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Reporting back on Pop Up Common Room: WaterAid and the Power of Images

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Published date 02 May 2018
By Etty Flynn, MA Graphic Communication Design, CSM

“The charity puts their work at the forefront of their imagery, highlighting solutions, not problems.”
Image credit: WaterAid/Joey Lawrence

British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran has been a powerhouse of mainstream music since breaking into the industry with “The A Team” in 2011, securing him Brit Awards for British Break through Act and Best British Male Solo Artist, just a year after the single’s release. He has since sold more than 26 million albums and 100 million singles worldwide. Last year, however, Sheeran received a notably less glamorous accolade; a Rusty Radiator Award, for fronting the “most offensive” charity video appeal of 2017. The video, shot for Comic Relief, features the singer’s visit to a desolate shoreside in Liberia, where the celebrity befriends three local children and offers to pay for their temporary stay in a hotel after having discovered that the boys were sleeping in abandoned canoes.

The founders of the annual Rusty Radiator Awards, an organisation that sets out to put an end to negative stereotypes of poverty, acknowledged the fact that the singer’s intentions were good, but criticised the campaign for being ‘a film about Ed Sheeran’ and for reinforcing ‘white saviour’ stereotypes. Aid Watchdog also flagged down the film, which they branded as ‘poverty porn’. So how can a campaign built on the good intentions of a world-class celebrity go so awry?

Poverty tourism, the perpetuation of poverty stereotypes and white saviour complexes were some of the topics discussed when WaterAid’s in-house film and photography team came to visit UAL’s postgraduate community at the London College of Fashion.

The team’s talk gave us a fascinating insight into the sometimes treacherous world of photojournalism, sparking interesting round-table discussions on the subjects of political correctness, consent and the detrimental consequences of a lack of diversity in the workplace. By championing the power of positive imagery, WaterAid inspires the British public to contribute to their cause without the use of graphic content that exploits, dehumanises or stereotypes the protagonists of their campaigns. Instead, the charity puts their work at the forefront of their imagery, highlighting solutions, not problems.

Ed Sheeran’s televised appearance in Liberia will have undoubtedly prompted thousands, if not millions, of people to donate to Comic Relief, but does the end justify the means when it comes to poverty porn? The issue is that, although our donations will alleviate poverty in Liberia in the short term, the caricatures imprinted in our brains perpetuate long-established notions of Western saviours coming to the rescue of unfortunates in poorer countries, whereas fairer trade arrangements between the North and the South would alleviate much of the suffering that aid attempts to address.

Graphic imagery of suffering children has been used in aid campaigns since the 1980’s, when the term ‘poverty porn’ was coined by Danish author, Jorgen Lisser: “The public display of an African child with a bloated kwashiorkor-ridden stomach in advertisements is pornographic, because it exposes something in human life that is as delicate and deeply personal as sexuality, that is, suffering. It puts people’s bodies, their misery, their grief and their fear on display with all the details and all the indiscretion that a telescopic lens will allow.”

Ed Sheeran, like many other frontmen of charity aid appeals, travelled to Liberia because he wanted to help, but inadvertently he contributed to a widely held and deep-rooted prejudice that sees the poor as passive and voiceless and fails to explore the causes of poverty that are so often linked to exploitation and unfair trade. It is easier to use the stereotype – to show poverty porn.

We need to try harder to investigate, and communicate the causes of poverty. We shouldn’t underestimate the public’s ability to understand and to take action on the basis of the more complex and uncomfortable truth. Any student aspiring to use their creative talent for the greater good will face the same responsibilies that Ed Sheeran and the team from Comic Relief were faced with in Liberia. WaterAid’s talk was an eye-opener to the power of images to provoke change, as well as an antidote to ‘design for good’ gone bad.

Find out more about the Wateraid partnership with Postgraduate Community, including:

  • Keynote talk: Marcus Missen Director of Communications and Fundraising at WaterAid
  • Design Challenge
  • The Water Effect
  • How to volunteer