I’ve been waiting for years for a show to be made about photographers. The thrill of following light, seeking out stories and composing masterpieces offers the perfect ingredients for a captivating story. Enter: Netflix. Netflix recently introduced the Australian series “Tales by Light,” which follows an expert photographer in each episode. Needless to say, I binge-watched the first season, but something about the episode “Tribes” disturbed me. The show documents photographer Art Wolfe in Papua New Guinea as he attempts to “record what might not exist too far into the future.”

He speaks throughout the episode of his “obligation” to photograph the peoples, cultures and traditions of the places he visits. Is this photographer “running around third world countries objectifying their subjects to the fullest extent,” as one reviewer put it, any different from the influx of so-called humanitarian selfies seen on social media post-Spring Break? As alternative Spring Breakers gear up for their trips of a lifetime, it’s imperative they strongly consider replacing phones with full-on philanthropy.

To get a sense for the selfie epidemic — a selfidemic, if you will — everyone going on an alternative Spring Break should pay a visit to the viral blog, Humanitarians of Tinder. The page provides a steady flow of Tinder profiles featuring seemingly well-off 20-somethings posing with impoverished individuals in foreign countries. It doesn’t take long for an innocent selfie taken with a kid in a school, orphanage or clinic to go through editing, filtering and captioning, directly reducing it from memory to marketing material. Don’t see the problem? At the center of this issue is the greater conversation on voluntourism, the ugly American and the white savior complex. Unsurprisingly, many of these problems are evident in Art Wolfe’s travels in “Tales by Light” and in many of our ASB Facebook albums.

When we, as students, go abroad in service, what do we stand to gain? Are we widening our worldviews? Or are we going abroad for popularity and profit? In the end, it’s a mixture of both. When Art Wolfe travels to Papua New Guinea out of a self-given obligation to preserve the cultures of indigenous tribes, he’s also focusing on the expansion of his photographic curriculum vitae. And that’s fine. But we have to be critical about serving abroad in order to increase our social media presence when doing so comes at the cost of the service itself.

It took a full year of reflection on my freshman year week-long ASB in Guatemala to come to terms with this. I went on my first ASB as the student photographer in 2015 and took tens of thousands of photos for our host organization. The photos were to be used for donor recruitment — in a word, marketing. But to be fair, it was altruistic marketing with the goal of sustaining development efforts in Guatemala. Each photo began with my asking to take their photo, a scrambled, “¿Puedo tomar tu foto?” and was followed by uncomfortable smiles amid a firing of my camera shutter.

Eventually it got easier to take photos without receiving full consent. I assumed everyone would want their photo taken and wouldn’t care what was to be done with the picture. The same kind of socially required permission to photograph in the United States is thrown out the window when we, as student volunteers, begin documenting our trips. Throughout the “Tales by Light” episode, I uncomfortably watched as the photographer decorated multiple Papuans with paint and photographed them as full-fledged models. What would constitute participation in the modeling industry in the United States is free labor from the Papuan. But this is an idea that escapes many. When we post pics with our friends, we tag them, and they presumably receive the benefits of social recognition. When we photograph models, we pay them, either in publicity or money. Why don’t we afford these same benefits to the people (read: “fellow human beings”) we serve?

I made a decision to put down the camera during my second year in Guatemala and couldn’t be happier with my decision. My focus shifted from self-promotion to service. My concern was no longer photographing the child on his way to getting his vitals checked, but checking his vitals and monitoring his health. So my greatest exhortation to anyone going on an ASB: Think about why you’re going. Think about the people you’re serving and what they deserve and whether or not you want to partially deliver. Don’t make the same mistakes I did; be deliberate in your presence and treat everyone with the same respect you wish to be treated with.

A viral and satirical Instagram account, @barbiesavior, really drives the point home. Complete with captions like: “Just taking a #slumfie amidst this dire poverty and need. Feeling so #blessed and #thankful,” Barbie Savior highlights the issues we can get caught up in when we place posting over people.

Ibrahim Ijaz can be reached at ijaz@umich.edu.

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