Poverty Porn


Poverty Porn images allow the viewer to take pleasure in looking without guilt as those photographed are exposed and fetishized, without the ability to glance back. While women in addition to non-gender conforming people do consume porn, it has historically been produced with the expectation that the viewer is a man. Within this, a woman is presented in such a way that is stereotypically pleasing for the average man. Similarly, Poverty Porn prioritizes visual representations of stereotypical feminine displays of gender and sexuality for the consumption of the viewer. The bodies photographed will always be on display in this exposed manner, regardless of the way the person photographed feels about it. They have no way to retaliate against the gaze nor a way to communicate with the viewer. Jennifer Tyburzcy, author of Sex Museums: the Politics and Performance of Display explains that, exhibits assume “patriarchal heterosexuality and traditional structures of sexual intimacy and gender performance (2)” as the standard for all visitors. It acts as an intersection of idealized forms of race and gender in which white femininity becomes glorified. Typically, Poverty Porn images place white women as the ultimate care-givers and bodies available to the service of others. Where Poverty Porn images depict a black or brown body in relationship to the white body, it inherently creates a race and gender dynamic that while being perceived beneficial to the black/brown bodied person within the image, is actually at the benefit of the white woman. In all regards, poverty porn is self-serving. The title in itself refers to the societal fascination with exploiting those in poverty. By capturing these women in intimate positions, Poverty Porn further perpetuates the consumption of the feminine body and sexuality by anyone who cares to look. 

Shelby Goodman, '17 & Amanda Medendorp, '19

Beggar Woman

Beggar Women

Copyright: The British Museum of Art

In 1933, photographer Dora Maar visited Barcelona. While there she documented the country’s extreme poverty through portraits of individuals she encountered on the streets. Within this exhibit, this photo aims to illustrate again the gendered lens that often characterizes poverty porn art. A single woman acts as the face of true poverty. Her physical position within the photo amplifies her fragility and overall depressed state of being. She is vulnerable, without support.

Because the face of the women is also to an extent hidden, the gaze of the viewer is granted more power. The women in the photo cannot glance back; her eyes are not visible. Within this, the viewer is able to fully consume the image as it does not offer the women inside of it any power or agency. The image offers a specific interpretation of poverty porn being art for the consumption of the viewer and the exploitation of the photographed.

Amanda Medendorp '19



Copyright: Jill McCuiston

Angelina Jolie, the Oscar winning actress and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, holds a mentally disturbed boy, as he is tied with a rope in a camp in Oure Cassoni, Chad, 2007. Angelina Jolie met the 7 year-old boy while spending two days visiting Oure Cassoni, a refugee camp close to the Sudan border. This image easily could have been printed in color but intentionally the photographer published it in black and white perhaps to emphasize the whiteness of Jolie and the blackness of the African child.

How race functions within the image offers a larger understanding of the western world’s fascination and expectation of white people, especially white women, catering to those in need. With an American celebrity as a "goodwill ambassador", the entire imagery around helping those in need becomes altered in a way that perhaps glamorizes it. Furthermore, Jolie because of her celebrity status, becomes the main subject of the image rather than the African child. The image perpetuates stereotypes of white motherhood and the constant need for women generally to be offering care and support to those in need. Imagine if the image had pictured a black women and white child instead- how would that change the message the image offers? 

Amanda Medendorp '19



Copyright: Lee Jeffries 

Lee Jeffries, a photographer based in Los Angeles, has spent years on the streets of Los Angeles capturing the lives of homeless people. Jeffries explains his work as “religious or spiritual” iconography. In this photo, two white, middle-aged, homeless women are photographed. The blonde women is named Margo and is now homeless but used to work in porn and prostitution. The photo intentionally is in black and white as to accentuate the women’s features; it highlights the dirt on their faces. The image aims to humanize these women and does so through centering very specifically on the women’s faces.

This brings the viewer into an intimate relationship with those typically invisible- the homeless and sex workers. Purposefully, the image is not meant to evoke pity but rather holds the intention to honor those photographed. Here, Jeffries critiques the concept of poverty porn by giving power to those photographed. The image is not for the consumption of the viewer as it attempts to place power in the hands of those deemed invisible by society. While the viewer may enjoy the image, it is ultimately not for the consumption of the viewer as it attempts to place power in the hands of those deemed invisible by society.  

Amanda Medendorp '19


Boris Mikhailov, Untitled, 1997-1998, Saatchi Gallery. Copyright: B. Mikhailov

Between 1997 and 1998, Boris Mikhailov traveled throughout Ukraine taking photographs of homeless individuals. He provided monetary compensation and basic needs which they were not able to provide for themselves to these vulnerable people in exchange for their participation, complicating the authenticity of the photographs. The image of the impoverished takes many forms throughout his series and forces the viewer to confront their own preconceived perceptions of poverty and their participation in the universal lack of care for the less fortunate.

The woman in this photograph is exposed, but appears passive, as if this is just another daily occurrence. She does not actively engage with the other person at the edge of the frame, nor the viewer, even as her body is on display. This photograph further perpetuates ideals about women who solely exist for the consumption of the viewer at the exploitation of their body.  The lack of titles or additional information about the subject of his photographs leaves a lot of interpretation up to the viewer. 

Shelby Goodman '17

Whore I Like

Chris Shaw, whore i like, 2006, chrisshaw.carbonmade.com. Copyright: C. Shaw

The woman in the photograph both supports and contradicts certain common aspects of ideal femininity. She stands on some sort of carrier being pulled by a bike which evokes the portrayal of Cinderella in her pumpkin chariot. However, the woman’s short dress and long fur coat offer a different story, one that evokes a common understanding of what lower class female sex workers look like. The way this woman is presented is simultaneously provoking mental images of a Disney princess and a prostitute.

 This photograph is a part of Chris Shaw’s best known series, entitled Life as a Night Porter from 2000, in which he created a style that he describes as “almost an anti-aesthetic.” He says this series was a reflection of his precarious life and state of mind at the time as he battled alcohol addiction while working as a night porter in the Bonnington Hotel in London (O'Hagan). This is an interesting perspective when viewing the photograph because, in relationship to the woman, Chris Shaw holds all the power. She is posed, awaiting approval, and Shaw, as the person holding the camera, holds all the authority. 


Shelby Goodman '17

Sharon Wild

Larry Sultan, Sharon Wild, 2001, http://larrysultan.com/

Copyright: L. Sultan

In his photograph, entitled Sharon Wild, Larry Sultan places a scantily clad Sharon Wild, a well-known porn star, on an unmade bed in an easily recognizable motel setting. This photograph, a part of his larger work entitled The Valley, forces the viewer to humanize sex workers by placing a known porn star in such an easily relatable space. The state of the furniture and the unmade, stained mattress evokes a sense of lower class aesthetics by appealing to ideas of a run down motel as a meeting place for sex workers and their customers.

Presenting this image within the framework of Poverty Porn, the viewer is faced with the perpetuation of the idea that women exist solely to be consumed by others. However, by having Sharon Wild make direct eye contact with the viewer, Sultan is presenting Wild with some form of agency and control. By placing a known porn star as the star of this photograph, Larry Sultan is profiting from the stigmatization of sex workers and poverty.

Shelby Goodman '17

Poverty Porn