Op-ed: Is NatGeo’s new #EndPoverty contest just more poverty porn?

Analiza and her family live in poverty, in a cemetery, in Manila, Philippines. Isabella Humphrey photo submission to NatGeo.

If there’s one thing I learned in my six years working in international aid, it’s this: There are no simple solutions to ending poverty.

That’s why National Geographic’s #EndPoverty Hashtag Challenge, which encourages users to submit their most “compelling” photos “that best describe the term #EndPoverty” is aptly reminiscent of the thousands of other charity gimmicks promising simple solutions for complex issues.

From One Million Shirts for Africa, to water pumps modeled as playground equipment, to the multimillion-dollar, celebrity-backed Millennium Villages Project, there have been a lot of attempts to solve extreme poverty, particularly in East Africa where I live.

But despite the attempts of kitschy development projects like Teddies for Tragedies, Soles4Souls and Pedals for Progress, poverty, in its many manifestations, still exists.

The problem with awareness-building efforts like National Geographic’s #EndPoverty Hashtag Challenge is not only its failure to mention the diversity within the poverty/wealth spectrum but also because it replaces that diversity with a self-created and oftentimes one-dimensional concept of poverty.

For example, if you take a look at the 3,000 photographs submitted to NatGeo’s #EndPoverty Challenge you’ll quickly notice that almost every single image depicts the concept of poverty in the exact same way.

Here are a few examples:

Photo by Pooja Rajput for National Geographic's #EndPoverty contest

Photo by Pooja Rajput for National Geographic’s #EndPoverty contest

Photo by Hsin Tai Liu for National Geographic's #EndPoverty contest

Photo by Hsin Tai Liu for National Geographic’s #EndPoverty contest

“I can survive on the streets because I know that everything is an illusion.” — Troy Troy is mentally unstable and has been wandering around downtown Los Angeles for around 4 years. He explained to me how his life was nothing but rejections from people and society. Mentally ill without proper professional care and patient dumping from hospitals is a continuous problem in Skid Row.

Below is a photo submitted to NatGeo by Kimberly Stevenson, who captured images of poverty on the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia. Says Stevenson:

“I finally got some time to take some photographs while on a medical mission trip on the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia. One of our volunteers had made some balloon animal hats earlier that day and it appears that these three kids either popped theirs or they got popped by something. You see them all three here chewing on the balloon like bubble gum.”

Kids chewing on balloons outside Lusaka. Kimberly Stevenson's submission to NatGeo

Kids chewing on balloons outside Lusaka. Kimberly Stevenson’s submission to NatGeo

Mentally ill, starving, destitute and downtrodden; that is how National Geographic and many of its readers perceive people living in poverty.

There are few, if any, photos showcasing the ingenuity, grit, resourcefulness or determination of people living in poverty. Rather, these collective snapshots create a single narrative for every person and community experiencing extreme poverty.

But while the oversimplification of poverty is absolutely problematic, there’s another area of concern with this contest — National Geographic and its co-sponsor, the World Bank — are using photographs of human beings to elicit a specific reaction from their readers (sadness, pity, outrage) in order to encourage their established perspective. That isn’t just unethical marketing; it’s poverty porn.

Poverty porn is considered “any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause,” states AidThoughts.

From photographs of suffering, malnourished children to poverty-stricken mothers holding sick babies, poverty porn is, at its core, is exploitative and deeply unethical.

While such images may indeed increase donations to charities fighting poverty, academics and experts agree poverty porn is ineffective in creating meaningful, sustainable change on the issue. See #Kony2012

Another area of concern is the lack of participation by stakeholders of the NatGeo contest, particularly because the #EndPovery Challenge restricts participants to those who own digital cameras. By limiting submissions to resource affluent photographers, National Geographic essentially silences the voices of the poor simply because they are poor.

Finally, while I’m first to agree that photographs can be catalysts for change, I would also argue that photographs do cause repercussions, particularly when children are involved and consent to photograph is unclear. The most troubling of these 3,000 images are those showing children without clothes or children living in potentially dangerous or shameful environments. Posting such photos for the world is absolutely unacceptable.

Like many development skeptics, I’m quick to scoff these poorly planned, top-down, charity initiatives as nothing more than a marketing campaign of poverty porn. But while it’s easy to condemn such projects from behind of our computer screen, I would like to suggest a few ways to push back at National Geographic and perhaps, become a little more informed about the ethics of development.

First, in the spirit of #ArmchairActivism, I encourage all National Geographic readers to post counter images depicting people as more than just their material wealth or financial situation. Look for photos showcasing the creativity, perseverance and inventiveness of people around the globe. Post on your social media account with the hastags #EndPoverty #EndPovertyPorn #NatGeo

And if you’re interested in getting informed about similar issues of ethics in development, make sure to check out these resources:

Stop Trying to Save the World
Michael Hobbes
New Republic

Pitfalls in Development Work
Unite for Sight

How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti ­and Built Six Homes
Justin Elliott and Laura Sullivan
ProPublica

Taliban condemns Afghanistan balloon project
AFP

The Best in #SWEDOW
Tales from the Hood

Think I’m being too harsh? Think I missed something? Add your thoughts in the comment section below. I’d be interested in hearing from you.

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About Author

Katie G. Nelson is an American journalist and photographer covering global health, human rights and international aid issues in East Africa. Katie, a former development worker, is most interested in challenging preconceived notions of East Africa while shining a spotlight on people who are injecting innovation, creativity and some serious grit into their communities. She has a B.A. in Global Studies and a Master of Public Health from the University of Minnesota.

  • Jim Clancy

    Katie, you are on the mark. I remember after the Rwanda genocide when so-called “orphanage” charities used photos of children to raise bags of cash. Then, we discovered some were prostituting the children to the Zaire army and others for even more money. Few, if any, were actually trying to help heads of households learn skills, have farming land and equipment to support their families. This practice of using children to raise money is sadly repeated over and over again.

    • Thanks Jim for your comment. Yes, this type of exploitation is common across the world and it seems like charities/the media are slow to curb their use of poverty porn as marketing material.

  • Colleen Hoesly

    I tend to have a really hard time reading articles like this. Over the past 15 years I have been involved in international development projects. I have worked with volunteers who “get it” and those who don’t. I get that some people do it to feel good about themselves and share photos on their Facebook wall, and corporations do it for a good public face. But articles like this seem to belittle the people who are doing it for the right reasons. Those that are making a positive impact. And most importantly it discourages people that are interested in getting involved from taking that step or spreading that message. Empathy and action turn to apathy. Why not try to educate on what we can do to more effectively create a change, rather than cast a shadow on those legitimately working to make this World a little better place.

    • Hi Colleen,
      Thanks for your comment.
      As someone who worked in the nonprofit/aid industry for six years, I definitely understand your perspective. But, I think it’s important to remember that using images that depict people in vulnerable situations as a marketing tool is not acceptable, particularly when consent isn’t clear and children are involved.
      Yes, I would absolutely agree there are many people doing positive, respectful, impactful work around the world that truly benefits others. But, I would also say that the use “poverty porn” is what casts a shadow on those positive and legitimate efforts rather than a critique such as this.

  • Steve

    Large incoherence, between non-governmental / individual forms of aid, versus governmental interventions / actions in various regions of the world. EAC countries are well aware of this – whether it be Rwanda (we are well aware of French collaboration with the Habyarimana regime – or US/UK silent armament of the FPR). The same goes for Central African countries, notably Zaire. Humanitarian activities on one hand – ferocious exploitation of coltan, uranium, petrol among a plethora of other resources on the other. End poverty – caused by centuries of colonialism and current neocolonialism – sure. Local politics need to change, Mobutu was not an example – but neither was the assassination of Lumumba (to stick with RDC as an example; and again little good can be said about Kabila). Americans need to challenge their attitude towards their country’s foreign policy first. Contest, protest, demand more transparency. And then go help. Much work to be done at home to be completely honest – hundred and thousands of people need help in this country and are being ignored.

    • Anonyme

      ‘Covering Global Health and Poverty because we give a damn’ Lol. Doesn’t get more pretentious than that. Clearly not looking deeply enough into the very agents enabling these inequalities to take place – both international and local! Well said Steve!

  • Jose Moriano

    Great article! Shared!

  • ST

    This is a ridiculous post. My children who are fortunate to grow up in America would never know what poverty is if they didnt see those haunting images. Its one thing for organizations to abuse donations but are you kidding by blaming it on pictures? Those pictures are a fact. Perhaps if you go to those parts of the world you would see. Its like saying chefs use food pics to sell us their cookbooks? Photos are visuals and capture a moment. Dont be disrepectful to the people & photographers who are trying to show the world what exists. Had it not been photos HOW would we know what poverty looks like?