Poverty Pornography

By: Kate Wallin

Remember the commercials for that one hunger fund? You know the one I’m talking about. The one with the grandfatherly figure, walking around a slum in (insert third world country here), stepping over trash, picking up small children, asking you to spare a dollar a day to help. Did you do it? Did you donate?

Or did you slink back into your sofa, your nine-year-old consciousness disrupted but unsure of how to respond, like me? Living and working with development workers for eight of the last twelve months, first in southeastern Africa and then in Eastern Europe, I reflected back on this first encounter with children in hunger trying to correct my vision and fight my nearsightedness.

In Malawi, the faces of kids, the yellow jerry cans, the dusty roads and thatched roofed homes all struck me with a certain newness and intrigue. Yet they felt so very familiar. Social-cause branding and advertisements had prepared me for these sights. I knew what I’d see but I didn’t know what I’d experience when I came shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand with the hungry, the hurt, and the dying. I had seen the advertisements but I hadn’t entered the stories.

Chris Heurtz is a fortysomething with graying dreads and the Director for Word Made Flesh, an organization of committed contemplative activists living life with those on the margins. He writes in his book “Friendship at the Margins” that “It is tempting to capture a portion of human experience at the expense of the whole to accomplish another purpose. Hunger, exploitation or need may be part of someone’s experience, but it does not define them.”

They refer to this kind of travel voyeurism – snapshots of “needy kids or deplorable slums” – as a kind of “hunger pornography”. In my experience, it’s even more aptly described as poverty pornography. Like pornography, we experience a satisfaction at the expense of someone else. In cases of hunger and poverty, we experience a feeling of knowledge, intimacy, understanding, or kindliness while in reality only meeting our own needs.

So how to fight our cultural addiction to justice-based, poverty pornography? Here’s a few ways I’ve found:

1. Engage in conversations around the issues. Starting conversations about justice and our role is important but can become overwhelming if not grounded in the proximate and the particulars. So start talking but remember grace.

2. Support initiatives bringing the people the power. Celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart has started a movement of photographers around the world bringing voice to those in circumstances of poverty. Help Portrait uses the gifts of creative’s, business leaders and local, ordinary people to bring dignity to those who have been victimized or simply overlooked by the cultural hipness of social justice.

3. Stop buying. Start building. Invest and build friendships with those at the margins. In the end, Heurtz cites, that only a commitment to friendship with those we call neighbor will purify our actions, our stories, and our addictions.

What are your thoughts? What are ways that you have been desensitized to suffering by consumer culture?


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