Poverty, porn, and the picture : exploring representation of exploitative media through the case of Oxfam




Mascovich, Melissa Anne

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Cumulating in the watershed moment of Live Aid, the phenomenon of “poverty porn” has continued to define exploitative media used in humanitarian work in an effort to gain sympathy or support. Although the nature of “poverty porn” has changed, understand the semantic limitations as well as the visual repercussions helps structure how exploitative media looks within a visual frame. Within international development, ethical guidelines concerning exploitative media exist, but too frequently they only concern context and consent, ignoring the important aspect of visual representation. Using the organization Oxfam as a site of study, press releases were examined for visual markers of exploitation. Creating parameters of exploitation including isolation, passivity, vulnerability, food insecurity, and poverty, the images were coded to find visual trends of exploitation in Oxfam’s press releases. The study resulted in a significant correlation between subjects being in isolation and signs of poverty as well as children being present in the frame and actions being performed. The results expand the understanding of how poverty is represented and visualized in humanitarian media. With the parameters explored, it furthers the discussion of how we frame media in development and how we move away from visualizing “poverty porn,” toward representing empowerment.


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