Understanding and Avoiding Poverty Tourism: Part II

This post is part two of a three-part series on poverty tourism and how to avoid exploitation during your time abroad. Check back on Thursday for more on how to be conscious about your impact on communities in the developing world.

Understanding and Avoiding Poverty Tourism - Part IILast week on our blog, we introduced the topic of poverty tourism and the forms it can take. Today, we will focus specifically on the way that poverty tourism is perpetuated by photography.

Two springs ago, Omaha’s historic Durham Museum hosted the exhibit “Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs.” The exhibit captured a wide range of moments in history–joyous homecomings, heroic justice, and even violence and brutality.

One of the photos in this collection is particularly controversial. The photograph depicts a young, malnourished child huddled on the ground. In the image’s background, a vulture waits for the child to die. This photograph brings into question how photography can properly educate and inform people without exploiting or disrespecting its subjects.

The ethical considerations of photography are not something that should only be considered by professional journalists or photographers. Each time we snap a picture, we can make a decision to preserve or take away the dignity of the subject.

Those of us who have already traveled to or lived in the developing world could probably easily recall a time when the things we saw–malnourished people, unclothed children, disheveled homes–were so shocking that we felt that without a picture, we could never explain to people back home what life is like in the developing world. Or maybe it’s easier for us to look poverty at a distance, standing behind a lens.

Here are some questions you can (and should) ask yourself before you take a picture:

  • Why do I want to take a picture of this person, community, or house?
  • Have I asked this person permission to take his or her picture?
  • Do I know this person’s name?
  • Will this picture take away the dignity of this person or community?

Many of the experiences we have in the developing world will never leave our memory. Instead of focusing on having permanent images of these experiences, we should focus on forming unique relationships with the people and communities we encounter.

Ugandan community developer, writer, and technological enthusiast TMS Ruge addresses this topic bluntly and says, “You really want change? Put down the camera, walk up to anyone in that slum, get to know them.”

photo credit: epSos.de via photopin cc

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