The problem of poverty porn

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Photo by Chris Guy

Poverty porn comes in many forms: it can be written, photographed, or filmed. Any sort of media can be utilised to exploit the poor’s conditions to create sympathy, anger or outrage. The aims of poverty porn vary: sometimes increasing charity donations, sometimes selling newspapers, sometimes just entertainment. Famous examples of the latter include films like Slumdog Millionaire or, as Imogen Tyler discussed on Sunday Week 5 at the Assembly for Change, the upcoming second series of Channel 4 programme Benefits Street.

The term ‘porn’ is a rather apt description for this phenomenon. The content is often both graphic and extreme whilst being completely detached from reality. Though in many cases, like in Benefits Street, poverty claims to be truly represented in the form of a documentary, there is nothing honest or objective about it. Television especially is part of an international media that, because of the way it’s commissioned and edited, can only ever present a highly subjective form of reality. The same can be said for the written word or the photograph: we are always looking at the world through the perspective of the people who created them.

On the one hand, the media simplifies and stigmatises the poor for financial gain. In the case of TV programmes that seek to entertain, this is deplorable. For charities, on the other hand, it is often a necessity. Poverty porn is used to make problems more easily understandable to a privileged audience that is otherwise detached from the suffering going on elsewhere. It’s sensationalised suffering that perhaps can be justified by the fact that it brings in donations that can make even a small amount of difference.

However, poverty porn as utilised by charities is also dangerous as it perpetuates harmful ideologies. It tells the poor that they are helpless and the rich that money is the only way to further change. Ignored are holistic images of poverty, which could be used to highlight the perfectly preventable causes of social injustice that so easily perpetuate themselves. Instead there is an excess of extreme suffering that evokes hopelessness, humiliation, and ultimately inferiority. It is successful in empowering the wrong person – as the wealthy are put in the position of saviours – ignoring the need for mutual transformation.

A similar analysis can also be applied to Benefits Street. According to Channel 4’s executive, Ralph Lee, there is no malign intention; “there is no agenda”. Yet in television programming there always is an agenda: to make as much money as possible by getting the highest number of viewers. And the way it’s done in Benefits Street is by shameless exploitation – in the 10-second introduction itself we see men smoking in doorways as children play near large piles of domestic waste in the streets.

It’s also a very apparent criticism of welfare policy. As Tyler rightly argues, the images we are confronted with in Benefits Street lead us to re-imagine the welfare state as the head of a ‘benefits culture’ that both impoverishes citizens and feeds addictions, leading to a welfare dependency that imprisons the poor. True, current welfare policy is such that often, living unemployed off benefits is only slightly less profitable than having a job. The welfare system, designed to reduce inequalities, has instead ended up creating even more social segregation.

There has been significant backlash against Benefits Street. Before filming for the second series begin in Grimsby, Austin Mitchell MP accused Channel 4 of “demonising the poor and making poverty entertainment”. Mitchell had his own reasons for trying to remove the Channel 4 camera teams from Grimsby, but the popularity of such poverty porn has been shocking to politicians, critics, and viewers alike. As to actually addressing the problem of poverty in the UK and generating real change, however, not much has been done.