From Poverty Porn to Humanitarian Storytelling

Last fall, my Facebook friend Liz Massey of the blog Write Livelihood interviewed Roger Burks, a pioneer of what he calls “humanitarian storytelling.” pictographers.jpg

The interview, Roger Burks, his company Pictographers, and Burks’ pioneering work in humanitarian storytelling all impressed me. I had especially not consider the negative and exploitative effect of what he calls “poverty porn,” which he explains in the excerpt below:

For too long now, most of the communications we’ve all seen coming from humanitarian, development and non-governmental organizations have been what I’ve heard described as “poverty porn” — words and images that elicit an emotional response by their sheer shock value. Images like starving, skeletal children covered in flies. Overuse of the word “victim.”
That kind of communication may get results, but at what cost to those portrayed? I believe that kind of exploitation is nothing less than a violation of human rights, especially considering what the impoverished, oppressed and marginalized have already had to endure.
I co-founded Pictographers with the idea of dignity and development through communication. We’re trying to cause a shift toward documentary writing and photography that respects the humanity of those our organizations are serving, while still crafting compelling communications that inspire people to action.
Massey asks a great question about how Burks balances objectivity with the rawness of human emotion to tell a powerful story. Burks’ response, in part:
I think this is the essence of humanitarian storytelling: that balance between being an objective journalist and letting yourself be the conduit through which human emotion is channeled.

Burks’ believes this kind of humanitarian storytelling can be world-changing. I know well from my research that storytelling, done well, can spark action. Burks’ particular brand of storytelling may indeed be the kind that can inspire global transformation:

I’m excited for the chance to, as Pictographers, train journalists who will not only work to change their organizations, but change the world. That sounds lofty, but think about it: humanitarian storytelling gets people to take action. It not only raises awareness, but also gives organizations the resources they need to make a difference.

You can see examples of Burks’ humanitarian stories here.

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Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...

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