‘Poverty Porn’: the (non) accidental exploitation of the poor’s situation

By Marissa Nazeera

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, 8.4 percent of Malaysians have fallen into poverty. Malaysia’s absolute poverty rate has also risen by 2.8 percent, according to news reports.

However, those affected are not left to fend for themselves. Thousands of non-governmental organisations, millions of caring Malaysians, and even the government are helping those facing poverty.

As a result of the increasing number of hands lent by these people, some of them are misappropriating the circumstances. For example, they may really want to assist the poor and document it online for advocacy purposes. 

The situation is upsetting since it violates the privacy of the underprivileged and is a form of degradation. Not to mention the fact that several films and photos released online failed to hide their identities. Some had also been videotaped or photographed without their permission.

Understanding poverty porn

This predicament is now referred to as ‘poverty porn’ that had been popular in the 1980s for its golden age of charity campaigns. The campaign had exploited the images of the vulnerable and the underprivileged children of Sub-Saharan Africa. This had been badly criticised by the world, but now it is starting to make a comeback.

For some, it had turned into a new sort of entertainment for their charity-giving. Stories of the underprivileged have been romanticised at times, as though ‘if the poor and the underprivileged can survive, why can’t you?’ They are also deemed to be a group of people who only depend on help given by others, especially the rich.

This demonstrates how nearly everyone has misinterpreted the entire discourse to really understand why such normalisation is not appropriate. Instead of focusing on poverty as a result of one’s laziness, it is noted as a reflection of the government’s failure to address the issue appropriately. It’s not just about one’s financial situation; it’s about a systemic problem that affects them all.

How to stop poverty porn?

It could be possible to achieve this by overhauling the criminal justice system. There is a demonstrable bias in the way the underprivileged are treated when they commit crimes, as they are more likely to be imprisoned. This is not meant to imply that anyone can commit crimes; rather, it is meant to explain why chances are not evenly distributed. 

In another situation, a wealthy individual can easily flee. Why? Because they have better access to excellent lawyers who can quickly mitigate or appeal the harsh punishments imposed upon them.

The underprivileged, on the other hand, could never do the same since they lack the financial resources and means to do so. It would leave a terrible taste in their mouth if they were imprisoned as it is tough for them to find jobs with such records.

Secondly, it might also be as simple as calling out the culture of parading the images of the poor receiving charity. This culture is too deep-rooted in our society that everyone finds that it is alright to do so in the name of transparency and advocacy. If it is not criticised properly, then, the cycle will never end.

Nonetheless, while assisting others during this difficult time is a wonderful act, a proper guideline should be abided by charity-givers before posting the images online or even to show it offline, where such images should be taken with a valid consent and not meant to humiliate the person. Thus, one should never use other people’s sufferings for the benefit of his or her own social media clout. They need to be thoughtful and sensitive in every single action that they do.

Lastly, quoting Christopher Choong who is a Khazanah Research Institute analyst for us all to ponder upon, “If a well-intentioned person knows about the harmful effects of poverty porn and continues to indulge in it, then it raises a red flag for me.” ***

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