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The Authority of Pain in Poverty Pornography

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The depiction of poverty among people has had an impact on the way nongovernment organizations have presented this issue and their aims. Since poverty has become a serious issue in society, many organizations and firms have attempted to present poverty to attain a sense of pathos on people through creating advocacies. As such, poverty has been depicted in terms of suffering and pain, which is considered as an approach to establish one’s sense of identity (Lawler, 2014, p. 35). However, the manner of presentation might be subjected to scrutiny in such a way that some approve while others disapprove.

This paper argues that the authority of pain strengthens the practice of poverty pornography of charity organizations affiliated with profit-generating business firms. This concept, which is often related to the way “corporate social responsibility” is construed and perpetuated by people. Organizations associated with profit-generating firms use the authority of pain, through the practice of poverty pornography, to create an image of solidarity while at the same time become gain profit.

This paper shall be guided by Steph Lawler’s points on the authority of pain in relation to the construction of identity, which shall be discussed in the following section. It also presents a historical account of the practice of poverty pornography and its manifestations in contemporary times. The paper’s Discussion section further provides a critique of the aims of poverty pornography, of which two are identified, one being the creation of an image of solidarity and the other being the aim to raise profit. This paper ends with a reinforcement of my personal position on poverty pornography.

This discussion is informed by a working definition of the term poverty pornography, or as will be interchangeably used within the paper, “development porn”. This practice is associated with the despair is highlighted as a campaign depicts a pressing situation by “sensationalizing” it. Poverty pornography also features a gaze, often reinforced in the way the film’s subjects are positioned, and is also criticized in relation to the way the “dignity” of the subject is kept.


As a practice associated with the activities and campaigns of cause-oriented nongovernment organizations, poverty pornography has become controversial, especially as various organizations, groups, and individuals have criticized this practice. As a practice, poverty pornography became controversial especially when large-scale campaigns were launched to fund programs that addressed humanitarian issues. Melissa Lara Clissold (2010) noted in her master’s dissertation the Band-Aid and the Live Aid campaigns in 1984 and 1985, respectively. She argued that the campaigns, which reinforced the image of the “suffering black African,” negatively affected the way people understood the issue that they sought to address — the 1984 Ethiopian famine (Clissold, 2010, p. 9). This image has become a subject of scrutiny as it has become a frequently reinforced one in other humanitarian campaigns.

The representation of nongovernment organizations (NGOs) is also relevant to the discussion on the practice of poverty pornography. NGOs in the 1980s transcended from a messianic complex by taking stances on political issues. However, NGOs now prioritize “participation unity and environment” by including aid beneficiaries in their own campaigns. Furthermore, the media also contributes to the way fundraising campaigns are implemented and made known to the general public (Clissold, 2010, p. 15). In light of crises in Bosnia and Somalia in 1989 and the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, a critical viewpoint on humanitarian work emerged, as Boltanski points out how political motives have an impact on humanitarian work and initiatives.

Janice Nathanson (2013) explored the same concept in the case of international aid organizations have presented children who live in poverty. In her discussion, she notes how representation has become an issue among nongovernment organizations that catered to these causes, and how the discussions that the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) conducted in 2008. According to the CCIC, some organizations use “drastic imagery” to highlight the truthfulness of their depictions for their fundraisers, and that lessening these images have a negative impact on their campaigns. CCIC also suggested that “dehumanized imagery” might further reinforce the discourses of racism and hopelessness. Nathanson (2013) also noted factors that informed the response of Canadians to such campaigns, including perceptions on the government’s aid spending, lack of awareness, and the reluctance to an “activist approach” to this issue (p. 108). Through “ideological criticism,” Nathanson (2013) reviewed material from Plan Canada, World Vision Canada, and Christian Children’s Fund of Canada. She found that the organizations utilized three approaches to depicting the situation that children face — “totalizing,” “interpellating,” and “privatizing”. In her study, she recommends a “reframing” of campaigns by presenting the perspectives of children and social workers as well.

Another reinforcement of poverty pornography is highlighted in Peter Beresford’s (2016) article on welfare programmes for persons with disabilities in the United Kingdom. Beresford (2016) presented the way television programmes in the United Kingdom reinforce the practice of poverty pornography as it presents how welfare works. He also evaluated the approaches that various wings in the political spectrum in the United Kingdom’s news agencies. It manifested in the way that right-leaning newspapers tended to support welfare cuts, while newspapers leaning to the left of centre focused on the negative impact of such measures on people who benefit from welfare. Beresford (2016) also pointed out the impact of the media on shaping public opinion on welfare and integrating it in the United Kingdom’s political scene. His article also provided insights into the Fabian tradition and its relevance to the creation of welfare reform stories, in which people who proclaim themselves as “experts” discuss an issue yet fail to provide a solution to an issue.

A concept useful in informing this paper on poverty pornography is authority of pain. Steph Lawler discussed the concept authority of pain in relation to the way identity may be construed through narratives. According to him, the authority of pain emerges when a person “establishes an identity through identifying with another”. With this regard, people tend to empathize with people as they relate others’ experiences of suffering to theirs. Lawler (2014) drew his insights into the authority of pain as a concept from Steedman’s insights into the cultural character of the practice of relating oneself with others’ experience of suffering, Berlant’s discussion on trauma and privilege, and Gross and Hoffman’s discussion on insertion. For Lawler (2014), the authority of pain has an impact on the way people rely on symbols in constructing an identity even if it lacks factual bases.


The cases presented in the previous section provide insights into the aims of poverty pornography. This discussion synthesizes the way poverty pornography, as a practice, seeks to fulfill two aims, the first being the creation of an image of solidarity, while the other being gaining funds and profit for the cause and for the organization, respectively. This practice becomes important, for such organizations, because it helps them ensure that people become more engaged in these causes.

The Image of Solidarity

The cases discussed in the previous section show how the practice of poverty pornography aims to create an image of solidarity, which an organization presents. The creation of this image of solidarity is achieved by using images that depict a situation that a humanitarian campaign seeks to address. Establishing this image of solidarity is important in appealing to a campaign’s intended audience’s pathos.

The use of imagery that depicts a crisis, such as famine, political conflict, and poverty, has an impact on the way people think about these images and respond to them. For one, it makes known the issues that people who live under such conditions face, for these conditions have remained in obscurity. As in the case of Band-Aid and Live Aid, as Clissold (2010) discussed, the campaigns further reinforced how the way children in Africa starved during the famine in the 1980s, had in impact on the way they decided to donate to the said causes, and in the case of Live Aid, attend its concert as its primary event. This reinforcement shows how the messaging that their campaign highlighted became effective and convincing to their intended audience. The efforts of people, including Michael Buerk and Mohammed Amin, who reported about the famine in Ethiopia, and celebrities that participated in Band-Aid and Live Aid, highlighted the way people who have social and cultural capital have an impact on the way the campaigns’ message spread.

The subject position of people who contribute to the dissemination of the campaign also has an impact on the way this image of solidarity is further reinforced, amplified, and perpetuated. Band-Aid and Live Aid are excellent examples of such, as celebrities participated in these programmes. Given their capacity to influence public perception and opinion, they capitalized on their ability to appeal to their audience. The release of Band-Aid’s song “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and the widely attended Live Aid concert, compounded by the promotion of celebrity merchandise and paraphernalia, showed that such influential people need to struggle with emphasizing the cause, as a tendency to shift the focus on fame has been observed.

Lawler’s (2014) insights into the role of narratives and into the authority of pain inform us of the way such an image becomes useful to the creation of campaigns that might be considered a form of poverty pornography. This is considered an important part of the ways that they become more aware of the consequences of their actions. This image of solidarity is integral in the process of “identifying with” people who suffer as Lawler (2014) discussed. Another relevant phenomenon to look at in the discussion of poverty pornography as a practice is through examining the development of corporate social responsibility initiatives. Benedict Sheehy (2015) presented in his discussion the way corporate social responsibility has become a complex concept that has embedded into it various layers of meaning, including the context, the level of the way things should be addressed, and the interests that inform the definition of this term.

The Need to Raise Profit

Another aim of poverty pornography is to raise an organization’s profit. The need to raise profit and funds for its programs has an impact on whether a humanitarian campaign of an organization sustains its efforts. As such, such organizations utilize the authority of pain to convince people to contribute to their cause, especially through monetary donations and pledges.

The Live Aid concert is an example of how the use of poverty pornography in emphasizing the cause that it supports — feeding people who suffered from the 1984 Ethiopian famine. As it presented images of people who were suffering from hunger in that country, people began to chip in, and the event raised up to USD 100 million. The fact that the uninterrupted concert raised this amount of money speaks so much about the way it appealed to people who attended and watched the concerts, whether live or on television. It also amplified the way the issue became more known among people in the world at that time when the concerts happened.

In the case of Band-Aid, celebrities also contributed to the way this charity programme raised funds. As such, the authority of pain, as a discourse, has become useful for celebrities who decided to sponsor this programme. However, it must be observed that the actions of “aid celebrities” had an impact on the way the charity is promoted — not primarily by images but by the sale of celebrity merchandise. As such, the charity programme also became an opportunity for “aid celebrities” to promote their own branding.

This tendency of poverty pornography also manifests in the way child support organizations (CSOs). In Nathanson’s (2013) article, she studied three child support organizations, World Vision Canada, Christian Children’s Fund of Canada, and Plan Canada. First, she noticed the way these three organizations were able to generate revenue through their campaigns, as they began from “personal crises of conscience” to a global “multi-billion enterprise”. The way these three CSOs have depicted children — their beneficiaries — has had an impact on the way they have both been lauded and criticized. While they at some point, may become considered effective, they also present, utilizing the authority of pain as a discourse, to present a pessimistic depiction of the world, one that shows beneficiaries as people who cannot stand, act, and speak for themselves. If the focus of such an organization turns into profit-making, their acts may be considered a form of appropriation, one that shows up in the way people project their own experiences to those on others. This point may also be related to the construction of a “narrative identity” and its factuality.


The twofold character of poverty pornography features two approaches — one being the reinforcement of solidarity as a tenet and highlighting the way it needs funds. Since the depiction and the presentation of subjects, which are the beneficiaries of welfare aid, has become a serious concern, it is important that the way they are presented reinforces the aims of the programme. The cases presented in Clissold’s (2010) dissertation and Nathanson’s (2013) study highlight these two aims of humanitarian programmes, and they provide insights into the way the depiction of pressing humanitarian issues and understanding their aims have an impact on the way people receive them. Through relating the practice of the so-called poverty pornography and authority of pain as a concept, more approaches into understanding the impact of the former on the sectors that organizations represent.

These points presented in this discussion will become helpful to organizations who continue to work with various marginalized sectors. As they address issues concerning the representation of the sectors whom they work with, this discussion will help organizations recognize the way the authority of pain, being a discourse, ensure that the way they present their advocacies and their beneficiaries become satisfactory and at best, would not run through issues not only due to the use of images but also through other forms of communicating these advocacies.


This paper sketched the historical roots of poverty pornography as a controversial practice. The practice stems from humanitarian campaigns in the 1980s that catered to issues concerning poverty, particularly the Ethiopian famine. The practice also is related to the way nongovernment organizations present themselves and the child support organizations that have amassed revenue for their campaigns. It has two aims — establishing an image of solidarity to the subjects and gaining funds and revenue, and it utilizes the authority of pain as a conduit in presenting these images.

Poverty pornography is and will remain a controversial practice. However, there are ways that it can be addressed so that the depiction of sectors that advocacy groups, nongovernment organizations, and foundations affiliated with firms serve remain truthful and convincing to its viewers. As a way to address it, it is important not only to assess the way such organizations represent the people whom they work with but also critically evaluate the forms of messaging that they use in communicating their advocacies, programmes, and solutions to the issues that they seek to solve.


  1. Beresford, P. (2016). Presenting welfare reform: poverty porn, telling sad stories or achieving change? Disability & Society, 31(3), 421–425.
  2. Clissold, M. L. (2010). “Pornography of poverty”: An anthropological perspective into humanitarian fundraising campaigns (Master’s dissertation, SOAS). Retrieved from
  3. Lawler, S. (2014). Identity: Sociological perspectives (2nd ed.). Cambridge, England: Polity Press.
  4. Lemke, S. (2010). Facing poverty: Towards a theory of articulation. Amerikastudien/American Studies, 55(1), 95–122. Retrieved from
  5. Mittelman, R., & Neilson, L. C. (2011). Development porn? Child sponsorship advertisements in the 1970s. Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, 3(3), 370–401.
  6. Nathanson, J. (2013). The pornography of poverty: Reframing the discourse of international aid’s representation of starving children. Canadian Journal of Communication, 38(1), 103–120. Retrieved from
  7. Sheehy, B. (2015). Defining CSR: Problems and solutions. Journal of Business Ethics, 131(3), 625–648.

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