We’ve all seen them, over and over again: pictures of malnourished, barefoot children in a dirt road background, "somewhere in Africa." Such images either pull at our heartstrings and compel us to help, to “save,” or we dismiss them as generic images of Africa.
These images are so ingrained in our imagination, most people that haven’t been to the continent believe that all of Africa looks like this, adding to the colonialist generalisation of Africa as “one country.”
Fundraising campaigns and tourist photography fuel our imagery of Africa creating a Western consensus that poor Africa "needs saving." Like there is no difference between countries and issues as if all of Africa’s children are poor and hungry.
Now envision that image and add a white person in the middle of all these children, who despite their poverty and diseases are laughing, because having a white person around makes life so much better. Such images are often reproduced by voluntourists.
Voluntourism is the combination of volunteering and tourism, and it has grown increasingly popular as a way to explore new cultures and contribute to sustainable change in communities.
We all know someone who went to Africa or Southeast Asia and took those generic pictures of a bunch of poor children laughing and smiling at the camera. The Onion published a mocking remark on this topic: “As soon as I walked into that dusty, remote town and the smiling children started coming up to me, I just knew my Facebook profile photo would change forever.”
The power of photography
Photos and videos on social networks are effective ways to raise awareness (and funds). It’s true that campaigns and photos with starving children attract a lot of attention; “needy children arouse compassion.” Such is the psychology of human empathy and the tactic works for NGOs. Still, while they may attract funds from some donors, for others, these images will confirm their everlasting, problematic conception of a miserable Africa again and again. And again.
There are even awards addressing this issue, such as the “Rusty Radiator” given by the Norwegian Students' and Academics' Assistance Fund (SAIH), and the “Fly in the eye” from the Dutch initiative IDleaks. These “awards” are given to fundraising campaigns that portray issues around poverty and development in the most stereotypical way.
Images are incredibly powerful when it comes to building narratives around sensitive issues such as poverty; thus, creating, using and spreading them comes with great responsibility.
Even though most young people who share photos of their voluntourism trips don’t have bad intentions, the pictures carry the risk of perpetuating the colonial idea of non-Western people as the “other” and Western people as the “saviour.”
Now, well into the 21st century, such narratives belong in the past; for a better future for our world and its people we need empowering ones. We have the social responsibility as humans to care for each other; we are not superior “saviours.” We are involved because we care, thus our goal should be to care for our fellow humans in the most responsible, effective, and empowering way.
This is not to say that we should hide our volunteer work or voluntourism. Just that, we should be mindful of the narratives we create through the images we share.
For more information on how to document your experiences abroad responsibly, check out SAIH's social media guide for volunteers and travellers.