In the famous scene from the movie Munnabhai MBBS, when the medical hero needs a dead body for an experiment, his friend sees a foreign tourist photographing people washing clothes at Dhobi Ghat, who are “even poorer”. Expresses his intention to see more real “India”. Even though this is said to generate humor in the scene, it also contains a serious point of view. When was this narrative established that “Poor India” is synonymous with “Real India”. Since when did poor and backward India become synonymous with India, which was once called the golden bird in the world? It is worrying that when a narrative has to be established, then that thing is spoken seriously, but when a narrative has been established, then it is used in the form of humor. Such scenes in movies can be called “poverty porn”.
‘Poverty porn’ refers to a system that tries to make commercial profit by using scenes of hunger, poverty, unemployment, misfortune, child labor, disease. Any type of media whose purpose is to trigger some sort of emotion among its audience, whether written, photographed, or filmed, in order to sell a product, raise charitable donations, or raise funds for a given One that exploits the condition of the poor to generate the empathy needed to support a cause may be called ‘poverty porn’.
‘Poverty porn’ can portray marginalized communities as already vulnerable, helpless and unable to improve their conditions. This can create a market for poverty and suffering, in which individuals are paid to display their poverty and engage in humiliating activities for the entertainment of others. It can create a feeling of shame and humiliation. Additionally, the use of photographs without consent or knowledge is a violation of the privacy and dignity of individuals.
In India it is often seen in the form of documentaries, reality shows and charity appeals that portray the lives of individuals living in slums and other impoverished areas. “Slum tourism” is one such business in which tourists pay to visit slums. In Cape Town, more than three million tourists visit the slums every year. Sightseeing tours are also organized in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum.
There have been instances where torn jeans have also been linked to poverty. The use of poverty-related themes or designs in fashion can trivialize the experiences of those who are actually affected by poverty.
The film “Slumdog Millionaire”, released in 2008, received critical acclaim and commercial success. The film depicts the story of a young boy from the slums of Mumbai who participates in a game show and becomes a millionaire. While the film was praised for its cinematography and story, it was also criticized for exploiting the experiences of individuals living in poverty. The film used the experiences of slum dwellers to entertain Western audiences.
In 2012, a group of homeless individuals in San Francisco sued the city and several media outlets for invasion of privacy after their photos were used in news stories and fundraising campaigns without their consent. The result resulted in new guidelines for media outlets in San Francisco, requiring them to obtain informed consent before using images of homeless individuals.
In another case, a photographer in India was sued by a group of sex workers in 2015 after he took their pictures and used them in a fundraising campaign without their consent. The photographer argued that the photographs were taken in a public place and did not violate the women’s privacy, but the court ultimately ruled in favor of the sex workers, compensating them for the unauthorized use of their photographs.
‘Poverty porn’ has been associated with some celebrities, for example, in 2016, the charity campaign Red Nose Day, which was supported by a number of high-profile celebrities including Ed Sheeran and Coldplay. The campaign featured images of poor children in Africa, with the implication that they could be helped by donations from Western donors. Similarly, in 2018, reality TV star Kim Kardashian was criticized for a photo posted on social media that showed her posing in front of a group of poor children in Uganda. These examples demonstrate that celebrities and other influential figures need to be more aware of the impact of their actions and messages on marginalized communities and should be careful to avoid engaging in exploitative practices.
Poor is not a “noun” but an “adjective”, promoting which for economic gain is an introduction to a low mentality. One aspect of schemes like “Garibi Hatao” should also be “Remove the commercialization of the poor”. It is important that we continue to challenge and raise awareness of this harmful practice, and work towards a more ethical and respectful approach to representing poverty and social issues in India and beyond. In addition, appropriate steps should be taken to discourage attempts to tarnish the country’s image on the international stage by acts like ‘poverty porn’.
– Ujjwal Virendra Deepak, Alumnus (Public Administration, Columbia University, New York)