As the Creative Director of the FHF Children’s Shelter (2012-2014), I became increasingly curious of the role that images played in the public perception of the developing world and also how they were consistently connected with non-governmental/non-profit fundraising campaigns. While not devaluing the importance of NGO fundraising and the amount of aid money NGOs raise for developing countries, I also believed it was important to critically analyze our own organization’s images that might help formulate perceptions (or misconceptions) of underprivileged children in the developing world.
Upon researching these issues further, I was introduced to the concept of “poverty pornography”, i.e. the use of extreme poverty to cajole donations from a guilt-ridden Northern public. Child sponsorship and care organizations are noticeably the biggest users of this fundraising strategy to this day. This is no accident. The rationale behind this strategy is that happy pictures and complex explanations of root causes of poverty do not attract donations. What matters is that donors connect emotionally to the causes and that they perceive easy solutions (Nathanson, 2013). People argue that “consciousness-raising” can come later.
In recent decades, development practitioners and researchers have been concerned that certain fundraising images being used can convey damaging messages. Many of these images portray children as helpless victims, dependent, and unable to take action; they convey the idea that development issues can only be solved by Northern charity (Plewes & Stuart, 2006). Poverty-stricken children undoubtedly experience mental, physical, and social challenges, but more often than not, child sponsorship fundraising campaigns highlight these difficulties to elicit an emotional response from donors. These types of messages can undermine NGOs’ efforts to create a deeper and broader understanding of the underlying causes of poverty and injustice.
Though change has not come overnight, there has certainly been progress. Like some NGOs, I was committed to sharing different images that showed self-reliance, progress, and hope. I wanted to portray our children through a “positive youth development” (PYD) perspective and lens, highlighting our children’s innate resilience and coping strategies that were more consistent to our organization’s youth development interventions.
By adopting this new PYD vision and imagery for viewing young people, I hoped to combat “poverty pornography” while simultaneously educating the public about a new field of development research beneath the positive imagery. This different kind of strategy has the potential to restore the public’s sense of connection with children from the global South and diminish “pity charity.”
(Note: photo consent was given from all photo subjects below)