Poverty porn and the dangers in sharing our stories: Reflections on working with kids from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds in rural and township schools

Poverty porn and the dangers in sharing our stories: Reflections on working with kids from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds in rural and township schools

By: Gcobani Qambela*

I have really enjoyed reading Rethabile Mashale’s contribution last week on “A Women’s (and Girls’) Rights View to the practice of teaching and learning within township schools” and the articles by the young girls of the Thope Foundation that followed. I think that while we often quote all these big reports and (international) research on education, it is also critical to hear the voices of people that are engaged in education work at ‘the ground level’ and especially the learners themselves in their own words and terms.

From 2008, I have been involved on a voluntary basis in a number of programs and initiatives that work with youth from primarily rural areas, townships and peri-urban centres. A great difficulty in doing this work comes in sharing it with other people. On the one hand, it is important because most of it is done by people and non-governmental organisations and hence a heavy presence can be leveraged for greater funding opportunities and ‘exposure’. However at the same time there is the danger of falling into the ‘poverty porn’ trap.

Poverty porn, also known as “development porn”, or “famine porn”, is defined as “any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.” In “5 reasons poverty porn empowers the wrong person”, Emily Roenigk notes that it has the effect of misrepresenting the true nature of poverty to garner financial support while “it does almost nothing to address the real structural problem of poverty.” Roenigk goes on to say that “poverty is a result of both individual and systematic 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.”

In this view, “Poverty porn fails to produce both a deeper understanding of the issue of poverty and the necessary structural changes that must occur to effectively address it. Instead, poverty porn says that material resources are the problem and the solution, where poverty can be addressed through a simple phone call or monthly donation.”

I have been thinking a lot about this in preparing to write this post, where I want to share some lessons, challenges and triumphs from some of the work I, along with many friends, have been doing in Mount Arthur / Bangindlala, Lady Frere (where many of us in the initiative come from). The initiative under the banner of “Mount Arthur Development Trust Fund” aims to help and support many (poor) children in our community to be able to attain a good education so they can also be able to build a positive and successful life trajectory for themselves.

The people who form this consortium are young working professionals in their 20’s/30’s/ and 40’s from Lady Frere and have generally been able to attain some level of success and want to give back, and offer to poor children in the area a chance to also thrive. Last year (2013) in December we hosted a ‘Fun Day’ after Christmas and sold a variety of items. Everyone donated whatever they were going to sell. I baked muffins and sold (all) muffins, and other people made t-shirts inscribed ‘Mount Arthur rocks’, others ice lollies, drinks and so on. The money we raised was used to purchase school uniform for nearly 100 kids from poor homes which was delivered and presented to the kids earlier in the year. Below are some pictures from the presentation of the uniforms.

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Many of these pictures that we took, as is clear, fit the notion of poverty porn as “typically associated with black, poverty-stricken Africans” with the subjects being overwhelmingly children “waiting for salvation.” I have chosen pictures where the children’s faces are not very clear (although consent from the parents was gathered) and have made them darker to further draw attention away from the faces of the children.

The challenge I grapple with in sharing the work is whether or not to share the images of the children we often work with. On the one hand I do not want to participate in perpetuating poverty porn, while at the same there is the responsibility of sharing the truth as experienced. The ‘real’ pictures are much worse. South Africa’s young children are suffering.

As many of the regular Bokamoso contributors have stated the multiple stresses that many young people face at school, the issue of poverty is also an important one. This goes beyond thinking about children who go to school hungry, but also psychological well-being. I have never gone to school without having ‘proper’ functioning shoes to wear, or had one shirt that I had to recycle everyday as many of the kids we encountered have endured. I cannot imagine how my self-conception and dreams could have been altered had I had to face dire poverty from such a young age.

I do not really have the answers about how to help as (young) non-state actors in a way that can have individual impact on especially poor young children, while at the same time not deflating the larger issues of structural economic violence and exclusion. Nonetheless, I feel the following questions could be a great start;

  • How do we do work (outside the government) in a way that enhances the freedom of others and ‘moves’ structure?
  • How do we share our work in a way that is authentic, effectively communicates the stories of those we ‘help’ without falling into poverty porn?
  • How do we generate publicity and especially financial support to our causes without exploitation of stories (and pictures) of the people we assist?
  • When we do share this work and the often devastating pictures, how do we do in a way that shows the realities the people we aim to help while also not reducing their lives to only ‘doom and gloom’?
  • Because our initiative is youth based with no formalised structure of leadership, how do we ensure long term sustainability when we, the ‘youth’, grow up?

These are some of the questions and thoughts I have been grappling with. Many of us, as young people, often have very altruistic ideas to help others, but I think we should always be mindful of these issues. However at the same, we should also not let our fears of getting things wrong to tame us to inaction. Thus, it is my hope that the conversations that follow to answer these and other questions will conscientise both me and many other young people about the dangers that can arise from sharing (some of) our stories.

*Gcobani Qambela is a regular Bokamoso regular contributor. Read his short biography and previous articles here .

 

Gcobani Qambela

Gcobani Qambela is a Graduate Student in South Africa with an interest in African masculinities, HIV/AIDS research and public health in general.

4 Responses to Poverty porn and the dangers in sharing our stories: Reflections on working with kids from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds in rural and township schools

  1. rethabile says:

    Thanks for this cautionary piece. I’ve grappled with similar questions in my work. I don’t have the answers but am convinced that doing the work for the right reasons yeilds the desired impact. The accolades and glamour is for those needing to market an inferior product. Good work speaks for itself! :)

    • Gcobani says:

      Thank you for the comment, and reading the piece. Asking the (right) questions is usually a good place to start and so hopefully as we continue doing the work, the work itself will vindicate the rugged areas.

  2. Nadia A. says:

    Thanks for this GQ, as always you’re spot on with your questions. I’ve grappled with most of these as well – where’s the balance? I quite like what the Golden Radiator Awards in 2013 (http://www.rustyradiator.com/) highlighted positive approaches to shedding light on issues while staying away from ‘poverty porn’. Mostly, images that show the agency, ownership and the human side of that person beyond the ‘problem’ you know… Remember that video dub-libbing Jessie J’s pricetag as a campaign for microfinance in Uganda?

    Some other positive examples:Plan UK: I’ll take it from here – Because I am a girl or Water Aid’s – Water is life: 4 Year Olds Bucket List.

    It’s obviously easier said than done, and easier for those with resources to pull off this kind of thing. But I think if your photos maintain that human element of the work you that paints the other not just as a ‘victim’ but simply as a person who’s having a tough time and needs help – it could be any of us at the end of the day.

    • Gcobani says:

      Thanks Nadia, and I agree with your point re showing the agency, ownership and the human fully human side is a good place to start. Thanks as well for the links re good practice examples. I think that we are all grappling with these questions is a sign in the right direction. Much thanks again!

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