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‘Poverty porn’

/ 12:46 AM October 17, 2013

Sunday, we were reminded, was “Extreme Poverty Sunday.” Today, Oct. 17, is the “World Day for Overcoming Poverty,” declared so by the United Nations in 1992.

Do you know that in Rizal Park (Luneta), there is a marker that serves as a reminder? It was installed there through the efforts of ATD-Fourth World, a nongovernment organization whose French founder, Fr. Joseph Wresinski, was the inspiration behind Oct. 17. Groups will be gathering there this morning.

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The first marker was unveiled in Paris’ Trocadero Human Rights Plaza on Oct. 17, 1987, in the presence of some 100,000 people from varying social backgrounds. (I’ve seen it there.) On the marble marker is engraved: “Whenever men and women are condemned to live in poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty.”

All these bring me to the much debated subject of “poverty porn,” which focuses on practices of the media (journalists, photojournalists, documentarists, filmmakers), development aid groups, fund raisers and those who have poverty among their concerns.

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I don’t know when the words were coined, or who did. The general definition that I can glean from all the lofty and sharp arguments on the Internet—and this is a composite definition—is that poverty porn is the use and display of stark images of persons in extreme poverty that border on the exploitative and intrusive, in order to generate sympathy and donations, to increase newspaper circulation and TV ratings, or even to gain fame. And, it is stressed, noble ends do not justify such “exploitation.”

As to generating funds, I can say from personal experience that I was so repulsed by the images of poverty in the Philippines, and of particular families at that (with names and all), shown at a high-end fund-raising dinner to which I was invited (as a journalist). I almost hyperventilated and choked on my food, but the regular guests to that yearly affair must have dug deep into their pockets. Poverty porn wasn’t yet a byword then, and I didn’t have a name for what I saw on screen.

As a journalist I have seen and written enough about poverty. Years ago I was invited by a big Catholic university to share with the entire faculty and staff going through formation sessions my encounters with poverty. What insights could I impart? Sometime back the Inquirer editors asked me to write some kind of module for reporters covering the poverty beat.

And now this debate about poverty porn, as if the media were the main purveyor of it. So how far can media practitioners—and aid workers, too—go to inform, prick consciences, afflict the comfortable, show reality, etc., and not be called pornographers?

A friend once told me that her intrepid daughter who worked with a TV production that investigated poverty in far-flung areas was assigned to be an advance party. Her task was to find a situation of extreme poverty, preferably a family, “yung nilalangaw” (fly-infested). After some time, her daughter resigned, not because of the difficult work…

In the 1980s, when it was tiempos muertes or deadly August in Negros island and despite the dictatorship’s aversion to subversive pictures, we proceeded to write and capture images. The skin-and-bones Joel Abong became the poster child of starvation in the social volcano that was Negros. I shot a photo of a young emaciated girl named April Trabocon who suffered from what looked like kwashiorkor, or extreme malnutrition. “April with August in her eyes” was the title of my magazine piece with her photo. (I want to know if she is alive.)

Dorothea Lange photographed faces and images during the US Great Depression that became famous. I have a book of her photographs that I bought during the exhibition of her works in San Francisco. A heartbreaking shot shows Filipinos working in a lettuce field in the 1930s. Her photo of a distressed woman is like a Mona Lisa in reverse. I first saw it in my book of photographs, “The Family of Man,” which is a collection “from the greatest photographic exhibition of all time” (1955). Beside that photo is another famous Lange photo of a sullen man holding a cup that looks empty.

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I don’t see poverty porn in Lange’s black-and-whites. I feel her compassion.

I watch local TV documentaries and sense the journalists’ desire to let people and government know about hidden poverty and brazen neglect. I am grateful. But sometimes—and now that I have the name for it—some images could border on so-called poverty porn, if not exhibitionism, voyeurism or intrusion. The poor are further diminished when they are shown as “nilalangaw.”

There are award-winning docus that have captured my heart: Ditsi Carolino’s black-and-white “Minsan Lang Sila Bata” (about child labor) and “Riles” (about families living near railroad tracks). I myself wrote a two-part special report on “homes along the riles.” I photographed people in their shacks while the trains were roaring behind me. Was I doing poverty porn?

Years ago I did a magazine feature on the sex life of the urban poor, which had true-to-life stories and all. Recently, when the debate on the reproductive health bill was heating up, I resurrected and turned it into two serious column pieces—no photos, just words. I couldn’t believe the readers’ reactions. Many seemed entertained. For some, it brought laughter.

What about photos of Mother Teresa embracing the dying amid a landscape of destitution?  What about movie director Lino Brocka showing the festering wounds of society and Gil Portes’ “Mulanay” showing a poor child defecating in the open? What do we make of the new foreign movies depicting the underside of Manila?

What is poverty porn for you? Tell me what you think.

Send feedback to [email protected] or www.ceresdoyo.com

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TAGS: Ditsi Carolino, Dorothea Lange, Philippine economy, Philippine Poverty, Poverty, Poverty Porn
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