Poverty Porn from Africa to Australia

Over the summer, I spent three weeks in Africa on a volunteer trip. Most of my time was spent in South Africa, a country that has come under the media spotlight as a poverty hotspot. All sense of luxury was non-existent during my time here. For the most part I no longer had clean hot showers, internet connection, a comfortable bed or air-conditioning. Whilst I was not placed into a state of poverty, the locals and children I met were a part of generations who have been born into it.

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According to the business dictionary, there are two main types of poverty and noting the difference between both is very important.

  • Absolute poverty:  Absolute poverty is synonymous with destitution and occurs when people cannot obtain adequate resources (measured in terms of calories or nutrition) to support a minimum level of physical health.
  • Relative poverty: Relative poverty occurs when people do not enjoy a certain minimum level of living standards as determined by a government (and enjoyed by the bulk of the population) that vary from country to country, sometimes within the same country.

The South Africans I met weren’t without necessities such as food, shelter and clothes, but they did live on very little, classing them in the relative poverty category (although what they lacked in material objects and money, they were certainly rich in spirit, friendship and aspirations to do, be and see more). The problem is that charities and the media selectively choose certain images and information for advertisements or news to exploit an entire country as one that’s in absolute poverty in order to evoke an emotional response for profitable or charitable gain. Because of this, some parts of the world, like Africa, are known to Westerners as countries that struggle due to a poor economy, less job opportunities and hold higher rates of disease and inequality, which creates an “archetypal image of the unfortunate African other” (Fyfe, T 2015) in our minds. This is the tactic known as poverty porn.

Poverty porn produces objectifying images of the poor for privileged gratification (Threadgold, S 2015). That is, those who are advantaged may feel lucky, or better about themselves when they are exposed to global inequality, disease and hunger and feel good that they aren’t in that position. It can also provide a sense of humanity when the advantaged sympathise with those suffering. There are many issues that can arise because of this, such as the ones outlined here, but in my own personal experience, being in that kind of environment ultimately did make me feel a lot more grateful for my life at home.

So after that experience in Africa, when I was introduced to the TV documentary Struggle Street, I was a little surprised at how poverty was portrayed here in Australia. Admittedly it’s sometimes easy to forget that poverty exists on our own soil when I myself have never been in that situation and too often we are reminded of the poverty that poisons other parts of the world. Struggle Street features some families and individuals living in relative poverty in Mt. Druitt. Threadgold, S (2015 p.2) argues the show itself is “denigrating the “underserving poor,” scapegoating and even pathologising them as figures of loathing, while completely ignoring the harsh structural economic realties…”. This is a good point as the producers were very selective with who they wanted to feature, exploiting the whole of Mt. Druitt.  What the show did achieve was provoking emotional responses to class relations and provide a sense of one’s place in social space (Threadgold, S 2015) A.K.A poverty porn.

Whilst both South Africa and Mt. Druitt are areas where poverty exists, there’s a clear difference between the people and how they view their situations. Words like helpless, poor, needy, desperate and dirty are often associated with the idea of poverty, however none of these words came to mind when actually meeting South Africans. They were ambitious and hopeful and  had a degree of pride like a  young man I met named Terrance, who worked for 10 hours every day as a waiter. He shared his aspirations to become a teacher one day and his dream to visit Australia and hopefully live a better life here one day. Contrastingly, based on Struggle Street alone, one could argue that the individuals in their state of poverty seemed to have given up hope to break their poverty cycle and had just accepted their dire life.

In either case, we cannot assume that everyone living in poverty in Africa all have the same attitude toward their situation, nor those in Australia. Similarly, we cannot assume that there is one definition of poverty or believe everything we see on TV. The most positive thing I take from this is that at the least, poverty porn still stirs up conversation and thought about poverty around the world and the economic and living conditions of our very own neighbours.

(I’m just going to leave this happy picture here)

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References 

Fyfe, T 2015, ‘Africans are fighting media poverty-porn by tweeting beautiful images of their real lives,’ Plaid Zebra, viewed 23 March <http://www.theplaidzebra.com/africans-are-fighting-media-poverty-porn-by-tweeting-beautiful-images-of-their-real-lives/&gt;

Threadgold, S 2015, ‘Struggle Street is Poverty Porn with an extra dose of class racism,’ The Conversation, viewed 23 March 2017

(Images taken during my time in South Africa.)

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