“Would you still want to travel to that country if you could not take your camera with you?”
— a question of appropriation, Nayyirah Waheed
You have seen the images and heard the stories. You may have liked these posts or posted a few statuses of your own. Unbeknownst to you, you’re supporting a dehumanizing production — the exploitation of human narratives, the perpetuation of suffering, the continuation of neo-colonialism — the white-savior industrial complex.
I entered a community that was not my own without invitation. I “helped” myself to the people — bought more kente cloth than my bag could hold, ate more jollof than I could actually stomach and cried for every child I deemed neglected, impoverished or underprivileged. I was the unconscious and yet unconscionable oppressor; ignorant to the way I imposed my beliefs on the community I desired to help. I had honest intentions, truly, but I didn’t fully understand the history of humanitarian aid and development like I do now. I am now beginning to see the correlation and resulting parallels between historical Western aid programs in the Global South and my own summer trip.
The staging of voluntourism images is reminiscent of colonial photography. Melanie Tanielian, a human rights scholar, discussed the dangers of colonial images and their attempt to convey “the scope of humanitarian activity on the ground.” She argued that human aid has turned abstract bodies into a nameless source and only particular individuals have the privilege of being named. The same framework is present in images uploaded by volunteers. How many uploaded photos include the names of all photo participants? Think of the children who go nameless — leaving only their eyes to speak. Why must they continue to go unacknowledged? Just as Tanielian demonstrated colonial photography was no more than a way to “show the scope of humanitarian activity, provide facts and figures, and fulfill the body count,” the voluntourism pictures are harmful, demoralizing and full of misplaced sympathies.
There’s a great and urgent need for millennials to understand the perpetuation of damaging and dangerous depictions of “African life.” Playing the savior destroys the agency and autonomy of those you are attempting to help. Carrie Kahn’s NPR article, “As Voluntourism Explodes, Who Is It Helping Most?” presents an alternative perspective. She mentions, “More and more Americans are no longer taking a few weeks off to suntan and sightsee abroad. Instead they’re working in orphanages, building schools and teaching English.”
She cites an estimated 1.6 million volunteer tourists are spending about $2 billion dollars on this new traveling trend. For recent graduates, the voluntourism industry is great for establishing a foundation in aid organizations and obtaining relevant work experience to add to graduate applications and resumes. However, servicing a community has to go further than temporary fixes and shallow promises. Ask yourself, is a five-day, 10-day or 14-day trip creating self-sustaining models of development that can be implemented in multiple settings? Furthermore, consider the space you occupy and the power you have within your assigned tasks. For example, when you impose your language on a non-native speaker or train locals to administer medical treatment in a way influenced by Western-centric ideals, you’re being an aggressor. You are inflating your self-worth while simultaneously conflating many of the complex problems faced by African nations into one singular, problematic image. This behavior must stop.
To those who fail to see the voluntourism industry’s dangerous connection to neo-colonialism, I offer you this: I was once someone who didn’t understand the politics of speech, imagery and power in this setting. I was naïve — looking to do good, not exactly knowing how. Yet, I now adhere to the old saying, “Leave something better than you found it.” Ron Krabill, author of “American Sentimentalism and the Production of Global Citizens”, clarifies that, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Use your privilege to inform others of all the joys of Africa, a beautiful continent of 54 diverse nations, each with a rich history and culture. Tell your friends of the scenery, weather, music and food. Educate them on culture, community and the kindness of strangers. But please, in all that you do, leave your camera at home.
Jayla Johnson is an LSA senior.