Why you should care

Because poverty porn is out, and fair compensation is in. 

It’s always that kid. You know, the heartbreaker with the distended belly and the beseeching eyes. It’s his darling, saddening face plastered all over the shiny pamphlets UNICEF, or whoever, uses to raise money for victims of the latest disaster or famine or crisis. Let’s call him Pierre.

Well, we think Pierre should get a cut of those donations. After all, the humanitarian agencies used his image to solicit funds, much as fashion houses use models to sell clothes and build a brand. In the 1990s, Linda Evangelista famously wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day. Shouldn’t Pierre, and other unwitting models in the aid-industrial complex, get compensated for his efforts, too?

We’re not alone in supporting this idea. Kathryn Mathers, an anthropologist at Duke University who lectures on global development and humanitarianism, says it’s “completely reasonable” to compensate people in photographs, especially when their pictures are used in successful fundraising drives. Go to most any country where aid agencies operate and try to photograph “natives,” with or without their permission, and see what happens: Some of those subjects, quite reasonably, will ask to be compensated.

Many aid agencies, of course, require photographers to ask their subjects to sign releases, but few signatories know where their photo ends up or how much money it makes for the agency. Some argue that subjects are indirectly compensated for their pictures, through the good works the agency delivers. But aid agencies have had a devil of a time proving their effectiveness. Worried about crossing the line into poverty porn (you know it when you see it), forward-thinking agencies like Oxfam require photographers to show published work to the people portrayed in it. It can be “really hard to grasp what it means to have your photo taken and then used in a digital format,” says Jane Huber, who heads up photos for Oxfam America.

Admittedly, there are some issues with the whole idea of payment. Wayan Vota, a humanitarian and aid critic, says he likes the idea “in the abstract” but wonders how it would work in real life. One can easily imagine subjects hamming it up for payment, or even a whole cottage industry of poverty-porn stars. Mathers takes it a step further and wonders if we should be using photos of people in moments of suffering or trauma in the first place. Putting a price tag on it is really just a “lovely neoliberal response” to a moral problem.

But we’re OK with that, since we know changing the entire humanitarian machine is pretty unlikely. So, instead, let’s at least make it a tiny bit fairer. And if that means we have a 50-person line of mamas waiting to have their photos taken? So what? At least there will be a little more equity in a massively unequal world.

Have you been an innocent victim of a humanitarian photo shoot? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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