This week, I discovered a troll on Twitter who is raging against IJM, Noonday and all of us who are participating in the #styleforjustice “contest.” At first I planned to just ignore him, as he was making uninformed and baseless accusations and assumptions about the trip in general. He is crying #povertytourism and questioning why IJM and Noonday (and the rest of us) would participate in such an endeavor. Actually, that is putting it nicely. He really is just a troll.
But it got me thinking… Are others assuming this #styleforjustice trip IS poverty tourism? Do people I know, people I am asking for votes and support from, have concerns about this? (and if you are reading this and you do have thoughts, questions or concerns, read on and then please comment. let’s talk about it!)
And then, what exactly IS poverty tourism, and why do
people trolls automatically assume this particular trip falls into the poverty tourism category?
This post is an attempt to start a healthy, respectful and informed discussion about what poverty tourism is and then to ascertain if the #styleforjustice trip actually falls into that category.
(Honestly, I feel this could diverge into a million other tangents about “blogging trips,” cults of personality in the blogging world, “short-term missions”, white privilege etc. Although there is both need and room for some serious discussions around all of those issues, I will not be addressing them in this particular post and I will moderate the comments to stay on track for this particular discussion)
So what exactly IS poverty tourism (sometimes referred to as slum tourism)?
According to Wiki, “Slum tourism is a type of tourism that involves visiting impoverished areas… A primary accusation that the advocates against slum tourism make is that it “turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from.”
There have been many op-ed’s about the issue:
Kennedy Odede, who grew up in Kibera, one of the largest slums outside of Nairobe, writes this in Slumdog Tourism:
Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really “seen” something — and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community right where we were before.
Nor do the visitors really interact with us. Aside from the occasional comment, there is no dialogue established, no conversation begun. Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity. (source)
And some interesting reports and reviews on both sides of the debate:
Alanna Shaikh at Blood and Milk writes an unusually beautiful and vulnerable reflection related to this:
…poverty makes for great photography. Poverty has texture. … In other words, a good synonym for picturesque is desperate. Aesthetics are seductive. … That can lead you all sorts of terrible places; it can lead you to mistake tragedy for authenticity. It can make you think there is some value to authenticity when people are starving. It can lead you to take gorgeous pictures of the countryside without ever realizing that you are documenting a quiet horror.
From my brief research, I would say the majority of writing and opinions is that poverty tourism is unhealthy at best and detrimental at worst.
I would have to agree… mostly.
If by poverty tourism you mean booking a tour to walk through a slum and take pictures to show how adventurous you are and how the poor people of _____ live, then yes, I agree this is shameful and painful for those involved.
If by poverty tourism you mean that a tour operator will be the sole beneficiary of the money you are spending to walk through someone elses reality (most likely uninvited), taking pictures, not touching anything or anyone, being “separate and above” all around you, then yes, I agree this is a shameful and unethical practice.
If by poverty tourism you mean that while you are on business in Mumbai or vacation in Rio and you explore the streets and areas on your own, snapping images (assuming you are doing it in a respectful and not flagrant and intrusive way), or you have been invited into a slum home by someone for a meal, then no, I do not believe this is detrimental to the locals and/or unhealthy. I simply don’t believe this qualifies as “poverty tourism,” though many would disagree.
The fact is the issue is complex and the ramifications are great and far-reaching. This isn’t settled with a blog post or op-ed. This will be an ongoing and heated issue and topic for decades to come. The more connected we are to the world, the more accessible it is to those in the “west,” poverty tourism will be a growing trend and problem. It is something we must continue to wrestle with and strive to handle ethically and sustainably.
So, with this information, and the basic definition and tenets of poverty tourism as stated above and in the opinion pieces, does the #styleforjustice trip with Noonday and IJM qualify as a poverty tourism trip?
(you can read more of the “why” and the heart behind the trip by Noonday’s founder, Jessica, here.)
How do I know? Because I just participated in a very similar endeavor 5 months ago and it could not be farther from poverty tourism. I wasn’t photographing or ogling poverty. I was photographing hope. Dignity. Opportunity.
First of all, when I spent a day in Usha’s home, I was invited. When I photographed a day in her life, I was in awe of the effort and commitment she had to her girls to provide a safe, loving and healthy home… Not the fact of the lack of amenities compared to my own home. Usha told me herself that me coming into her home and wanting to know her, share her story meant the world to her. She likened it to God showing her, yet again, that He sees her and cares and will continue to care for her. She was delighted and excited to share her story of hope. Did I benefit from “touring” her home and neighborhood and photographing her? Yes, I did. Both personally and professionally. Professionally, I am hoping it will lead to more opportunities to do this kind of empowering photography work overseas (ahem, just like the #styleforjustice trip). Did she benefit from my time in her home, my blog posts etc? I wouldn’t know without asking her personally, so I will not put words into her mouth. I do know, personally, that connecting with her in this way has led to our family being able to sponsor one of her daughters through a family sponsorship program, thus alleviating more of the education costs she faces as a single mother. Will this change her life forever, alleviating all effects of poverty and pain? Absolutely not. But it will help take one of the burdens off her shoulders, that of putting her daughter through school. And I think she would say this is a very good thing.
From all I have read about Noonday and their artisan stories, and from all I know about IJM (both firsthand from staff members and also my own research), they are very protective of their artisans, survivors, clients. This #styleforjustice trip isn’t about ogling their living conditions and exploiting stories and faces for personal gain. The team will not be driving by slowly, windows down on the Land Cruiser, with telephoto lenses getting the “money shots.”
Rather, the team will be sitting cross-legged on the floor of someone’s home, invited and welcomed. They will be listening, praying and celebrating the hope and opportunity that has been given to these men and women. They will be crying with mothers who worry about their kids, because they are mothers who worry about our kids. Worry and care for children is not quantifiable. Just because our worries and fears are vastly different doesn’t mean we cannot connect deeply with someone, a woman or mother, living in a different world than us. We can affirm the reality of her fears and life even while ours is vastly different (easier, safer). In fact, we can learn much from this woman’s strength, courage and tenacity to overcome some of those realities in her own life and that of her family.
There is a significant difference between paying to walk around someone’s neighborhood and photograph them, and being invited to sit, eat, listen, learn and celebrate inside someone’s home or community.
Need I say more?
Yes, I believe I do…
Will the bloggers and photographers and ambassadors who go to Rwanda benefit from this trip? Yes. Professionally, personally, emotionally and spiritually. Will the local the artisans and clients benefit from this trip? Hopefully. Probably. Most likely.
But the trip is not really for them. The trip is about taking the teams’ neighbors’, friends’, families’ eyes, hearts and hands across the ocean with them so they can see and feel and understand the connection between the products they purchase and the persons who make them. I not only have no problem sharing a woman’s photo and story with the intention of encouraging and persuading my friend or coworker to purchase her necklace, her scarf, his wallet, I feel I have the responsibility to do so as a blogger/photographer/activist.
Because ALL of these stories of hope and opportunity and freedom DO NOT HAPPEN unless we harness the power of our consumer choices for them. It doesn’t matter how beautiful Usha’s bag is if there is no one buying it.
And the fact of the matter is that we in the west, especially here in the USA, buy a lot of stuff*. ALOT. And for those who preach and shame and scream against white privilege and “white women visiting the poor women in Africa,” you are screaming at the very demographic who can and does help create and sustain the market for the Usha’s out there to directly benefit from. So instead of bemoaning the privileges we have, lets leverage them for good. In any and every possible way we can.
So these blogging trips? Humanitarian photography work? They can and do ALOT of good (when done right). If they are successful, they will open the eyes and hearts of more readers, more of their network to understand the power we have as consumers thus expanding the market for the artisans to benefit greatly from.
So bring on #styleforjustice in Rwanda. Bring on the stories of dignity and hope and freedom and possibility. Show us the products, share the life stories. Because I want my friend Usha to be able to live with dignity and opportunity as a widow in India. I want her Rwandan sisters to as well.
And I will continue to advocate for any legitimate way to share their stories (with consent and blessing, of course) in an effort to persuade more and more of my peers, my demographic to make ethical and generous choices when they do buy what they want to buy.
*how much we, as a culture and society spend on stuff and accumulate is another topic for another blog post another day…
So, yes, please continue to VOTE for me, as I would feel so very honored to be able to leverage my status, standing, platform and position in the west for the good of any and all I can. (and by status, I mean just the fact that I was born in the USA to an upper middle class family… thus putting me in the wealthiest group compared to most of the world)