Homes along the bank of the Tonlé Sap river near Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 2009. Photo: Adam Inglis.

For those not yet familiar with the phraseology, “poverty-porn”, “development-porn”, and “conflict-porn”, are stock expressions sometimes used to describe imagery of “suffering” individuals in the so-called “third world”.

This type of imagery is used by NGOs for marketing purposes, or, published as news to inform the viewing public about humanitarian problems happening in communities outside of their own.

When it’s exploitative, it sensationalizes the condition of the “poor” in order to make money—be it to sell newspapers, or attract donors.

While I agree that this can be cause for ethical concern, I’ve come to the view that likening it to pornography is perhaps, unhelpful.

Pornography describes the depiction of erotic behavior, intended to cause sexual excitement. Porn is created to generate profit too, but for very different reasons.

Sure, there are obvious parallels. Critics argue both empower the wrong person—objectifying and exploiting their subject in order to generate revenue.

“Porn” as a descriptor in the context of suffering, conflict, poverty and tragedy, however, is a misnomer. Its use only simplifies complicated humanitarian issues in similar ways that the exploitative media it’s referencing does.

Whatever your moral view of pornography—unless it involves children or non-consenting adults, its consumption and commodification don’t violate anyone’s rights.

Photographs showing human suffering and rights abuses, however, are fundamentally different. They show something that should not exist, and yet it does. This distinction is critical.

Even if you think that sex should be a private act, rights abuses, torture, famine, and other humanitarian issues need to be illuminated and exposed for all to see. The fact that they are kept hidden from the viewing public is one reason they remain a problem.

“Why is the teller, rather than the tale, considered obscene — and in any case, aren’t some of the world’s obscenities worthy of our attention?” writes Susie Linfield in The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence.

The flippant use of “porn” as a descriptor functions only to shame. It hinders meaningful and multilayered discussions about ethical use, framing, and context.

Photographs function most effectively by appealing to our emotional sensibilities. Photographers create emotional connections between their subject and viewer—done well—successful images are able to ignite ideas about broader issues in ways that textual communication simply cannot.

Yes—this can, of course, simplify and individualize of complicated issues. And yes—victims of rights abuses are rarely alone (famine and war affect entire communities). Yet, Kevin Carter’s 1993 image of one starving Sudanese girl, or, Nilüfer Demir’s 2015 pictures of a drowned Syrian boy lying face down on the shores of Bodrum, revealed a situation many in the developed world were, until then, too busy to notice.

We can and should still call out unethical and exploitative images and media when we see them. Those discussions are evolving and important. Not calling it porn doesn’t change that. Let’s just get the terminology right and stop with the hypocrisy and loaded language.