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Poverty Porn: How to raise awareness without exploiting those you are helping

Nonprofits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) exist to aid poverty-stricken communities in different ways, but all too often they are accused of demeaning the people they serve by using poverty porn.


While poverty porn is usually used as a pejorative to describe the use of poverty-related media such as photos and videos for shock value, poverty porn can also be used to describe poverty-related campaigns by NGOs and nonprofits like ours.


Videos and photographs posted on social media frequently show individuals being helped as ignorant of their circumstances, living in squalor without a way out, and powerless to alter their fates due to poverty. This depiction is a gross disservice to the people who live with it every day.


The Bautista Project (tBP) believes strongly in elevating the voices and stories of our friends who are living on the streets without exploiting them at their most vulnerable.

In an effort to better understand poverty porn and suggest strategies for how tBP and other nonprofits might raise awareness without exploitation this blog post will examine


Man taking a photo of the person who is reading the article to give the feeling of invasiveness and exposure because that’s what poverty porn does to the homeless individual

What is poverty porn and why does it exist

Poverty porn is a term used to describe poverty-related advocacy and aid work that is presented in such a way as to exploit the circumstances of those affected for entertainment value. It is also referred to as development porn, famine porn, and stereotype porn.


The term is used as a critique on people who appear to be helping the individual but in reality, are campaigning for social media likes and shares. They set themselves up to look like a savior when in reality they are not providing lasting help.


It is not just individuals doing this. Charities take poverty-stricken areas and show the world how impoverished they are in hopes of getting more donations to help them. While their heart might be in the right place this can be seen as exploitation for donations.


The question these organizations need to ask is -- does it work, and is it worth it?

Poverty porn is not a winning strategy in raising awareness or funds. Would you want the world to click and share your most humiliating and vulnerable moment across social media?


The approach has its perks. It raises awareness, just not the right kind. The drawbacks of using this type of fundraising simply are not worth the donations that come in.


Homelessness can be an embarrassing part of someone's life that they want to keep private instead of allowing the entire world to see it.


The truth is that poverty porn does not take poverty out of the spotlight to focus on the issues that will help. It may provide an immediate short term fix, but it perpetuates stereotypes and masks the true problems


Poverty and homelessness are the symptoms of much larger societal problems, like:

  • lack of affordable housing

  • inadequate healthcare

  • poor access to mental health services

  • food deserts

  • education inequality

  • the justice system

  • domestic abuse

  • limited job opportunities

A charity campaign that focuses on one of the root causes instead of poverty itself will be much more effective in eliminating the problem over time. Poverty porn, while it may bring awareness, only focuses on the symptom. If all you treat is the cough, the underlying illness will never go away and the cough will simply return.


The term poverty porn originated in the 1980s, shifted to a more positive elevation of stories, but has made a comeback with the click bait of social media. Those images have lasting effects. Georgie Roberts with @GoodThingsGuys shares the perspective of an adult who still feels shame because as a child he was bullied because of the pictures he took for a meal.


Remember to always consider the person you are posting about

People who are desperate may be willing to do anything for money or might feel they don’t have the power to say no. A meal or shelter might be so desperately needed that they say yes even when they don’t want to.


There has been more than one occasion when an individual fleeing domestic abuse has specifically asked us to not share their picture. Their life depends on not being found. They chose the street as an alternative to the abuse. Let that sink in for a moment. Would handing them a McDonald’s bag filled with cash while filming to show the world how awesome we are, actually benefit them or would it cause additional harm?


When tBP posts pictures and stories of individuals we ask for permission. If there is any hesitancy in the person's voice, even if they gave a yes, we don't share. Our friends' dignity is worth more than any amount of money or social media shares. We provide hope with no expectations from the individual we are helping.


Why do nonprofits use images of poor people to raise awareness?

There are many reasons why charity campaigns are created. These include the campaign's intentions and values, its effectiveness in raising awareness about poverty, whether or not it does more harm than good, and the various audiences it is made for.


One of the intentions may be to raise funds and awareness for poverty reduction programs. These campaigns may be effective in drawing attention to the impact poverty has on people, as well as bring about empathy and donations towards poverty reduction. However, poverty porn can also do more harm than good by perpetuating negative stereotypes and exploiting individuals.


In these campaigns, the reaction from audiences includes an emotional response such as shock and/or guilt, which can result in feelings of sympathy and empathy. These types of poverty porn images are often successful in selling a story, converting it into a call-to-action, and persuading the audience to take action.


However, the campaigns can also have the opposite effect. As more of them are shared a callousness begins to grow in those who view them. The shock value has worn off and the audience becomes immune to the guilt. Now, the homeless are yesterday’s entertainment.


Nonprofits often use charity porn in fundraising campaigns, especially in poverty-ridden areas where homelessness is so prevalent it's impossible not to see. Many of these nonprofits are still labeled as being exploitative because their shares on social media can be perceived as less than honest--instead of focusing on the issue or the non-profit's intended message, the audience shifts their focus to the poverty-porn "victims" instead.


Can we create awareness of homelessness without exploiting those who are homeless

Nonprofits can use the images and stories of those they serve without being considered exploitative. This can be done by highlighting the harsh conditions many people are living in, rather than the "rescue" given them.


Instead of sharing an individual’s image, share images that include insights into homelessness. Tell their stories or share interviews with individuals living on the street to provide a more accurate portrait of their life.




The voices of individuals living on the streets are too often missing from awareness campaigns, so the inclusion of personal stories can actually prevent stereotype porn because they are more respectful to those facing poverty.


An example of elevating the individual's story rather than exploiting:

While on the streets tBP ran across a retired journalist who has traveled the world, interviewed royalty, covered wars, and (what made me fangirl) has worked closely with the original cast of Star Trek.


Today, this woman is homeless and living on a bus bench in downtown Tampa. She's elderly, late 70s. Every time we walk away after visiting with her I take with me a deeper appreciation for her life experience, admiration for her as a writer, and deep sadness and regret. I feel as if I'm leaving my mother out on the street and it breaks my heart.



Her writing is amazing and her ability to share the stories of the homeless in Tampa is beautifully done. She used to blog under the name Street Puppy. While it's been years since she has added to the blog, the writing that is there provides valuable insights into what it is like to live on the streets in Tampa.


Health and access have limited her ability to continue writing.


One of our goals at tBP is to find and provide the resources necessary to help her with sustainable housing and healthcare, and the necessary environment and support to get her writing again.


Use positivity and empathy to evoke change in your community

Charity campaigns that emphasize poverty and suffering in order to solicit donations without regard for the social or political issues that surround poverty objectify the people the campaign was meant to help. The good news is, there are other ways to raise awareness.

Poverty and homelessness can be used as a platform to talk about the bigger issues and inspire change.


Seeing someone in their worst moment is not the best way to invoke empathy. Instead, try connecting the audience to the issue at hand.


What is it about the challenges the homeless face that the audience can relate to?


Empathy is being able to see another's situation from their perspective and feeling what they feel in response to it. Help your audience's imagination grow to allow room for imagining the logistics of homelessness.


Leave them wondering:

  • Where bedding might be laid out in a shelter

  • What would they smell like if they wore the same clothes and underwear for a week

  • How would someone on the street wash their clothes

  • How would they determine which businesses would allow them to use the restroom, and which ones would call the cops on them

  • Where would they find food, or clean water to drink

  • How would they find a job without a place to shower or a phone number



Nonprofits can still use imagery in their campaigns. Instead of sharing a person's worst moment, images can be used to connect the audience with other aspects of the person or problem at hand.


Share a picture of the long line for food at the soup kitchen, but do it from the back of the line without ever showing anyone's face. We can all relate to the frustration standing in line when hungry. Compound that for the homeless with the fear that the food will run out before they reach the front.


Show a live of a dumpster being moved down a flooded street and tell the viewers you are currently taking shelter under a bus stop with your friends as you ride out the tropical storm. Put the viewer right there in their shoes without ever showing their faces!


Video, with permission, the street artist performing, painting, or sharing their poem. They are exposing their joy and their talent in this moment and deserve the appreciation for the beauty they create.




For those of us who live with the comforts of a home, we can forget that there is more to those living on the streets than poverty. They also are complex individuals who belong in our communities. They are our friends.


Images are not the only way to raise awareness. Infographic, links, and lists can also be used effectively.


Educate your audience on where they can volunteer or donate locally. Let them know what policies and laws in the community are there to support the homeless, and which ones hinder them from succeeding. Share the specific needs of your local homeless community and how others can step up and help.


Poverty porn is not the solution. It gets you clicks, but it doesn't bring lasting change.


Help put an end to poverty porn

It's time to put an end to poverty porn. There are plenty of ways for nonprofits and activists alike to create awareness without exploiting those they are claiming to help.


Whether you want to show the importance of donating your clothes, highlight how one person overcame homelessness with the help of a nonprofit, or share powerful stories from people who have overcome adversity -- there is no need to use images that objectify individuals just because it may be shocking enough to get attention.


Help put an end to poverty porn by only clicking on and sharing campaigns that lift individuals up rather than promoting a "savior" complex of the poster.


Our friends deserve dignity. Let's work together towards ending poverty porn once and for all!


Join us in ending homelessness one person at a time



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