Posing for ‘poverty porn’: The murky ethics of NGO fundraising ‘hero shots’

Sunrise Cambodia's recent ad campaign kicked off a firestorm of Twitter controversy.
Sunrise Cambodia's recent ad campaign kicked off a firestorm of Twitter controversy.

Posing for ‘poverty porn’: The murky ethics of NGO fundraising ‘hero shots’

The young girl in Sunrise Cambodia’s recent fundraising campaign has been labelled a “sex worker” in glossy typeface. Her face is smeared with dirt. She is accompanied by a “trafficked kid” and a “homeless teen” on the page.

The campaign, launched on April 17 to capture donations through the end of the fiscal year, had raised $162,956 at press time for the Australian organisation. But the ads – which say the money will go to vocational training programs – have earned ire from Sunrise’s peers.

Weh Yeoh, the director of OIC Cambodia, ignited a social-media firestorm last week when he tweeted the images. “I’m pretty sure this breaches all kinds of standards around positive portrayal of children,” he wrote. (Yeoh declined to comment for this story.) Sunrise’s chief executive and fundraising mastermind, Lucy Perry, quickly fired back: the models were paid, she said, and the ads drew donations.

Others soon piled on, labelling it “poverty porn”. The campaign and ensuing discussion raised a familiar question for development NGOs: When does a photo portraying local context – and children – do more harm than good?

Child-focused organisations sometimes commodify images: clean copy for support, and powerful photos for funds. But if the subject of a photo is dirty, in distress, or identifiable, some argue, the image serves only to exploit.

“The ’80s are calling – they want their pics of fly-covered starving African children back,” wrote Celia Boyd of Phnom Penh’s SHE Investments, on Twitter. “[The ad] seems to blatantly ignore the idea of portraying children as human beings with dignity,” she added in an email to Post Weekend.

Some simply questioned the ad’s chosen focus. “Why not [opt] to portray the children AFTER getting the benefit of an education?” one tweeter suggested.

But Perry, who is based in Sydney, argued that the ends justify the means. “It’s the only way to bring the horror home to generous Aussies,” she tweeted. “They won’t donate if you show a picture of a seamstress looking happy.”

Others beg to differ.

“Just because it raises money, it doesn’t make it right,” fellow Australian Leigh Mathews, of Re/Think Orphanages, said this week. On Wednesday, her organisation delivered a letter of complaint to Sunrise’s board of directors, signed by 22 others.

Friends International’s 2011 campaign (left) put models in a box; CCF hosts ‘Transformation Tuesday’ (right) on its website. Photo supplied
Friends International’s 2011 campaign put models in a box. Photo supplied

In Mathews’ eyes, the campaign is unethical, models or not. “They’re not a dignified representation for children. They are dark,” she said. “Best practice is to show kids as they usually are . . . And if any of this [the accompanying stories] is remotely true, that’s a complete breach of [the children’s] rights.”

The Australia Cambodia Foundation (ACF), which oversees Sunrise and partners with nine other child-focused NGOs operating in Cambodia, has its own child-protection policy. It states that children “will always be portrayed in a respectful manner”.

Australian organisations can volunteer to abide by standards from the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), Mathews explained. ACFID insists on “dignified” images of local individuals and communities. But these standards remain rooted in the donor country, if at all.

On the ground, the issue comes down to informed consent, said Anna McKeon, a Phnom Penh-based communications consultant. Most children’s organisations run images of their activities in their fundraising materials, and have their own strict guidelines. With candid photos, informed consent is easily obtained when a guardian signs a child up for a program.

But a focus on an individual story – described in the industry as a “hero shot” – requires more than a signature, McKeon said. “You need to sit down with the family. You have to explain the wording, and what the impact would be for them,” she said. And if the paid model in the photo benefits from the organisation, things become more complicated. “Yes, it’s informed consent, but ethically it’s a minefield,” she said.

The identity of the kids in Sunrise’s campaign remains murky. Perry described them on Twitter as “paid models”, “real people” and “internal resources”. In an email to Post Weekend yesterday, she confirmed the “models” were children who live near a Sunrise orphanage and healthcare centre.

Sunrise Cambodia’s own story is rooted in the 1990s, when Australian Geraldine Cox “took in” a group of children she met along the Thai border. Sunrise is the kind of influential organisation from which local ones might take cues, according to McKeon.

Based on an orphanage model, which according to Sunrise is moving toward community-based care, it derived support from Cox’s appearances in international media over the years – accompanied by children’s stories. Cox remains Sunrise’s president, as well as the president of the board of directors at ACF.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
CCF hosts ‘Transformation Tuesday’ on its website. Photo supplied

But it’s not the only children’s organisation with “hero shots”. The Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF), founded by Scott Neeson in 2004, frequently runs individual stories on its website and on Neeson’s personal Facebook page.

The website features “Transformation Tuesday” images of kids holding photos of their pre-program selves – often dirty and in tattered clothes – alongside a “donate” link. Sometimes children are pictured in distress. A February photo posted to Neeson’s page with a description of a highly publicised crime story left the young victim easily identifiable.

A spokesman said this week that all of CCF’s images were in line with its media policy, which – like ACF’s – seeks to protect children’s identities and dignity.

Cambodia’s most infamous case of donor exploitation revolved around Somaly Mam, who resigned from her eponymous sex-trafficking foundation two years ago over allegations of deception and mismanaged funds.

Since the early 1990s, Mam had collected donations by winning hearts. But her fabrication extended to her “girls”: investigations by the Cambodia Daily and US publication Newsweek found not only Mam’s story, but many of theirs – retold to Oprah and the New York Times – to be falsehoods. A recent fundraising campaign for Mam’s rebranded organisation features a simple abstract design.

Other organisations have countered “poverty porn” with awareness-raising ads. Friends International, which works to keep children out of institutions, has run a series of highly publicised campaigns, also featuring children (none beneficiaries, communications director James Sutherland assured).

Campaigns in 2011 and 2014 placed children in transparent display cases and boxes to highlight the harms of orphanage tourism. “We don’t follow the unfortunately common ‘pity charity’ models of fundraising,” Sutherland said. “Our campaigns . . . are designed to push people into thinking about the consequences of their actions.”

But when it comes to many donors, the images of children used in marketing materials – “models” or not – remain part of a bottom-line calculation.

“It’s about pulling heartstrings and making people want to give,” said Sophal Ear, a professor at Occidental College in the US and the author of a book on aid dependence in Cambodia. “And these impressions can be enough to wring [millions] out of donors.”

For her part, Lucy Perry of Sunrise made these priorities clear.

“I am sure you can appreciate that with only 37 days left in the financial year and $430,000 yet to raise, I just don’t have the time to give you minute details [on the campaign],” she said in an email. “Onwards!”

A previous version of this article stated that Sunrise Cambodia's fundraising campaign started on April 16. In fact, it started on April 17.

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