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The curse of the girl in the red coat: how we view poverty in Britain

As poverty levels rise among children, pensioners, and people in work, charities are trying to reframe how we see poverty portrayed in the media.

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You’ve probably seen it. It appears on over three billion web pages across the world, after all. A faceless girl, wearing a bright scarlet coat and running away from the camera along an alley between the backs of dilapidated brick houses.

This is the stock photo from Getty Images, an image site used by journalists, that is mostly used to illustrate stories about poverty in the UK. It was taken by the photographer Christopher Furlong in Manchester in February 2011 and is of a young girl spending “the half-term school holiday playing in an alleyway”, according to the photo caption.

It is a striking image, and followed a story about child poverty in the location it depicts, the inner suburb of Gorton, a suburb where 11 people (three adults and eight children) were found to be living in a two-bedroom terraced house.

If you still can’t picture it, here it is:


Getty

Another image, particularly popular with the picture editors of UK poverty stories, is of a little boy with no arms, kicking a football outside a graffiti-covered derelict building with overgrown grass and a shopping trolley in front of it. A Google Image search finds 3,440,000,000 results.


Getty

This was taken by Jeff J Mitchell for Getty Images in 2008, in the Govan area of Glasgow. Search the New Statesman website, and you can probably find plenty of uses of these images on there too. And expect to see them cropping up across the media today, with the release of the annual poverty monitoring report by UK poverty charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).

Its findings are grim. One in five of the UK population lives in poverty, with levels rising for children and pensioners over the last five years. In-work poverty has also increased – with 56 per cent of people in poverty in a working family, compared with 39 per cent 20 years ago. The UK child poverty rate is at a record high, with four million in poverty in 2017/18.

Yet anti-poverty charities in Britain, such as the JRF, are trying to fight against the use of stock images like the ones above to depict poverty.

“Any story about poverty in the news or in the paper, it’s usually the same image that’s used – ones down back alleys, the girl in the red coat – if these are the images people are seeing when they’re reading stories about poverty, it’s really reinforcing a certain perception of what poverty looks and feels like to people,” says Abigail Scott Paul, deputy director of advocacy and public engagement at the JRF. 

She says the British public picks up “cultural frames” from the repeated use of certain images – such as a “sense of fatalism, like there’s nothing you can do about it”, and a “pattern of thinking about the cycle of poverty – that there are communities or particular groups of people for whom that will always be the case,” she says.

“This inadvertently cements that view of ‘that’s what these places are like’, and it’s quite othering. It’s not about a group of people over there, this is about all of us. It’s in all our interests to right the wrong of poverty.”

For two years, her organisation has been researching how to frame stories about poverty to engage the public. It found that people living in poverty themselves felt stigmatised by the mainstream images used by broadcast and print media.

“They feel that imagery and visuals can actually reinforce stereotypes and prejudices,” Scott Paul tells me. “People feel victimised, presented as helpless victims, or often in ‘gritty’ parts of the country.”

Of course, as the JRF’s revelations about the levels of in-work poverty expose, these stereotypes do not represent the millions living in poverty. To stop this trend, Scott Paul believes organisations telling these stories, like hers, must communicate with the public differently.

“We realise the way the public thinks about poverty is a real barrier to getting the policy change needed, so we are working really hard to build public will,” she says.

Using a research body called the FrameWork Institute – which tested public attitudes towards poverty in the UK among 20,000 people – her organisation discovered that simply using the language of “compassion” and “justice” (instead of “empathy” and “fairness”, which turn the public off) led to a notable rise in engagement with stories about poverty online.

The use of metaphors, such as being “trapped” or “locked” in poverty and “pulled” into it by an invisible “current” (needing welfare to “anchor” you), can also capture the public’s imagination.

“It’s really easy to fall into ‘crisis’ and ‘emergency’ language and chuck in a load of stats at people, but that doesn’t work; that strategy of trying to persuade more people to care about poverty in the UK,” she says.

Indeed, as a journalist who often covers such topics, I’ve started to grow frustrated with what I call “paper poverty” action – the proliferation of bleak statistics, charity reports and select committee findings that provoke hand-wringing from the opposition and defensive government responses, but are rarely matched by action.

To demonstrate its changes, the JRF has included a photo of a happy young girl wearing wellingtons and jumping into a puddle to illustrate its latest report, and has also commissioned a photography exhibition with Comic Relief entitled Picture Britain: Our People, Our Poverty, which will be held at London’s Borough Market from 19 February to 8 March this year.

The photos depict people as having hope, love, humour – three-dimensional portrayals captured by photographer Jillian Edelstein, who has simply asked her subjects since 2017 what was precious to them.

“It’s really difficult to go up to people and say ‘Are you poor?’ or ‘Are you struggling?’” she tells me. “I needed to think of some narrative that would engage people, so I thought I’d ask the question: ‘What is the thing you could not live without?’”

Accustomed to seeing pictures and footage of “weeping kids, homeless people, bowed heads and subservience, waiting for help, ragged clothes and barefoot” in the media, she wanted instead to “empower” the people she photographed.


Jillian Edelstein

“We’re working out how to widen the lens of storytelling, so the public can really see that there are systems and structures that trap people in poverty that we need to fix, rather than to fix individuals as if it’s their own fault,” says Scott Paul.

“How can we tell a new story about poverty? A new narrative, with new imagery in people’s minds to drown out those unhelpful ones?”

Picture Britain: Our People, Our Poverty opens in Borough Market, London, on 19 February and runs until 8 March 2020

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.