Media Images of the Poor and the Pornography of Poverty

Pulitzer Prize winning photo by Kevin Carter

Nuran Yıldırım

Middle East Technical University



The aim of this paper is to show how poverty is represented in the media by examining stereotypic media images of the poor and the prevalence of pornography of poverty on Turkish television. This study examines televised images of the poor by an analysis of the media that contributing to creation of ‘otherness’ by representation. In this context, representation of poverty in the charity programmes on Turkish television, particularly, ‘Evim Şahane’, will be analyzed during a one month period by watching fifteen episodes of the programme that are recorded beginning November 14, 2014 until December 15, 2014. Further, the study looks at the images used in marketing and fundraising materials used by charitable organizations such as IHH İnsani Yardım Vakfı and Kimse Yok mu Derneği.

Media, Representation and Poverty

One of the major theme of media and cultural theory is the idea that all cultural representations are political. Representations are not pure or innocent, they can serve interests of cultural oppression by positioning certain groups as inferior and pointing to the superiority of dominant social groups (Bullock, 2001). Further, representation, especially in the narratives of television, produces and circulates cultural meanings, values and identities through the use of language (Çamur, 2004). The representation of practices of social life in language operates through ideology.  Television as a tool of representation has an ideology, everything has an ideology, yet, the question is that these ideologies match with reality?

Media within an Althusserian framework is an ideological state apparatus[1] concerned with the reproduction of dominant ideologies, yet, because this is so subtle and covert, members of society do not realize that this is happening. (Althusser, 1969). For example, when we replace the world ideology with dream, we are not dreaming because we cannot face reality, but rather our dreaming is necessary (Lain, 2011).We are like fish swimming in the ocean, the ocean is ideology and we are the fish that cannot notice the ocean. Thus, Althusser believes we are controlled by ideologies that circulated and produced by agencies. Their ideas of what is right or wrong, what we can or cannot are inflicted upon us, brainwashing us until we believe that these ideologies are the way of life (Althusser, 1969). This explains, television as a tool of representation does not merely ‘mirror realities’, it constitutes versions of reality in which depend on the social positions and interest and objectives of those who produce them (Çamur, 2004). As Lasswell famously states in 1948, ‘Who (says) What (to) Whom (in) What Channel (with) What effect’, is important.

Many mainstream media in Turkey controlled by few powerful cooperation, therefore, the issues are more likely to be defined by and to reflect the interest of dominant social groups. When this happens, less powerful groups such as the poor are at risk of being devaluated and stereotyped in the media. Popular television programmes present the poor in a distorted and negative manner and they support negative stereotypes about low-income people by framing techniques that present poverty as an individual problem rather than a societal issue rooted in political and economic inequality (Bullock, 2001).

Charity Programmes

In Turkey, especially in 1990s, we see a growing numbers of charity programmes and organizations which provides the poor with aid. Besides the large number of them, what they have in common is the representation of the poor as objects of pity and aid and dramatizing of them by visual and aural techniques such as slow motion, black and white photographs, limited motions and music, etc. It is here claimed that critical discourse analysis of the charity programmes shows that poverty is naturalized and legitimized, being made no reference to economic, social and political context of poverty (Çamur, 2004). First to get a complete picture, I will briefly refer to history of charity programmes in Turkey. In the following analysis, it will be shown the political, cultural and ideological discourses that shape the structure of the television programmes, particularly, ‘Evim Şahane’, as well as the aural and visual representation of poverty in this programme will be examined.

In Turkey, representation of poverty in charity programmes shows that it has been dramatized and romanticized. When we look at the historical background of charity programme, in 1996, ‘Şehir ve Ramazan’ was started as a broadcasting programme in Channel 7 and it was a first of its kind. The programme started in the month of Ramadan then the same format of it continued after Ramadan under another name as ‘Deniz Feneri Association’ programme in 1997, presented by Uğur Arslan and İbrahim Uğurlu (Koçak, 2014). Today, it continues its charity campaign as a charity organization. According to website of the association, it is defined as ‘an association which works for public interest and can collect without permission’ and ‘until now 1.709.603 human, total 3.848.750 times got donations’[2]. Further, the programme, namely ‘Kimse Yok mu’ appeared on Samanyolu channel in 2002 as a television program aimed to help ‘unfortunate, needy, and hopeless people and it was granted Public Interest Association status in 2006. In addition, a programme called ‘Yolcu’ that broadcasted on Samanyolu channel as well and it presented ‘the journey of the extraordinary lives to love’ (Çamur, 2004). Another programme titled ‘Yarınlar Umut Olsun’ broadcasting in ATV to gather financial assistance for the people in need and being their hope.

Evim Şahane

Evim Şahane which appeared on Kanal D for the first time in March 5, 2012 as a daytime home makeover show presented by interior designer, Selim Yuhay. Different than above mentioned charity programmes, it contains in which decoration, architecture, entertainment, design and aid for poor people all together. The programme has been recorded 394 episodes since 2012. In the first time it appeared, the format was decorating and renewing the houses of ‘rich’ people by wrecking kitchens, cutting curtains, breaking tables, destroying everything that they called as ‘old’. After so many critics have been made about this wasteful attitude of the programme, it changed its format then started to ‘robbing from the rich and giving to the poor’. In this context, the biggest problem of Evim Şahane, though, is its tone about poverty. Although the programme is proud of helping so many poor people with ‘aid’ by decorating the houses, it represent the poverty as something unimportant and even ridiculous through pretending to solve the problems of the poor. The most significant characteristic of the programme that can be observed entire show is visual and aural language of it on representation of the poor. It represents the scenes about the poor and their houses in slow-motion in order to dramatize the poverty. As Erdoğan points out the slow motion is the visual metaphor of ‘carrying the burden of the world’ on one’s shoulders. (Çamur, 2004)

For instance, December 13, 2014 dated episode of Evim Şahane filmed the life of Cemile who lives with her three children after the death of her husband in an accident. In the shots that are taken in their house, firstly, there is a stress on the lack of space in the house and the presenter, Selim Yuhay asks:

‘We have approximately 18-20 square feet space and four people living together, actually, I just wander how do you sleep in here?’[3]

The children as an important components of the visually of poverty gives the details about their life in interviews and they say;

‘I cannot invite my friends to my home’[4]

And as an answer the question that the presenter asked;

‘I and my sister are sleeping together, my mom and my other sister are sleeping together’[5]

Also, the camera shots every part of the house, there is no privacy, even the toilet of the house are represented. The voiceover stresses that because of the lack of space the ‘clever’ but the ‘poor’ little girls study in the toilet of the house as a result of lack of space.

According to the logic of the programme, the reason behind the poverty of this family is the loss of the father, yet, everything is great when their home in the hand of the presenter of the programme, Selim Yuhay. After restoration and design made by Selim Yuhay, the clever little girls do not have to do their homework in the toilet anymore, because now they have a table with a remarkable style that resting on the marble legs, combining modern design with classic style in its wooden white lacquered structure in a room decorated according to the latest trends in order to bring a sense of ‘richness.

In this context, the programme back grounded social, political and economic problems of poverty. It focuses the image of sad and crying children to dramatize the poverty. Poverty is indicated through slow motion that companied with a slow and sad music, black and white photographs to create emotional influence on the audience. Further, the programme represent well-decorated, new and modern house as a solution of the poverty without cultural, political and economic context of poverty. Also, the reason of poverty individualized such as the loss of the father, in this respect, Aysel Çamur states;

‘In these programmes, to the extent that poverty is associated with inferior life chances, poverty and deprivation of the people are reduced into personal problems and personal defects.’

The portrayals of poverty on television and reality of it in Turkey is well illustrated in the study made by Necmi Erdoğan. The reality of poverty is totally different than the media coverage of the poor. Thus, media shapes misperceptions of the poor with television programmes. Erdogan analyses the portrayals of the poor and he blames the way that television programmes using to represent the poverty is being ‘pornography of poverty (Erdoğan, 2002). He famously writes;

‘The object of both porno films and the shows about the poor is the body and they both “expose” what is called private. The poor on the screens are like the women on the pornos. One always desires the penis while the other desires bread or pills; one is phallocentric while the other is gastronomical or pathological. One is there to arouse your libido, yet the other activates your conscience”. (Çamur, 2004)

Therefore, critical discourse analysis of programme shows how the emotions of the audience are evoked for making aid through slow motion and close shots are used like the ones in pornography. In addition, it points out poverty represented as an individual problem rather than being societal issue that rooted in political and economic reasons.

Art as Pornography of Poverty

When we turn our discussion from television programmes to the charitable organizations in Turkey such as Kimse Yok Mu, IH, what we see is the use of art as pornography of poverty, especially as an advertisement technique in order to collect money by ‘connecting’ people emotionally. Charity organizations use most commonly photographs of starving babies, refugees as other ‘helpless and passive objects’ for leading to pessimism and convincing people for charity. (Oliver, 2006). Thus, charitable agencies have been raising tremendous amonts of money but perhaps doing profound damage of the same time by using representation of the poor by begging eyes, distended bellies and starving souls. Portrayals like these are no accidents. The rationale goes like this: the happy Picture do not attract the money. Nor do complex explanations of why people are suffering (Nathanson, 2013).

For instance, Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a Sudanese child and a vulture reached a great fame and has been used by charity organizations for fundraising campaigns about poverty. In March 1993, Kevin Carter took the iconic photograph of a Sudanese child who stalked by a vulture sold to the New York Times  and was carried in many other newspapers around the world. The photo was so stunning and many people contacted the newspaper to question the questioned the fate of the child, yet, Carter had no answer. With the success of the image came a lot of controversy, an article printed in 1994 in the St Petersburg Times commented on the morality of Carter’s actions and the photograph has been critised as poverty porn, ‘the man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene,’ (Stamets cited in Ricchiardi, 1999). To this end, Kevin Carter committed suicide. Overall, many criticism have been made but the photograph positively and negatively, as well as the moral dilemma about the photograph. Yet one thing is clear that the photograph was the poverty porn.


All in all, in this paper, I have tried to show how poverty is represented in the media by examining media images of the poor and the prevalence of pornography of poverty on Turkish television. First, I have focused on the relation among the media, representation and poverty to show how poverty is represented ideologically and politically by mainstream media in Turkey. In the following analysis, to get a complete picture, I have referred to the historical background of charity programmes in Turkey. Since my particular focus was the programme, namely, Evim Şahane, I have examined how poverty is represented in this programme. Even though, the programme individualizes the poverty through detaching it from its political and ideological reasons, it gives voice to the poor who made invisible by the media. However, as Erdoğan (2002) expresses, to make the poor talk in front of the cameras does not mean to expose the “real” and “authentic” voice of the poor.



Adorno, T. How to Look at Television, the Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture.

Althusser, L. (1969). “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”

Bullock, H. E. (2001). Media Images of the Poor. Journal of Social Issues, 2, 229-246.

Çamur, A. (2004). Charity Programmes: Representations of Poverty in Turkish Television

Erdoğan, N. (2002). Ağır Çekim Yoksulluk. N. Erdoğan, Yoksulluk Halleri. Demokrasi Kitaplığı.

Kellner, D.M. and Durham, M.G. (2001). Adventures in Media and Cultural Studies: Introducing the Key Works. D. K. Durham, Media and Cultural Studies Key Works. Oxford: Blackwell.

Koçak, R. (2014). The Deniz Feneri Association Model in Humane Aid. Turkish World NGO Summit / Papers 145-150. Retrieved on January 14, 2015, from:

Lain, D. (2011). Five Steps for Understanding Althusser’s Concept of Ideology Without Going Insane. Retrieved on January 14, 2015, from:

Nathanson, J. (2013). The Pornography of Poverty: Reframing the Discourse of International Aid’s Representations of Starving Children. Canadian Journal of Communication, 38, p.103-120.

Oliver, A. (2006). The ‘Pornography of Poverty’ and ‘Brothel without Walls’: Understanding the Impact of Art on Development. Undercurrent, 3(2).

Ricchiardi, S. (1999), ‘Confronting the Horror’. American Journalism Review, January/February 1999.

Safo, A. (2002). NGOs present false images of Africa. News from Africa. Retrieved on January 15, 2015, from:



[1] Althusser argues that there are in fact two kinds of State apparatuses: the Repressive State Apparatus and the Ideological State Apparatus. The former includes the “institutions” of the Government, the Administration, the Army, the Police, the Courts, the Prisons, etc. The latter includes the religious ISA (the system of the different Churches), the educational such as school, the family, the legal, political, cultural and finally the media (press, radio and television, etc.

[2] For more information:

[3] 18-20 metre kara bir alanımız var ve dört kişi yaşıyorsunuz, burada nasıl yattığınızı merak ediyorum.

[4] Ben arkadaşlarımı getiremiyorum eve.

[5] Ablamla ikimiz yatıyoruz, annemle de diğer ablam yatıyor.



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