The “Starving African Child” and the Pornography of Poverty



The iconic image of the starving African child is a familiar symbol which appears prominently in the above images from a campaign by the development organization Save the Children. The photos both share a compelling yet controversial characteristic- the use of images of poverty that are pornographic in their portrayal. The pornography of poverty relates to forms of humanitarian communication which use images that focus on extreme exposure of both misery and the body to illustrate suffering. As evidenced in both photos, it involves the construction of images which create a representation that is the epitome of misfortune. While these images are often effective in creating the shock effect that is necessary to elicit donations, they are often denounced for their demeaning portrayals and the meanings they create.

Development media which depend on the pornography of poverty is frequently criticized for putting “people’s bodies, their misery… on display with…all the indiscretion that telescopic lens will allow” (Lissner, 1981). In both of the featured images, one thing is striking- the utter despondency of the children. This is what is capitalized upon and projected. The composition of the images, particularly the focus on the eyes of the children is meant to convey only their misery. The subjects have been stripped of any form of identity and are simply portrayed as symbolic representations of squalor. They are not given a voice. We cannot begin to know their stories or who they are. Yet, we are privy to their vulnerability, seeing them naked in every sense. The emphasis on the body is clear in both images as the children have been photographed practically naked so that viewers can be disconcerted by images of their malnourished bodies. Additionally, the photos encourage an intrusion into their delicate feelings of pain and hopelessness through the image of their tears. These types of representations simply instigate hollow pity, not empathy, understanding or definitive action.

Another fundamental constraint of this form of Humanitarian Communication is that its “simplistic messages foster racist stereotypes… and encourage prejudice.” (Sankore, 2005). Images such as these which feature sick, hungry children have become the quintessential representation of suffering and have historically been related to the proverbial “starving children of Africa” who we were constantly reminded of when we failed to finish our dinner. With the continuous manipulation of the image of the African child in fund raising campaigns, it is no surprise that most people have come to associate the continent with famine, disease and desolation. This is exactly what both images seek to capture. These demeaning representations echo racist and colonialist notions about Africa, developing an inherent image of Africans as a people who are in need of the generosity and competence of the west. Thus, alleviating poverty in Africa has become the modern day ‘Whiteman’s burden’ and in many instances people contribute simply out of obligation or an attempt to assuage their own conscience, rather than a genuine desire to make worthwhile contributions.

Furthermore, academics argue that these representations essentially “promote an extremely shallow understanding of the forces that produce and sustain poverty… and focus attention on the victims of poverty rather than the political forces behind it” (Cameron and Haanstra, 2008). The selected images from the Save The Children campaign are a prime example of this. Both images simply seek to illicit donations, and create an impression that these contributions are all that is necessary. Neither of them offer any hint as to the possible causes or root of the children’s impoverished position. Unfortunately, the stark reality is that aid often cannot begin to address critical aspects of poverty such as political and economic instability. A donation of £2 may feed one child today, but in the bigger picture, it is a mere droplet in an ocean of suffering so vast that it cannot be fathomed by the distant, well- meaning spectator. As a result, generous viewers may give small donations, but there is little effort to fully explore or address the underlying causes of poverty and to find sustainable methods of fostering change. Essentially, this breeds a dependence on aid and can be considered to be more detrimental in the long run.

In conclusion, we must consider where we draw the line between representing images of poverty and constructing them. Images create meaning, and development practitioners must be conscious of the underlying meanings they construct. It remains important to consider a photograph’s long term implications for the people it strives to represent. Are these images justified when the trickle of donations they garner will never be sufficient to address a problem which can only be resolved with sustainable solutions?


Cameron, J. & Haanstra, A. (2008). ‘Development Made Sexy: how it happened and what it means’. Third World Quarterly, 29(98), pp. 1475-1489.

Lissner, J. (1981), ‘Merchants of Misery’. [online] New Internationalist Magazine. Available at: [Accessed 12 Feb. 2016].

Sankore, R. (2005). ‘The Pitfalls and Consequences of Development ‘Pornography‘. [online] Global Envision. Available at: [Accessed 12 Feb. 2016].





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