The Financial Industry of Suffering

Faced by a plethora of media and news channels that routinely disseminate images of war, famine and disease, it is often argued that the media is directly responsible for desensitising the population to violence and suffering. The development of ‘poverty porn’ reveals an active attempt by the media to exploit human suffering.

Poverty porn is defined as any type of media that exploits the representation of poverty and lack of material resources in order to generate a strong emotional response from the viewer, often for financial gain.

Empathy is an important concept in this discussion. Poverty porn is utilised by many humanitarian aid organizations who ‘pull on our heartstrings,’ manipulating our emotions with images intended to generate an empathetic response, which in turn encourages us to donate to their cause.

Sarcastic Poverty Porn

Satirical news organisation ‘The Onion’ makes a comment on the financial industry of poverty porn

While there are organisations and companies around the world who may use this exploitation for honourable ends (which in itself holds a level of irony), there are others who have ‘exploited the exploited’ for far less honourable means.

A CNN ‘Keep Them Honest’ report published in 2014 revealed that the Joseph Indian School in South Dakota annually sends up to 30 million forged letters to homes across America as their own form of poverty porn. These letters are written by the Native American students of the school who, in their correspondences, plead for help and money, often to escape an abusive father or a drug-addicted mother amongst a host of other scenarios.

When CNN approached the school late last year, they discovered the children who had supposedly ‘written’ the letters did not exist. The school received over $51 million in total donations in 2014 from this elaborate marketing ploy. While the money is being used to support the students, many members of the public and local community are outraged by the means of its acquisition.

At the core of the condemnation is the claim that these fake pleas propagate stereotypes and turn a proud people, in this case Native Americans, into a charity case. Is such exploitation acceptable in this, or any scenario? As the Huffington Post writes: “ Is the profitability of poverty porn worth the perpetuation of false ideologies and stereotypes?” Sure, there may be more honest means of raising money for and awareness of an issue. However, as aid is ultimately a financial industry, the sad truth is that this honesty may not be as effective. ‘Recognisable’ suffering is what we, as the audience, have come to know through poverty porn and it is to this suffering we are perhaps most likely to respond.

Image sourced from http://www.theonion.com/articles/for-only-5-per-month-you-can-help-continue-photogr,10457/ 

A Life Lesson

“The world’s a big place. You can’t do or be everything, nor should you. Life is bigger than any one man. But when you read about other people’s lives, when you read their stories, you catch a glimpse of a world bigger than your own. You may never travel a hundred miles from where you were born, but if you read stories, you’ll get to see the entire world.”Steve Dublanica

It’s funny how your perception of the size of the world changes as you grow up. As a child, your house is your nation, the backyard your countryside, and the fences your national border. A play date at a friend’s house is the equivalent of travelling overseas, as you are whisked away to a foreign land bursting with strange and exotic sights, sounds and smells.

There are many times that I wish I could be transported back to this blissful ignorance of childhood. As our knowledge of the world ripens with age, so too does our responsibility as global citizens to act on the injustices that face us all. Poverty, famine, war, asylum seekers. As a university student studying in a first world country, these issues, like a difficult math equation, are almost impossible to fully grasp. Growing up in a prosperous environment, where both food on our plates and clothes on our backs are a careless given, it is difficult to fathom the hardships suffered by many people around the world. We are caught up in our own microcosmic bubbles. A bad day is when our phone prematurely runs out of battery before the sun sets, when we step in a puddle with our new Gucci heels, or the only milk left in the fridge is skim. First world problems.

And yet, when it’s all that we know, we can hardly be blamed in our exaggeration of these struggles. BCM 111 has opened my eyes to the world beyond our horizon. My global ‘consciousness’ has grown through exploration of key concepts including globalisation, transnational film and television, hybridisation and glocalisation. Furthermore, it is the insight into the lives of other people and their stories that have expanded the borders of my international knowledge exponentially. While this personal growth may seem like a drop of water in the ocean of truly tackling global issues, this education is what I believe to be the first step towards enacting real change, and to making a difference on the world stage.