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.