of slides I’d taken – photos of poor people in Cambodia. Creepy or okay? I asked.
The students were really clear. If I knew the person being photographed, and if I asked for permission – then it was okay. “You have to be respectful.” one student told me.
What about if it was a poor person whom I saw on the street, or near a temple where I was taking photographs? “Then don’t zoom in on them,” was the answer.
The core principle is respect, privacy and dignity. I don’t buy that the portrayal of victims, whether actual or made-up, is the right way to go.
Anyone have any thoughts on the issue?
- For more: The Ugly tourists and the Prostitute
- Or read: Culture and the way NGOs are run
- About the author – Duncan Stuart