Wednesday, July 22, 2009

travel to exotic locations, meet adorable children, and shoot them

This is a guest post written for swpd by bookpenporch, who describes herself as a writer and graduate student based in the U.S. Midwest. She reads, writes and thinks about growing up in the rural U.S. South, and about race in literature and public discourse.

At my undergraduate institution in the U.S., 60% of the students “study abroad.” I was among this 60%, studying history in Prague and Shakespeare at Oxford. At some point, consciously or unconsciously, I did many of the things that make people in Europe annoyed with U.S. American college students: I made too much noise in my residential apartment building, refused to attempt more than a few words in the national language, and ate pizza and McDs instead of potato dumplings and blood sausages. I wasn’t the worst, though, and I knew that the less noise I made, the more I would learn, and the more respectful I would be of the people around me who happened to live in a popular tourist spot for privileged U.S. students.

Some of my college friends went to countries and cities in impoverished regions of the world on their international trips. Some had grants, some had Daddy’s Amex, some were conducting research, some were with NGOs, church missions groups, medically-focused non-profits, but almost all had a need for an interesting grad school essay or job interview topic.

And, like me, all of them returned to the U.S. with hundreds of pictures to post on Facebook. My pictures were of the ridiculously beautiful architecture in Prague and Oxford. Cultural appropriation, check. I was taking such photos from a position of privilege, but the friends and classmates I mentioned above came back with pictures that somehow grated on me much more than my 50 shots of the Charles Bridge.

You see, these pictures -- and there are hundreds of them on Facebook, and elsewhere on the net -- feature adorable children. Real children. Children that bear no relation to the owner of said picture. Children looking lost or reluctantly smiling at the beaming white person that, so this white person would like to imagine, Saved Them From The Jungles/Deserts of Africa/the Caribbean/South America/Southeast Asia. You know, for a week. And then left for a day of lounging on the country’s beautiful coast, and then for a cushioned airplane seat, and then for a comfortable desk in an air-conditioned home, where they uploaded the pictures of the poor, poor children whose lives they changed forever in just one day/week/month.

And it’s not just college students. I know many working adults who do this, too.

Wait a minute, you might say, that’s harsh. They were probably delivering medical supplies, building a school, delivering mosquito nets. Surely these photos are not evidence of a thinly veiled excuse for an “exotic” (ooh, there’s that word) vacation; this is philanthropy, global community service, not a tourism trend!

Don’t worry, I know that nonprofits sometimes perform wonders. My own husband is a medical professional engaged in public health research. Good people with good intentions often do good things for others. Got it.

But I sometimes want to say to such travelers, try to turn the tables for a moment. Imagine that a stranger that does not speak your language walks into your community and starts taking pictures of and with your cousins, the kids you babysit, and your own little ones. Also, imagine that this stranger is well dressed and the kids in your neighborhood do not have shoes. And then imagine that these pictures of your children will be posted online for everyone to see, but you don't have the internet. Nor a camera for that matter.

Then, imagine that these strangers taking pictures would feel some sense of nobility, of self-worth, of an earned knowledge about your community and life, just by owning and displaying said pictures.

To most if not all white folks reading this, and maybe even to most U.S. Americans, this reversed scenario is almost impossible to fathom, and even brings to mind the number for the local Neighborhood Watch and NBC’s “To Catch a Predator.”

Speaking of white folks, how many times have you seen a picture of a person of color with his/her arms around destitute white children in Eastern Europe? Hugging white kids at a free clinic in rural Kentucky? A white person holding a cute Parisian child she saw on the street during her business trip to the City of Love? If these pictures are out there, I haven’t seen them.

Why, faithful readers of this excellent blog, do white folks travel to exotic locations, meet adorable children, and shoot them? Is this trend, in fact, another example of the stuff white people do? I’ll offer a few reasons why I think it is, but I’m mostly interested in what you think.

Here are my thoughts:

Appropriation and exploitation -- As a white person living in the U.S., it is not only my privilege but my feel-good habit/hobby/vacation option to swoop into a country about which I know nothing, drop a few boxes of shoes, take pictures with children while their parents/aunts/cousins/grandparents watch, and to in the process somehow claim these children as my own. I vicariously experience their suffering, capture it in a still frame, and somehow feel more alive in my neoliberal, disconnected, consumerist living experience. I, the almighty white woman, have been to Africa and nursed her children out of the throes of malnutrition and disease. Her children are my children. Madonna, meet Malawi.

In these photographs, children are exploited to build social capital. It is so last year, so K-mart middle America to take a vacation; real liberals wouldn’t do that. I can’t help but think of the commercials for Sasha Cohen’s new movie, Bruno, in which he adopts an African baby because Angelina and Madonna have one, and in which he also states, “I’m really into issues. Darfur’s a big one. So what’s next, what’s Dar-five?” Your “experience” in South America can become just another item to check off the bucket list, a line on your resume, fodder for a great graduate school application.

Assuagement of our dear friend, White Guilt -- Sometimes I think this phenomenon is another one of those things we white folks do to feel better about our privilege, a visual reminder that, though we might not be able to do much about the fact that we like our Nikes and we like them cheap, we can sleep in the only concrete room in a village for a week, drop a few boxes of malaria meds, and call it even. And even come home with invaluable souvenirs to remind us of just how much those sweet little children looked up to us! I have four cars while a billion people (most of whom don’t happen to be white) on the planet are starving, but I went on a missions trip, and look how happy I made this malnutritioned little boy!

All of the above reminds me of the quote that macon borrowed about a year ago for a rather similar post, from bell hooks’ essay “Eating the Other”:

The desire to make contact with those bodies deemed Other, with no apparent will to dominate, assuages the guilt of the past, and even takes the form of a defiant gesture where one denies accountability and historical connection. Most importantly, it establishes a contemporary narrative where the suffering imposed by structures of domination on those designated Other is deflected by an emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other.

And yet, in these photographs one doesn’t just become the Other; s/he becomes in a sense the source of the Other, the womb from which the life of the Other springs, the nurturer, protector, guardian and savior of the Other. A white woman holding a Honduran child like she conceived, birthed, and nursed him assuages white guilt. It also exploits the Other by reestablishing the hierarchy in which white people are the source of all that is good in life, including both the poor, suffering, adorable Other-child, and the aid that will end his/her suffering.

Maybe that’s a stretch; more likely, it’s not.

What do you think?


  1. Macon, you sure are timely, aren't you?

  2. I was in Tanzania for 2 weeks in May visiting my 22 year old son who is in the peace corp. I feel as you do that it is inappropriate to take pictures of the locals. I believe it is a money issue, you can take pictures of people with more money than you but not less money than you.

  3. I like that someone else noticed this.
    I was born in the US but lived in Tasmania most of my elementary years, with various jaunts to India, Venezuela and Northern Africa - it was part of our life - and that maybe is what made the difference, but it always annoyed the hell out of me to see how people not of this country used photos of people from other paces as decorations of sorts. There just seemed to be no way to explain to them how utterly ignorant it made them look.

  4. Simply wonderful. It's nice to see genuine insight. And rare.

  5. I've long felt discomfort when I'd be looking through a Flickr gallery and come across pictures of children from Third World countries, who bear no blood or marriage relation to the poster. I was never quite sure exactly why that was, but this post gave me some serious food for thought. It feels like taking a picture of somebody in that way ("look how interesting this person is! dark and skinny and exotic!") dehumanizes them and makes them a decoration/trophy of sorts.

    I mean, seriously, if somebody offered *my* kid a dollar to snap their picture, I would NOT be cool with that. The average white person would probably never think to just start snapping pics of a white child that wasn't their own (or a child known to them such as a friend's child), yet it's okay to go somewhere else and start snapping pics of children elsewhere in the world... because the perception is that they just don't deserve the same dignity as our own children.

    I wonder, would the average white person (who wouldn't snap a random pic of a white child, but would snap a pic of a random child from a Third World country) have any problems with going to somewhere with a much lower socioeconomic status than their own (but still within their own country) and take pictures of children in poverty there? Or would the expectation-of-privacy extend to everyone within their country?

  6. i'm glad to see this posted--the author makes some very valid points. thinking about this post made me also think of trophy pictures, where the subject is a white person with their prize (in this case, it's the poor poor children--there's also a frightening history of white people taking photos where the trophy is a dead black person, which is another reason why this post resonates so sharply).

    i was in oxford studying shakespeare about two years ago (i now loathe shakespeare, but i digress). it never occurred to me to take pictures of people there. i thought it might be inappropriate or rude. i did take pictures of performers though. strangely enough, my friend and i had our pictures taken by other tourists while we were there. we would stop to draw some of the architecture, and sit on the ground. One man (i think he was Russian) took a picture of my friend and gave us both a thumbs up, and another time a group of
    Asian tourists took turns taking pictures with us. they didn't speak english, so we never knew why. but it's certainly different in this case because i was privileged to go at all. i was an American tourist getting my picture taken by other tourists; plus there wasn't that race-power thing like it would have been if i'd taken pictures with locals, especially those who are less privileged, and even more especially if those locals were non-white.

    that shot with kim kardasian gave me serious "trophy shot" vibes.

  7. This is great. A friend of mine complained about this to me about a decade ago. We're both African American and don't appreciate this nonsense either. Anyway, years ago, I included my friend's annoyance in a scene I wrote for a fictional piece. Here goes:

    Clarisse dreamed of visiting Africa, fingering the dirt from which her ancestors sprang. She glared at pictures the mostly white groups of students who journeyed there flaunted after their return—pink arms hooked around smiling dark children. “Is it, like, law for them to pose with the kids?” she’d ask.

  8. Blanche, I agree with filthygrandeur, that kardashian picture screams, "look, i'm famous like angelina! i love africa too!"

    Celebrity stunts like this aren't uncommon, but I wonder if they exist on a spectrum with Brad Pitt in New Orleans after Katrina and Bono in... well... everywhere, all the way to this kind of stunt, or if those are separate issues.

    Cooper, I've seen these "decorations" you speak of as well; more commonly on a facebook page, but also framed on a living room wall.

  9. I wonder if it's because the children are of a "lower caste" than them; they would never go to England or Italy or France and do that with a local child there.
    It seems so exploitative and patronizing.

  10. I appreciated this post and the thought you put into. I agree with you mostly and for me, I think it comes down to the context of photos of this sort. For example, I know several people who have spent long periods of time (from months to years) in Peace Corps, mission trips etc. who take and post pictures of themselves with children that they interacted with over a long period of time and had a relationship with. In photos like this where the adult knew the children and their community, the kids generally look genuinely happy (or at least not outright uncomfortable) just like any kid pretty much anywhere looks like with their teachers, camp counselors, or other important adult in their life. I view photos in this situation similarly to how I view photos that camp counselors or whatever post of kids of all races taken in the US where I live. (Of course there are potential privacy issues when posting pics of ANY child that's not your own).

    I do 100% agree that it's exploitative (not to mention CREEPY) to take pictures of kids you don't know from Adam to showcase your "exotic" vacation. And I also agree that there are perhaps arguments to be made that English teachers abroad, the Peace Corps, and mission trips are various manifestations of the "white people must save the world" vein of thought and this post is great for getting people to critically examine these issues.

  11. The intense focus in the comments on children as photographic subjects feels to me like a bit of a red herring. Because while the phenomenon of rich white college kids from the US going to various African countries (often South Africa, for its perceived relative safety) and posing with a big group of black children is a very consistently documented trend, it is only a small part of the larger problem with the way that privileged students use gratuitously huggy photos of themselves with the locals who they were "serving"/aiding or working with to illustrate their facebooks.

    This is a phenomenon that started to really bother me after a huge group of students from my school (including many people I know) came back from Venezuela, and began changing their profile pictures to snapshots of themselves with old-ish rural Chavez supporters. The photos of the children, as well as those of the local NGO workers/townies/patients etc seem to use those locals as props to prove that not only were they there, but they were, Like, Involved and stuff, that they were doing something that was valued, that these strangers were going to remember Them fondly. I see a lot of it as a weird sort of perfectionist validation ploy. Or, in the case of the people who posted the irritating Venezuela pix, to bolster their political credibility.

    I guess that I agree then with the main point that the primary purpose of the photos is to use images of an other to make oneself look good for shallow reasons, but get there through slightly different reasoning.

    The point that the OP touched on briefly about how these sorts of travels look on college/grad school/other types of application is one I wish she would expand on a little.

  12. Oh, also...

    As an amateur who once had pretensions of becoming a for-real photographer, I want to defend the idea of taking pictures of strangers, especially in the context of daily life (rather then portraits of yourself awkwardly posed with people as props).

    I like to shoot people. People are interesting subjects, especially when going about their routines. Too often our images of ourselves and of others are taken under extraordinary or unusual circumstances, and that photographic record doesn't reflect the visual landscape of daily life (in all its depth and texture and visual interest).

    Like many of the straw-students mentioned earlier I generally do not take pictures of people I do not know when I am in my usual surroundings. This is not because the potential subjects are white, or because of some level of "we're the same", but because this is America, and in America people are super paranoid about stranger danger, about creepers, and are very likely to make a scene if they happen to be in the frame you are shooting (irritating when at crowded tourist attractions). For me, at least, stepping into crowded public events, or out of my home state, tends to loosen that level of self-censorship, because if someone objects to being in or around my picture then at least it won't become a Big Embarrassing Thing in a my comfort zone, or where people I know might hear, where I might see that person again.

    Being in another country adds to that sense of privacy one feels when photographing place/people outside of ones own little social ecosystem. The likelihood of your ever seeing the people who are in the margins of your photos, or are subjects, is slim. And if someone calls out out for taking pictures of public activity then at least its happening somewhere where you won't have to be repeatedly, where the momentary embarrassment of a faux pas can be contained and moved beyond.

    Sorry to wax poetical. My fear of getting yelled at when taking pictures of participants and audiences at fairs and parades is intense, and this is a topic I've spent WAAAY too much time thinking about.

  13. I enjoyed this article and agree with most of the assertions made. However, the feeling that this was making a mountain out of a molehill was hard to shake at times. Or rather, that we were lumping all instances of white people taking photos of poor, black children together.

    I don't think taking photos of the OTHER always has these seedy undertones. We are all different, our cultures are different, and yes, there are people with wealth and people without, but all that makes the world a very interesting place and I don't think we need feel guilty about being interested in other people. And in this day and age taking photos is the "in" thing. Few of us keep diaries to describe what we see (bring back handwritten diaries!)

    My own "rules" for myself go something like this. I will reach for the camera if...
    -I've interacted with the child(ren) or more likely if my child is/has been playing with them.
    -the child and any adults around say it's okay (body language is easy to read on this)
    -the moment is worth recording as a memory, and encounters with children are often magical

    However, I have to admit that I often feel guilty about having these photos when I get home and don't generally display them on a wall or post them online. Is that because society at large and articles like this tell me I must feel guilty? Should I really feel guilty? Or is the guilt I feel not really about the photos at all but a form of "white guilt" in general?

    Thanks for the article. Food for thought.

  14. No, it’s not a stretch. I’m from a developing country, and the whole guilt thing makes me furious sometimes for its hypocrisy.

    But I’m not against the photo-taking per se. I agree with jules & Anonymous on this. If it’s just for memories sake, I don’t see a problem. Some cultures aren’t as uptight about being photographed by strangers. Quite often they like it. It makes them happy that you’re interested enough in them that you want their picture. In such cultures, oftentimes you’ll find that you’re trying to get a friend to take a picture of you and the scenery, and suddenly all the locals jump in, so it’s you and all these strangers you’ve never met, and the scenery you were trying to take is gone. So, just because it’s rude in Western cultures (because of all the paranoia of people doing something weird with those photos later), let’s not assume that it’s automatically rude in every other culture.

    What does bother me is how sometimes people think that they’ve done something morally good by being with ‘these poor people.' I take issue with that, but not the photo-taking itself.

  15. Great post. I don't think the idea that we're usurping the Source is a stretch at all.

    I see in some comments -- even ones in general agreement with the post -- hallmarks of privilege: freedom from embarrassment, the option of leaving, the expectation that our personal context matters. For me, that underscores how the power dynamic works in the situations we're talking about and highlights the less-visible unfairness.

    If the reasons for doing these philanthropic travels reek of my own privilege, I have to wonder whether they're actually much benefit to anybody but me. That doesn't, in and of itself, condemn the whole philanthropic travel model, but it's a good reason to give it extra scrutiny.

  16. Dimity, Thanks for the comments. I can see what you mean about building relationships with kids if you're there for a long period. Though... I am connected through social networks to many of my elementary, secondary and college & postgraduate teachers. The only ones I know that post pictures of/with their students are the grad professors, because they view their students as colleagues. Oh, and we're all at least 22 years old. But ultimately I have to agree with Cheryl's comments.

    Jules - "Like, Involved and stuff" - love it. As for the grad school application, as a grad student married to a med student, I've seen more "personal statements" than I'd like to count. And heard folks talk about "well, when I was in Guatemala, I really realized that..." "seeing what the kids in Haiti had made me see things differently..." etc, etc. My undergrad institution was full of incredibly wealthy students - I'm talking no limit ccs, multiple homes, boarding schools - who spend thousands of dollars on these trips knowing it would help them through an interview or a grad school application. These trips were talked about as "necessary" to get into top graduate school programs - programs like Teach for America also fell into this category.

    Again, I'm writing from and analyzing based on only my personal experiences with this issue, so I really appreciate all the comments and perspectives.

    People write books on medical tourism and philanthropic vacations in relation to whiteness and (post)colonial thought, so I focused on the pictures as simply a kind of manifestation of these beliefs that allowed me to write a blog post instead of a book.

    Yes, photography is the "in" thing. Anyone can buy an expensive camera and photo editing software and call themselves an artist - I know firsthand after losing a large nonrefundable deposit to a wedding photographer after I discovered they didn't even know how to use a flash (they certainly knew how to build a pretty website). I think it's important to remember that these pictures are taken from a position of privilege with a privileged gaze. Just because we may not intend to or are not conscious of it, turning another human being into a subject, especially unwillingly and for purposes of validating/excusing our position of privilege, can always be "seedy."

  17. Hi Cheryl, When you wrote "the expectation that our personal context matters" -- which point were you referring to? Just trying to understand what you're saying.

  18. If it's a personal memory, I have no problem with it, but it's when it moves from the private to the public sphere that it becomes a "trophy", and I think this is where a lot of people have issues.

    These photos aren't usually designed to raise consciousness or move people in rich countries to consider those who do not have the same privileges, but to make the person who has the pictures look good in their (and other privileged peoples') eyes. It's "see how enlightened I am!", not "see what is happening in our world".

    And I think this is where the facebook and flikr photos differ from professional photographers in an important way - the emphasis is on the person taking (or centering themselves in) the picture, not on the people surrounding them - those people are extras in the centered person's "enlightened and ever-so socially conscious" life drama.

  19. As an African American who has traveled to exotic places, I can tell you that I've never felt comfortable shooting the people. It's like going on safari and 'shooting the locals in their native habitat'. It never seemed to bother the people I traveled with; and they always thought I was the strange one.

  20. @fromthetropics, my comment about the expectation that one's personal context matters sprang from what @Dimity said regarding "pictures of themselves with children that they interacted with over a long period of time and had a relationship with", what you said about "If it’s just for memories sake", and our general discussions around why someone does choose to take pictures in this sort of situation.

    Only in the first case -- where Dimity speaks of long-term relationships with the people in the photographs -- does the context of the subject come into play. The rest of the examples we're discussing are largely about what's going on in the traveler's head; what we're thinking, why we're making the choices we're making. That's what I mean when I refer to our context. And my point about thinking that our context matters is that it *doesn't*.

    Our context isn't relevant to the subjects of the photos. People don't generally do this explicitly intending to exploit people, make them uncomfortable, or otherwise do them a disservice, but that doesn't mean people aren't being exploited, etc.

    And in the case of looking at the more general phenomenon, even whether the traveler had a long-term relationship with the other subjects of the photograph becomes less relevant. From the perspective of someone looking at photographs, are people going to be able to tell which photos are of a year-long relationship vs. which come from a ten-minute jaunt through a remote town? Not without accompanying description, and nobody can force their audience to read it. Dimity's examples just melt into the larger body of problematic images, until we start having this kind of in-depth discussion about them.

  21. nicely thought out piece here. thanks.

    even here in chinatown, i've noticed white folks coming in and taking pictures of children and seniors - often on the sly, sometimes not. it makes me uneasy, although i don't confront people on it. i do occasionally try to walk in their shot and ruin the photo, although that's not really a solution!

    btw, i should raise the point that "Parisian" does not necessarily mean white.

  22. This title cracked me up. I thought it was about shooting little kids with guns. I was like, I never knew that was a common white tendency.

    I heard tell that some Ghanian citizens once successfully sued some white folks for using photos of the women carrying baskets on their heads on postcards.

    When I went to Ghana it was with five other Howard students who were super clued in and wanted to shut up and learn.

    There isn't a single smiling child in any our photos.

    There was also a white kid with us (also a Howard student). He was all about "the little African children". To this day I'm surprised he got back to the US without injury.

  23. I see so much of this lately, I can't help but see it from the most cynical angle: it's a tourism trend, pure and simple. It follows the exact same pattern of the sabbaticals a lot of people used to take: you go backpacking, preferably in the poorest, most "unspoiled by European civilization" parts of the world that you feel safe in, and you have a rich, spiritual experience really living with the local people and sharing their lives, and you feel so much more enlightened than all the other well-off white tourists who just went on a beachside vacation for a couple of weeks. You avoided other white people and wore whatever the natives wore. And if you smoked a lot of weed or tried Ecstasy or ayahuasca (don't bother denying it) it wasn't just to get high, it was part of the local people's spiritual landscape and your personal journey. You came home a year later with a chullo and a sarong, and lots and lots of photographs showing you with the guru or the shaman, and of course a lot of poor native kids wearing ethnic costumes. For a year or two you might have been a Buddhist. Maybe you learned Spanish. And for the rest of your life you could drop your life-altering experiences into any convenient break in the conversation at your dinner parties.

    Sound familiar?

    Ironically, I do think a lot of the motivation for the current brand of do-gooder tourism is coming from a good place. People genuinely like to feel they are helping others. And it does accomplish good things. But I also have all the squicky feelings about it that bookpenporch has, and I really, really wonder why, if so many white people genuinely care about other people's troubles and want to eradicate injustice everywhere, how come America and Europe are so soulcrushingly full of racial injustice and hatred for immigrants? How come we go jetting around the world on missions of mercy, but can't be bothered to clean up our own backyard? And how come we all still buy HDTVs, SUVs and three new pairs of sweatshop sneakers every year if we admire the simple life, care about the environment and worry about the exploitation of workers all around the world?

  24. When I was in northern India last summer, locals constantly asked white tourists if they could take pictures of -or with- them (being mistakenly perceived as Indian, photo ops were never requested of me). The tourists not only constantly denied these requests, but labeled them "creepy" or "weird" (as opposed the "appropriate" and "artistic" pictures of brown bodies filling up their memory cards).

  25. @The Witty Mulatto said...
    "This title cracked me up. I thought it was about shooting little kids with guns. I was like, I never knew that was a common white tendency."

    that's exactly what I thought ???

  26. Oh my god, THANK YOU for this post! My cousin recently returned from a mission trip to several orphanages Cairo, and as she was showing us her photographs I felt incredibly uneasy (and increasingly pissed off) for the exact reasons that you bring up.

    What also bothered me about this "mission trip" is that they didn't actually do anything on the trip. Bring food and supplies? Help repair the building? Pssh, no! They just visited an orphanage, oohed and aaaahed at all the "BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN" (you would not believe how many times she described them in this exact way), and then moved on to the next orphanage.

    It's important to note that my cousin is Latina, not white. However, she was raised in an upper-middle-class suburban family (and her stepmother is white), so a lot of the class privilege is still there. It also seems that, while in Cairo, she was perceived as white, even though she probably wouldn't be here (she was often asked if she and a very obviously white boy were siblings).

  27. As I'm getting older, I'm seeing more and more racism. It's depressing.

    You may think it's cute to post the picture of an African child, but to me, and to people of color, the image is different. If you were to look at old time movies, you'd see whites would stand proudly over the animal or "savage" they had just killed, while on Safari.

    Yes, I can understand the photography aspect. However, a photo of children playing is much better than the sense of "this is real life. Look at this kid smiling with no shoes." No. It just sickens me.

  28. The thread that I was noticing in the original post and in some comments that I tried to (and failed to?) address in my comment about photography, was that there seems to be an idea that taking pictures of other people is inherently degrading unless you have discussed it with them.

    To me there is a huge difference between photographing human subjects in general, and the specific use of photography mentioned in the OP, a particular and weird kind of staged portrait designed to bolster the authenticity of ones "omg I saw 3rd world poverty and it made me super deep" stories.

    The latter of those is a tacky weird trend that seems to be closely linked to the rise of facebook and the idea of marketing oneself to friends that arose from it. It seems like there is a bit of an attempt being made in some responses to suggest that all pictures of locals taken by a tourist fall into the automatic exploitation category, an assumption that feels to me like an overreach and one that dilutes the original point.

    About escape and embarrassment: I would take pictures with people in them where I live, but after experiences involving getting yelled at while photographing public events for my high school paper (and then having to see the people involved again and again) I got scared. Also, outside of photographing an event or activity, one doesn't really have a lot of opportunity to photograph people they don't know very often, even while traveling (unless you're doing something that falls into that category of weird staged exploitation self-portraits mentioned above).

    Then again, my travel experiences are very limited, and I consider driving a few hours to Portland to be like entering an alternate universe, so I am probably coming at this with an illegitimately narrow or biased perspective, since I'm not wealthy enough to take so-called "philanthropic trips" and thus have not personally experienced the ethical quagmires they can involve.

  29. Im not quite the target group as I'm Af-Am but I've had the opportunity to travel abroad numerous times as study abroad, as a voluneer and on vacation. I have pictures of children from both rural Spain and Nicaragua. However I saw them on a regular basis as I either volunteered or worked at their schools and lived in their communities. I see the pictures as a reminder of the time I spent in their communities and a way to share my experience with my family and friends. I never saw them as a way to show others how helpful my time there was and wouldn't feel comfortable sharing them with a public audience.

    At the same time I would feel uncomfortable taking individual pictures of children or adults with who I didn't have the same sort of connection. I say individual pictures because I have several pictures of a Spanish Cultural event which I observed and then was asked to attend. For me, I think I would have less personal problem taking pictures in maybe a "developed" country rather than a "developing" one.

    While traveling in Argentina, I took a boat ride on the rivers near Iguazu Falls. Part of the trip was a visit to an "Indian" village. The children and adults came down out of the woods to sing to everyone on the boat. I felt so uncomfortable with the situation, abt 100 tourists on a big boat looking down on this singing group taking tons of pictures, that I just stayed where I was. Even as a college student I knew something about the situation and power balance was off. I had also seen this documentary about the behaviour of a group european tourists on a boat in asia/the pacific and knew I would never want to behave like them.

    However while out in Buenos Aires, where there is not much cultural diversity, particularly from African backgrounds, I experienced people wanting to take my picture. It was an extremely uncomfortable experience, where I felt as if I was on display.

  30. I really appreciate this post. Earlier this year, I went on a service trip to a poor, rural community in Jamaica, where my medical school maintains a free clinic. The local kids really loved hanging out with us (American med students of various races) during our down-time, checking out our stethoscopes, showing us the town, and posing for photos on our digital cameras. I came back home at the end of the week with a lot of photos of these kids. And while I did share these photos with friends and family who had donated money to help fund the trip, I very purposefully did not post them on facebook. I have seen other people do this many times: make their facebook profile photo one of them with smiling black or brown kids, and it has always rubbed me the wrong way. (Even worse, I've seen this on dating sites). It makes the kids background scenery, and it smacks of self-congratulations.

    I don't regret taking the photos, as they were always with permission and usually at the kids' insistence, and it's nice to have photos to remember those great kids, but I wouldn't post them online for open public consumption any more than I would photos of American (or specifically white) children.

  31. My opinion is that people want to seem as if they contributed to making a less fortunate person's life better, but end up making a huge statement that makes them be seen in a superior way which is in fact a friendly racism. What people should do is not only help people in less fortunate countries but teach the people how to take care of themselves and teach them how to make where they live and are from a better place instead of treating them as if they are "less than" and are not capable of it.

  32. Eh, I dunno. I just came back from study abroad in Italy, where I took loads of photos of white strangers, though I didn't upload them to the internet. Furthermore, a couple other people on the trip (photography students) expressed a desire to take snapshots of cute (white) children they'd seen, but the parents seemed unreceptive. And I've definitely seen pictures of social workers or volunteers taking pictures of themselves with the Americans they worked with or helped. And just look at all those TV ads featuring sports stars teaching (American, often white) kids.

    Plus, I've never seen a photo set from someone who went to London and didn't take a picture of them with a palace guard. Talk about a prop! At least when you're taking photos of kids in a village you helped out in, or just someone you met in a restaurant, there was some previous interaction and engagement that warranted a snapshot to record the memory. Everywhere people go, they like to take pictures of people that they met and want to remember.

  33. Ugh. I grew up in a very Christian environment, and many of my friends would go on mission trips and come home with such photos. Even then, I was disgusted by them, though I didn't have the words to understand why. I gradually understood how self-serving, how patronizing, they are. Look at me, what a good Christian I am. Look how the poor children are smiling, I bet they haven't smiled in ages. What would they do without us?

    In all honesty I do have one solitary photo of a child I met on a mission trip to an orphanage in Tecate, Mexico when I was 13. For some reason, this boy latched onto me for the entirety of the trip. He was four or five, and spoke no English, though this didn't stop him from talking endlessly to me. I thought it cute, and kind of odd, because he didn't seem to notice that we spoke different languages.

    He broke my heart at the end of the trip when he figured out I was leaving and ran to his room to bring me something. A broken, beat-up Hot Wheels car, probably his most prized possession (most toys were community property). He handed it to me and I made "Wow, what a cool car!" sounds and gestures, and made to hand it back to him, but he was having none of it. It was a gift, his house mother explained to me, it was for me to take home and play with.

    And I felt so ashamed, here we all were feeling so good about ourselves because of our generosity. Oh, we were such good people because we took several days a year and went to a poor country to help those poor people, the lost souls in need of Jesus and new shoes, and we could leave with a light heart and clean conscience because Hallelujah, we made a difference. All the while the high school groups were packing up their hair straighteners and cell phone chargers, and laughing and talking because we would soon be out of this country and back in California, away from the poor brown children, where our privilege weighed less heavily on us. And this boy with nothing just gave me his Hot Wheels car, and I took it, crying, knowing full well he may never have another one. So I took his photo, and kept it with the car, and I still have both.

    And nobody could figure out why I was so sad, nobody could figure out why I hated us and the laughing youth group and our nice commuter bus.

    I'm sorry to ramble, but to me, those photos are a symptom of this attitude. They did their part for a few days so now they can go home, guilt-free, to their nice suburban homes full of nice suburban things. And they are exempt from ever having to look around and ask themselves what their real priorities are.

  34. Some interesting points, though personally when we were in Indonesia and Thailand a lot of the kids were fascinated by our cameras and more than once we were chased down the street and kids demanded that we take pictures with them... would they ever see them? No. Did I sign over a portion of my income to buy them shoes for ever and ever? Nope. But it was their insistence that the pictures be taken, not mine :) So where's the line between exploitation, and denying a child something based on their skin colour?

  35. @sally fourth. I don't think there's anything wrong with taking picture, especially if the kids really enjoyed it and wanted you to take them. But there's a difference between taking the photos and posting them on facebook.

  36. This post surprised me--do people really travel abroad and take pictures of random strangers? (rhetorical question) When I went to Spain this past summer I took pictures of famous monuments and my friends and myself, but any people in those pictures were caught their by accident--why would I want pictures of people I don't know? I interned at a summer camp, and I have a bunch of pictures with my campers, but I can't imagine taking them with a "look at these poor children I've saved!" attitude. (Think of the irony, though, here's this noble Black girl saving the "poor White kids" :-P).

  37. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back for a job well done; I’m trying to defend a band of do-gooders like myself trying to make a difference in this cold and broken world we live in.
    Few Americans have experienced a short-term mission trip. Therefore, few Americans have room to speak on the topic. The majority of people who have experienced a short-term mission trip have noted some sort of life change or change of heart; these changes ranging from awareness, compassion, and enriching of faith to the boosting of financial generosity when it comes to issues vaguely, or not so vaguely, related to what they’ve witnessed.
    I fit into this category of few Americans that have been on a short-term mission. Eight days to be exact. Eight days in the Dominican Republic with a group of church goers of which I knew no one. I believe people’s intentions varied from church leaders following the year’s agenda, to a father and son trying to pound out some bonding time while hopefully helping some people. I can’t really say why everyone else was on that trip but I can say why I was there. To “pay it forward”, to help.
    I’m not saying that I saved these kids, I’m one person and I had one week. I sadly couldn’t even make a dent in their lives. But what’s even more sad and distressing is that people have the nerve to sit at their computers and type offensive essays such as “Travel to Exotic Locations, Meet Adorable Children, and Shoot Them”, criticizing the efforts of missionaries like myself.
    Let’s get something straight. I went on a mission trip, not a vacation. I didn’t lounge on the beach; I didn’t even see the beach. Yeah I rode on a cushioned airplane, but that just so happened to be the only way to reach the people that I was helping. And that airplane ride was followed up by a two hour ride standing in the back of a cattle truck over some of the roughest terrain I’d ever seen driven on, but I’m not complaining, I’m grateful. The last time I checked sugarcane fields, disease infected villages, and starving desperate people weren’t details of locations at the top of the discovery channel’s vacation hot spots.
    My mission trip was not just another item on a bucket list either. It’s something that I’m passionate about and plan to spend a lot of time doing throughout the duration of my life. It’s asinine to believe that someone would travel hundreds of miles and spend hundreds of hours on a mission trip to simply tack the experience to a resume or school application. They can do this by minimally buying a t-shirt or wristband and participating in an awareness walk in their own hometown.
    [Keep reading...]

  38. ...I can agree with one line in the entire essay “Travel to Exotic Locations, Meet Adorable Children, and Shoot Them”, that is: “Good people with good intentions often do good things for others.” That’s all there is to it really. I don’t think it is necessary to pass judgment on people trying to make a difference. Missionaries are some of the most selfless people I know, taking time, money, and energy away from their own lives and devoting it all to others, even if for just a short week at a time it’s more than most can say for themselves. And not only can some people not say they’ve helped others in some way, they are instead sitting comfortably at their computers typing away about how terrible these people with good intentions, missionaries, are. I often wonder what the intentions of these authors are. If they are to waste my time, frustrate me, and distract me from other important things I could be doing, then congratulations you got me. You’re a bully, fulfilled by putting others down, sleeping easy at night while making others stir.

    Did I take hundreds of pictures on my mission trip? Yes, one hundred exactly maybe. And did I post them on Facebook? Yeah, I did. The children that are in my pictures are not reluctantly smiling, they are genuinely smiling. And nobody would know that but the people present when the picture was taken. So why take pictures of these children, or “shoot” them as you call it? Awareness. I truly believe that it is extremely important for people to see what I saw and hopefully enquire and hear my message. I’m not trying to exploit these children, I’m trying to help them, but I can’t do it alone. I need assistance to help them, and the more aware people become of the situation hopefully more aid will be provided.
    I don’t “claim” anyone that I met on my trip as my own. I didn’t experience these people’s suffering, nor did I even begin to capture it in a still frame. And I surely don’t feel more alive because of my trip, if anything I feel deader, defeated, and more depressed. What I witnessed on my short mission trip was beyond any sadness I could ever imagine. The desperation in the people I met was more than I could take and the reality of the experience was startling.
    I’m not so sure this is an issue of race after all. Maybe it’s more an issue of class. I think the “bodies deemed other” in the case of mission trips are not another race but another class, another group of people in need of help. And this need that I talk about and that I’ve seen is beyond most people’s imagination. These people are struggling and are unable to fend for themselves. They are helpless, there is no bootstrap for them to grab hold of and pick up, no there isn’t a boot at all, probably not even a sole to speak of. We are the ones who need to help them, and frankly I don’t think they care what race we are, how much money we make a year, or if helping them is or isn’t going to boost our own lives…Actually I’m quite sure they don’t care at all. They are grateful. They have spirits higher than most people I know. They are so pure, honest, real, and loving. I envy them. And I pity you who choose to dissect the intentions of missionaries, especially petty details such as the photographs taken and the color of our skin or the people we’re helping.

  39. "These people are struggling and are unable to fend for themselves. They are helpless, there is no bootstrap for them to grab hold of and pick up, no there isn’t a boot at all, probably not even a sole to speak of. We are the ones who need to help them,..."

    Something about your comment tells me you just don't get it. A white American pastor once went to India and felt sorry for the people there. He said so to the local Indian pastor. The Indian pastor put his hand on the white American pastor and said, "No, brother, I feel sorry for you and your people in your abundance. Here we know what is precious and what is not. But your people have too much distraction." Am I saying that we shouldn't help 'the poor'? No. But the whole white savior thing is annoying.

    "They are so pure, honest, real, and loving. I envy them."

    This almost sounds like this. And coming from the back of your long essay, this could possibly sound condescending (and I'm writing from the point of view of a person from a country that white missionaries like to go to). People are people everywhere the world you go.

    I hope next time you go, you'll try to relate to them as people just like yourself, instead of a from a 'white savior' type of point of view. There are missionaries who have been able to do this, and they're awesome.

  40. These people are struggling and are unable to fend for themselves. They are helpless, there is no bootstrap for them to grab hold of and pick up, no there isn’t a boot at all, probably not even a sole to speak of.

    Poor hapless darkies can't do anything for themselves. It's up to us superior [White] Westerners to show them the way since they're too stupid to find it themselves. No, there are no far-reaching socio-economic-political agendas that impoverish countries of color disproportionately.

    Oh, and their race DOES conflate with their class, especially when it comes to the White Man's Burden meme you're heavily pedaling here. Their race or perceived race makes them even more helpless. After all, we culluds are assumed simply not to have the brain capacity, wherewithal, motivations and ambitions that superior, Western Whites are deemed inherently to possess. Do-gooder Whites often get off on this idea. "Helping" those populations reinforces that portion of White supremacy. And usually the help takes a form that reifies it.

  41. Kind sounds like this....

    "The Tanna tribe dances their way into America's hearts as they crisscross the country from high society Manhattan to the big sky of Montana. Whether it's mud baths and roller coasters in Orange County, CA, sharing a Thanksgiving feast in America's heartland, or touching snow for the first time, these tribesman spread their wisdom and kindness on their mission to meet the natives of the USA."

    A comment from this blog: course there are many others like it.

    "It feels totally racist to me. I've already ranted about this in TV Potluck's race thread.

    In case the White Guy Producers haven't heard of this term, there's something called a Magical Negro (Or pick your ethnic group) where Whites learn and grow and experience things as they never have before because of the 'natural' nature of the more dark-skinned one. Who then conveniently goes away.

    All I had to see was some sobbing white woman telling our 'visitors' how much she's learned from them to see this is what they're going for. As well as all the craziness from seeing some guy with a bone in his nose try to play golf., no."

    I'm sure the middle class whites are so thanks to providence for bringing the magic Negros into their lives. And all this time I thought all you needed was an education to change the world. But to truly change a white person, it seems all you need is a few magic Negros. Sprinkled vicariously throughout this country. A couple of Will Smiths here, and a few Queen Latifahs there. Several Michael Clark Duncans; in equal measure of course.

    Please excuse my sarcasm.

  42. Hi, I am actually one of those kids that tourist like to 'Shoot'. I live in Barbados and we are not helpless, needy or poor, but we do have some poor people( what country does not have any). Any ways it always happens every time a tourist bus passes. For example : My brother and I walk home from school and when we get on the man road a tour bus passes and the tourist point at us ( two kids in uniforms) and take our pictures. And most of the time it feels uncomfortable, but we were taught to be respectful to our elders, so we just smiled and kept walking. But just because the kid in the picture is smiling does not mean that they are totally comfrotable with the situation.


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