Does Voluntourism Contribute To Or Reduce Poverty Porn?

Handsup15300Lina Srivastava offered a post on Good.is recently entitled “Poverty Porn and A New Way to Regard Social Impact.” The opening salvo reads:

A camera pans onto a young black girl from a perspective slightly above her. She stands alone in a field in an unnamed, unidentifiable location, looking away with a forlorn look on her face, never meeting the camera’s gaze. The voiceover: “This is Daniella. She’s nine. And her body is racked with pain from parasites; the same kind that killed her sister. Without help, Daniella could be next.” A single tear falls down Daniella’s face, as she now sits in a concrete doorway with no door, looking down.”

Decades of appeals to the well-off, all focusing on the devastation of natural disasters, societal ills, public health challenges, and the like through the use of images and videography, like the one described above, have certainly done their part in raising awareness and funding equally. Voluntourism operators, much like charitable organizations, have followed their own path in using photos and videography to draw would-be voluntourists to spend thousands of dollars, pounds, or euros to travel to destinations across the globe. When placing these different approaches side-by-side and analyzing them, there is good reason to question whether voluntourism is exacerbating poverty porn by creating its own form of “voluntourism porn,” or whether it is reducing the relevance of traditional forms of poverty porn. Is it more of the same, just differently clothed? Or is voluntourism raising the bar and therefore supporting the eradication of poverty porn?

A Closer Look at the “Gazes” of Voluntourism and Voluntourists

In the Study & Research column for volume 8 issue 1 of The VolunTourist Newsletter, Lisa Sink and Dr. Nancy Gard McGehee presented the findings of a research study which reviewed photographs posted on Facebook by volunteer tourists. The authors looked at two sets of photographic images – those portrayed on the websites of organizations which send volunteers abroad and those portrayed on the Facebook pages of voluntourists. Interestingly, they discovered that the photographs on the sending organzations’ websites revealed what was described as two types of gazes while the Facebook pages reflected three types of gazes.

For the sending organzations, the gazes came in the form of two traditional gazes described by researchers as the “tourist gaze” and the “family gaze.” The former of these is described thus: “The tourist gaze has been widely utilized, and may be defined as a gaze that is focused on the landscape and icons of a destination.” The latter of these is described thus: “This is when we place value on images that include the members of the travel party within the focus of the gaze. This does not include a strict definition of “family” but rather refers to the travel party in general.” The authors conclude:

In the context of volunteer tourism, the tourist gaze would include the landscapes and icons of the community in which the volunteer experience takes place. The family gaze would include the other volunteers participating in the experience.”

For sending organizations, either the tourist gaze or the family gaze appeared on the websites.

The authors discovered in their review of the photographs posted on Facebook, however, that there were three basic “gazes” demonstrated through the photos – the tourist gaze, the family gaze, and a combination of the tourist gaze and the family gaze. The first “gaze,” or “Drifter Gaze,” epitomized the tourist gaze, as described above. The second gaze, or “Narcissistic Gaze,” demonstrated the family gaze. The authors write:

The dominant family gaze was titled “the Narcissistic Gaze.” For this volunteer tourist, capturing the uniqueness of the foreign destination was not as important as capturing the relationships made with others sharing the experience, particularly fellow voluntourists.  Additionally, it was more important for this participant to exhibit their power by including themselves in the destination iconic sites, scenic views, and members of the host community rather than capturing these images on their own.”

Finally, the authors discovered what they describe as the “Zen Gaze” – an equal depiction of the tourist gaze and the family gaze. The authors quoted a participant as saying:

I definitely wanted, I remember wanting to put pictures of the country itself and how beautiful it is because I feel like people might be like ‘it’s a poor country and the desolate place’ but its honestly one of the most beautiful places I have been to, so I definitely wanted to show those pictures.  Probably like volunteering, like us, the beginning and after pictures of what we did at the playground.  I remember taking pictures of what we did at the school with the local people.  I wanted to show pictures that symbolized Ecuador and resembled something that, and not just random pictures that didn’t really mean anything.”

Voluntourism: Poverty Porn Or Something Else?

When reading through the work of Sink & McGehee, it is not readily apparent if voluntourism is contributing to poverty porn, eradicating it, or creating a new type of “voluntourism porn.” Clearly, sending organizations are appealing to voluntourists by using what the authors describe as the “Narcissistic Gaze” – drawing voluntourists to participate due to the relationships and interactions with fellow voluntourists and local residents. Rather than portraying the stand alone figures suffering from extreme poverty or disease (traditional poverty porn), sending organizations are focusing on the relationships with “others” – be they fellow voluntourists or local residents. With voluntourists, on the other hand, it seems that there are those who are aligning with the tourist gaze, the family gaze, and in some cases, a more “evolved” gaze in the form of a mixture of both (Zen Gaze).

In their commentary, Sink & McGehee do not put forth any documentation to support either sending organizations or voluntourists as focusing on poverty porn. It appears for the most part that sending organizations and voluntourists, those who do not demonstrate possession of the “Zen Gaze,” fall in line with traditional tourism operators and tourists – with a dominant tourist or family gaze representing the preponderance of images. However, the emergence of the Zen Gaze raises some points worthy of consideration as to whether voluntourism may, in fact, be contributing to the creation of a different mentality altogether – one that is interested in portraying a destination that is vibrant, alive, not filled with poverty, and an experience that is worth remembering through depicting the relationships which are fostered through it.

One could argue that for those who are demonstrating a Zen Gaze that voluntourism is more than just alleviating societal ills or merely seeing a destination. Through a healthy combination of volunteering and tourism, residents and destinations may no longer need “fixing” as depicted through poverty porn. Destinations may be unique, worthy of exploration and support, but not to be pitied. And such a shift may be expanded to sending organizations, helping voluntourism manifest a greater integrity – – one that is not based on poverty porn.

Final Thoughts…

Voluntourism has so much to teach us. There are reams of relevant knowledge and understanding being generated on a daily basis as individuals come into contact with destinations and residents all over the planet each and every day. Though voluntourism may be rooted in our collective response to poverty porn, we certainly have evidence to suggest that voluntourism may be moving us away from poverty porn to something else entirely. Nevertheless, if we want to prevent the development of “voluntourism porn,” it appears to be important to emphasize the balanced combination of volunteering & travel & tourism related experiences. For sending organizations, this helps them to avoid the creation of “voluntourism porn,” and for voluntourists, it assists them in seeing both sides of the experience, meaning that rather than thinking with a “philanthropic mindset” they may very well begin to see voluntourism and their connection to it as a socio-economic investment. Unlike poverty porn, therefore, we may be able to evolve — to make direct contributions to communities through our travel expenditures and, quite possibly, through social impact investing in support of micro-, small- & medium-sized enterprises.

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