Sunday, February 22, 2009

Word of the Day: "Poverty Porn"

The Real Roots of the Slumdog Protests - NY Times

"These unlikely allies argue that the film portrays India, and residents of the Dharavi slum where it was shot, in a negative light. Alice Miles of The Times of London goes so far as to suggest that the film is an example of “poverty porn” — where the suffering of the Indian poor is served up as a perverse form of First World voyeurism."

Looking forward to watching the film, just to see for myself.

I liked the term "poverty porn". It follows a thread I've been thinking about -- is it possible to depoliticise a political issue? Is it right to do so? What are your rightful responsibilities - the ones that you accept, or the ones assigned to you?

Been musing about it since I viewed an exhibition on prostitutes in Thailand. My impression was that the photographer was attempting to be neutral and factual, to pass no judgments on the women or the industry, to state no opinions, to offer no message.

It had irked me, for some reason. It seemed impossible to me, for a photographer to deliberately select a topic as political as prostitution, and expect to get away with saying: "I'm trying to say nothing! I have no message! It's about the people!"

I thought that it was wishful thinking, to believe you could absolve yourself from all responsibility of reporting by claiming neutrality. After all, hadn't the possibility of neutrality been erased in the selection of a highly-politicised topic?

A photographer doesn't select prostitutes just because, the same way you don't take a picture of a beggar just because.

It would be stupid to compare film and journalism, but I'll be stupid for a while -- perhaps Slumdog Millionaire finds itself in the same fix. You can't do a movie on the slums of Mumbai and expect it to be taken as fiction and absolved from the politics of everyday life. After all, movies often act as a vehicle for social commentary. It's a pity to weigh movies down with such responsibilities - movies never did pledge to tell the truth, or to offer a "voice". So then, what about journalism?

To digress to the other end of the spectrum, there is a phrase being used here: "activist journalism". If attempting to depoliticise a political issue was "wrong" - what about those who actively seeks to highlight and push political issues?

To give a voice to the voiceless. Reaching out to the fringes of society. Shedding light on those who live in the shadows. Helping those who live on the periphery of society. Telling the stories of the ignored, the neglected, the outcasts, the others.

Depending on which camp you belong to, the term is either noble or complete bullshit. But, is there a difference between journalism and "activist journalism"? Is the purpose of journalism to right the wrongs, or simply to point out the wrongs? How many different shades of journalism are there?

Activism removes neutrality - and for those who argue that neutrality (or the pursuit of it) is the basis of all journalism -- the term "activist journalism" is an oxymoron and could not exist.

It has been argued that the ones attempting to right the wrongs are no longer qualified to be journalists. Journalists are not meant to save the world - they're here to tell you what its like.

A person who labels him or herself as such is then simply an activist attempting to gain the objective credibility of a journalist, trying to pass off as a neutral bystander that got prompted into taking sides by the gross injustice of it all.

As you can see, I've talked myself into a stupid corner.

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