“Good intentions aren’t good enough if they are pursued with little or no understanding of what such images do to the mentality, the attitudes, the political emotions, and behaviors of their audience.”
– Jorgen Lissner, “Merchants of Misery,” the New Internationalist, 1 June 1981
In 2017 the Norwegian development sector watchdog group SAIH (the Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund) hosted their final Rusty Radiator Awards, a series of dubious accolades reserved for the most egregious examples of exploitative media in the development sector as determined by a jury of sector leaders and practitioners and voted on by viewers (McVeigh).
When exploring the selections, several commonalities emerge. First, there seems an unabashed insistence on perpetuating the myth of the white savior, of a community in the developing world only achieving its needs through the intervention of a Western, white-skinned volunteer. Second, they reduce the stories of those featured and involved to being nothing more than pleas for survival, a gross over-simplification of what in actuality are nuanced and complex human lives; this further highlights the incorrect assumption that all poverty looks the same, manifested, in one popular example, as the cliche of the Starving Child, face dirty and dressed in rags. Third, they promote the ideology that only charity, not activism and empowerment, can solve the world’s problems, creating a distinct narrative of victimization that creates artificial distance between a struggling third world and a prosperous first world.
What this all amounts to is the erosion of dignity and agency for those with and for whom the development sector works. In the New Internationalist piece “Merchants of Misery,” Jorgen Lissner, author of The Politics of Altruism, argues that this is the creation of “poverty pornography,” the commercialization and commodification of the human body in a way that abandons all piety and dignity for the persons involved and shortcuts its way into the base emotions of the viewer for the sake of fundraising. It’s the exploitation of the most vulnerable.
With this context, I aim to present a philosophical and narrative toolkit for development sector practitioners to utilize as they engage with the stories of the communities with and for whom they work. I will use examples from my own work to exemplify the concepts, elucidating the intentions of each creative choice as they support the overarching goal of preserving dignity through adversity.
TRUST THE AUDIENCE TO SEE THE FULL PICTURE
Oftentimes, media producers in the development sector will choose to highlight certain elements in a story they deem necessary to establish a portrait of adversity. This comes at the expense of two things: dignity and honesty. It creates a false association between the person and the problem, using the emotional weight of the latter to unfairly force sympathy for the former. It cherrypicks elements of one’s context to create a picture for the audience that is incomplete or irrelevant.
In the UK-based charity Comic Relief’s video that follows singer Ed Sheeran through Monrovia, Liberia, he comes upon a group of young boys sleeping in rotting canoes on the beach. The canoes are emphasized again and again in this sequence, be it through dialogue or shot selection. “I can’t process this,” Sheeran says as he stands over one such canoe, two boys still asleep inside. “They’re so tiny…You come here on the beach and…and there’s just these two tiny, little things sleeping in the boat” (“Ed Sheeran Meets a Little Boy who Lives on the Streets”).
The adversity the boys face is inherent in the visual storytelling, but the video leans its narrative on Sheeran’s realization that the boys sleep in canoes because it hopes to define their narratives through just the physical elements. It strips the boys of their agency – an important test in discerning effective portrayals in media is to simply list the qualities that are conveyed through that media, and, from this video, all an audience can muster in this regard is the acknowledgment that they are homeless, that they have faced tragedy and adversity through disease and poverty, and, as a later interview between Sheeran and one boy named J.D. reveals, that they have cliched aspirations like one day becoming president. What’s left is an impression no better than a stereotype. Screen-time spent on emphasizing the sleeping conditions serves no one, especially not the boys for whom the canoes may not have even been a detail of their stories worth mentioning, an insignificant detail blown out of proportion by the producers of the video.
Instead, the producers needed to trust the audience with the ability to perceive the adversity, rather than make it explicit. Trust grows between a piece of media and its viewer when understanding starts to come implicitly. A viewer can be shown the context of adversity and glean all that is needed. In a short film entitled A Recipe to Thrive, I told the story of Rakesh, a young man from a village outside Bangalore who is using a life skills education to pursue his passion for cooking, navigate the pressures of his community, and thrive. In telling that story, I focused on the qualities of the human and not of his physical reality – in one scene, the audience sees him preparing vegetables in the kitchen of his family home, a kitchen that is sparse and meager. However, the kitchen is not the focus of the scene; Rakesh is. It is through the portrayal of cooking, through the full picture of the story being told, that the adversity is shown.
EXPLORE AND FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH THE FILMIC LANGUAGE, BOTH THE TECHNIQUES AND CONNOTATIONS
The filmic language is powerful and draws directly on a subconscious recognition of spatial relationships. Something as simple as a camera, and therefore an audience, looking down on someone creates in that person immediate inferiority, and, in the audience, a sense of superiority or ownership. In UNICEF USA’s Save a Child for 50 Cents a Day video, a string of emaciated and doe-eyed children are shown gazing longingly upwards into the camera, conveying the sense, yet again, that the children are nothing but victims, and the viewer their savior, looking down from a place of power and privilege.
In a film collaboration between my host organization Dream a Dream and the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi examining and relaying stories of impact occurring as a result of the implementation of the Happiness Curriculum, a life skills- and reflection-based curriculum aimed at creating a happier and more self-reliant generation inheriting the India of tomorrow, in the government school system, I used this awareness of camera angles in maintaining dignity despite highly emotional moments of vulnerability. In one sequence, a young girl started to cry after sharing a story of appreciation for her parents; in response to what was occurring in the classroom while filming, I chose to kneel down before her and capture the moment from a low angle, which imbued her vulnerability with power and dignity.
The camera should, more often than not, be at eye-level or lower when capturing stories of adversity; if at eye-level, the audience can see “eye-to-eye” with those featured in the story; if lower, the audience can “look up to” those whose struggles, always dignified, are being shared.
Film also provides surrogates for audience members through various techniques; third party voice-over narration can be useful in conveying information, but, as Mary Ann Doane writes in The Voice in the Cinema: the Articulation of Body and Space, voice-over narration “speaks without mediation to the audience, by-passing the ‘characters’ and establishing a complicity between itself and the spectator.” In other words, it creates an additional omniscient presence speaking on behalf of someone else, thus inherently removing that person’s involvement in their own story and creating distance where they should be familiarity and understanding. Oftentimes, development sector media will employ the use of a narrator to tell stories of adversity. In the Disasters Emergency Committee’s East Africa Crisis Appeal, actor Eddie Redmayne offers commentary and insight, saying, “The need is painfully evident in their eyes, in their tiny bodies that weigh no more than young babies.” His diction demeans the children, assessing them by their physical features and assigning emotions to them that, while likely, are still coming from his perspective, not theirs.
“In their desperate struggle to find any means to survive…,” he continues over the shot of a young woman clawing and scooping at dead grass and dirt (DECcharity), an unverifiable judgment made to capitalize on dramatic imagery.
Practitioners should work to capture the voices of those whose stories are being told, to construct opportunities for them to speak for themselves and articulate the adversity, the need, and the goals. In A Recipe to Thrive, Rakesh provides the voice-over narration for his own story. This avoids the danger of creating a relationship in which the a third party speaking to an audience creates a “us” that has to help “them,” those who face adversity. Instead, it creates a conversation, a transfer of information and emotion from “me to you.”
PORTRAY AS YOU WOULD WANT TO BE PORTRAYED
In a fitting, satirical encapsulation of this point, the aforementioned SAIH, the development sector watchdog behind the Rusty Radiator Awards, produced a video accompanying the mock charity single “Africa for Norway,” a collection of African celebrity parodies who come together to raise funds for the freezing children of Scandinavia. A lampoon of Band Aid and other celebrity-fueled initiatives that lamented a cherrypicked list of faraway problems through their superstar reach, the artists of “Africa for Norway” hope to send the freezing children some of their African heat. “We see that they freeze,” sings the chorus. “As Africans concerned, let’s send our heaters all the way. Radi-Aid to Norway!” (SAIH Norway).
What the humorous video does so well is illuminate the treachery of boiling a country or continent down to its most dramatic problems. When taking the video at face value, which audiences often do, Norway is portrayed as being a frigid wasteland, devoid of even basic infrastructure. This simply isn’t true. Inversely, when looking at the continent of Africa through the music video of a well-intentioned, but misguided pop single, only starvation, disease, war, and poverty shine through. This, also, simply isn’t true.
Reflectively acknowledging the portrayal of adversity faced by our own communities can inform how we portray that of other communities. It rings of the Golden Rule, to treat others as we would want to be treated – explore and convey the issues other communities face as you would want the issues your community faces to be explored and conveyed.
SPEAK THROUGH THEIR STORIES, NOT FOR THEIR STORIES
In other words, let the story of the individual stand for the issues that affect the many. This serves two purposes. First, it creates a singular protagonist within the piece of media for an audience to latch onto. Effective media creates shared emotions, and in the interest of raising funds and awareness, it’s the emotion that drives the viewer to reach for a pen or pocketbook. Second, it avoids generalizations while maintaining issue-based validity. When attempting to illuminate and convey the importance of a life skills education in A Recipe to Thrive, I did so through the story of one young man who, in turn, found passion in one particular vocation. Embedded in his story is the value of life skills, as interpreted through his story; the film doesn’t speak on behalf of all young people who face adversity because it doesn’t have to.
Things, however, are changing. SAIH hosted their last exposé of exploitation two years ago, citing a rising tide of dignified media as a reason for their efforts to be retired (“No Radi-Aid Awards in 2018 – Radi-Aid”). What this means, though, is that as trends shift toward new, more inclusive, and more progressive means of storytelling, toolkits need to emerge to formalize these trends into paradigms. This isn’t to say a strict set of requirements needs to be met; rather, it’s an attempt to validate those who produce media that considers dignity, and to preserve the most crucial element of all – the ability to always consider and challenge and change what it is that we, as development sector practitioners, are saying and doing to better this world.
- A Recipe to Thrive. Directed by Christopher Scott Carpenter, Dream a Dream, YouTube, 28 January 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4G4gwYbTi2E&t=12s
- Doane, Mary Ann. “The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space.” Yale French Studies, no. 60, 1980, pp. 33–50. JSTOR, 2018. Accessed at: www.jstor.org/stable/2930003.
- The Happiness Curriculum. Directed by Christopher Scott Carpenter, Dream a Dream, Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi
- Lissner, Jorgen. “Merchants of Misery.” The New Internationalist, 1 June 1981, newint.org/features/1981/06/01/merchants-of-misery.
- McVeigh, Karen. “Ed Sheeran Comic Relief Film Branded ‘Poverty Porn’ by Aid Watchdog.” The Guardian, 4 Dec. 2017, www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/dec/04/ed-sheeran-comic-relief-film-poverty-porn-aid-watchdog-tom-hardy-eddie-redmayne.
- “No Radi-Aid Awards in 2018 – Radi-Aid.” Radi, www.radiaid.com/no-radi-aid-awards-in-2018.
- Prasanna H., “A Chance to Thrive” Fundraising Campaign, Dream a Dream, 8 October 2018, https://www.facebook.com/dreamadream.org/photos/a.398263049595/10156721750909596/
- SAIH Norway, “Africa for Norway – New charity single out now!” YouTube, 16 November 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJLqyuxm96k
- UNICEF USA, “Save a Child for Only 50 Cents a Day,” YouTube, 4 September 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XozrqJHA-yI