A Journalists’ first obligation is to the truth and as many journalists will tell you it is their sworn duty to aid in the creation of informed citizens by representing the world for what it is. By this rule it can be said that it is indeed the role of the journalist to paint a picture of human suffering, as it is a truth that can often be forgotten. And when it comes to painting pictures, a photograph is worth a thousand words. Throw back to the Vietnam War, this was the first war ever fought where society had the technological means of broadcasting the true nature of war to the general public. This was the first time everyday people were witnessing the horrors of conflict; being exposed to an undeniable experience of human suffering. This revelation of truth has been credited as a leading motivator for opposition to the war. Graphic footage of casualties on the nightly news generally tends to eliminate any myth of the glory of war and allows people to see war for what it is… Horrendous.
The thing with the depiction of human suffering these days it that it seems to have a genre about it and that genre is ‘Poverty Porn’. What is poverty porn you ask? Put simply it is any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which uses the poor’s condition as a tool to generate the sympathy necessary for a desired outcome. Outcomes such as selling newspapers, harbouring support for a cause and even gathering charitable donations. When it all boils down to it these kind of depictions stem from basic marketing and being a student of marketing myself, I know just how exploitative the practice can be.
As Emily Roenigk explains “Poverty is a result of both individual and systemic problems, involving not only personal circumstances but the social and justice systems in place that either work to empower the poor or perpetuate their condition” ‘Poverty Porn’ has the ability to over simplify these kinds of issues giving people a warped perception of reality rather than the truth it arguably portrays.
So why do we use this type of advertising? Because it works!
It is in fact a successful method of sharing information with a public that may, otherwise, ignore the problem and evoking emotion is the best way to induct a positive response. However, “In the long run, it does not encourage people to think about the systematic challenges of ending extreme poverty…The use of these inflammatory images of the poor in such a manipulated light are reinforcing a crude us and them divide to the wider public, namely, that they are entirely and utterly dependent on us” (Julie Ulbricht and Hugh Evans).
We need to stop and ask ourselves whether it is ethical to depict the graphic qualities of human suffering for the sole purpose of eliciting an emotional experience. The people in these images are human beings in need of help not pity and who is it that really benefits from these images considering it is human nature to feel good about yourself for feeling bad about others? On the other hand as Time magazine editor Richard Stengel states “Bad things do happen to people and it is part of our job to confront and explain them”. Without depictions of human suffering would western society ever be exposed to this reality and would the general public ever feel compelled to confront the issue? I’m leaning towards no. The issue becomes not should we be depicting suffering but rather how we should be going about it.