I may have travelled to over 50 countries and lived in 5 but you will never see a photo of me in disadvantaged communities using black & brown children as props. Why? Because I grew up in South Africa and have seen firsthand how problematic these photos- and the accompanying message they send out- are.
Once my mother and I went to a restaurant to have a meal and there were some foreign tourists (Scots if I recall correctly) exclaiming loudly how well developed our country is and how it is not at all what they expected. My mother was irritated and said, “Well what were they expecting? No roads and slums everywhere?” At the time I said nothing because truthfully I knew what people abroad thought of African countries ( I had already lived in South Korea for 2 years) and from the images that people had seen of Africa, I could understand why the rest of the world was surprised that we had running water & internet.
Do you understand that the Africa you see portrayed in the media isn’t a real place at all? It is an imaginary geography where all children are orphans, everyone is malnourished, everyone gets their waters from rivers and is a place whose landscapes are forged by colonialism, as well as a good deal of narcissism.
And part of the reason you keep thinking of the African continent as such a place starts with photos like this:
While my experiences have been primarily centered in African countries, I will acknowledge that the problems outlined in this post take place in many countries across South East Asia and Latin America as well. I use the terms Global South and White Saviour which you can read more about here and here. Before you pick up your camera to snap a photo of ANY child in ANY country, please ask yourself these 3 questions:
Would I do this if I were in a Western country?
Let’s strip this issue down to its most fundamental problem- why do you take photos of black children in Uganda but not of white children in Finland? Why aren’t you centering yourself in a circle of Austrian children while you all smile happily for the camera but yet you would do the same in Botswana? Would you walk into a hospital in Australia and start photographing sick children in hospital beds? Would you take photos of children playing on a school playground in Canada and publish these photos on your Facebook? Because I have seen variations of these photos taken in African countries and shared all over the internet.
Tourists’ photos were analysed in a study. In Benin, a French-speaking West African nation, 13.7 per cent of the photos taken had children in them, and in Senegal, 8.5 per cent. In Cambodia this figure was 8.3 per cent. In Canada? Just 0.3 per cent. In the UK and Spain, it was 0 per cent. Here’s the article with data- its in French but you can read the table easily.
In 2017, Radi-Aid, a project of the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) that fights stereotypes in aid and development, launched a campaign called How To Get More Likes On Social Media, which satirised wealthy tourists’ motivations for taking a selfie with an African child. Watch the video. Its so twisted when you think about it objectively. “It seems like as long as there is poverty, the threshold for sharing images is lowered,” said Beathe Øgård, president of SAIH. “It could have to do with how poor communities on these continents have traditionally been depicted – for example, people in the West are used to seeing all of Africa depicted without nuance and context, so perhaps they don’t mind reproducing these tired tropes.”
In your own country you would not think to photograph children without permission; in fact you probably wouldn’t even ask because you know that most parents would say “HECK NO, SCRAM!”. But yet you feel comfortable doing this in another country that you deem as less privileged because those children are not worthy of having their privacy protected?
By using black & brown children as props for your photos, you are treating them as commodities whose basic human rights do not deserve to be respected.
Do these children really need your help?
Voluntourism- the act of travelling to a country in the Global South in order to help poor communities. Maybe the objective is to provide healthcare, spend time with orphans, dig wells, build a community center or teach the children. Whatever it is, organizations have been created to milk thousands of tourists who want to ‘do good’ out of their precious dollars because there is such a need for white people to be heroes in poor countries. Voluntourism is a booming business, even though they do very little advertising. How do they attract so many paying volunteers? Photography is a big part of the answer. Voluntourism organizations don’t have to advertise, because they can crowdsource. Photography—particularly the habit of taking and posting selfies with local children—is a central component of the voluntourism experience.
While doing volunteer work in the Global South, young idealists often take part in construction projects without any previous building experience, they help to build and maintain local health clinics without any knowledge of disease or pathology, they teach subjects often without any educational experience or qualifications and, usually, they take lots of pictures. The black and brown children they pose with become nameless keepsakes, trophies that prove their generosity to their social media following. When their stay is up, these volunteers can pat themselves on the back, certain that they have done their part to ease the collective suffering of the third world.
But the reality of a situation is that these situations that require volunteers are more likely engineered by organisations who want to profit off donations. A lot of people travel to countries to volunteer their time in orphanages. Save the Children looked at orphanages in Sri Lanka in 2005 and found that 92% of children had a living parent. A 2006 survey by Unicef in Liberia found that 98% of children living in orphanages were not orphans. One orphanage in Haiti, established by a US religious organisation after the earthquake in 2010, kept children malnourished and living in filth, with no stimulation. Yet it collected donations averaging $10,000 a year per child – much of which ended up in the director’s bank account, a former staff member alleged. Read more about that here.
Voluntourism with children also perpetuates the notion of a desperate country needing the benevolence of the West. Volunteers are led to imagine that their engagement directly addresses suffering. Many believe the children they work with don’t have any other social systems to support them materially or socially. This is evident from the images and anecdotes they circulate of poor, sick children . The images they portray is that the Global South is incapable of escaping poverty and violence without Western intervention.
The ways volunteers get involved tend not to address the causes of suffering. The design of these programmes leads to superficial engagement for volunteers. This makes it hard for them to think about – or do anything about – the structural issues that create humanitarian crises in the first place. These issues include the history, social, political and economic conditions that frame people’s lives- things you cannot understand fully on a 6-8 week trip.
What would we say if unchecked foreigners went into our children’s homes to cuddle and care for our kids? We would be stunned, so why should standards be lowered in other countries? Yes, resources might be in short supply, but just as everywhere, experts want children in the family environment or fostered in loving homes, not in the exploding number of substandard institutions.
YOUR photos of black and brown children in seemingly helpless situations are tearing families apart, profiting exploitative organisations and actually taking away paid jobs from local & qualified individuals as volunteers stream in for their short holidays.
In my opinion, voluntourism is merely a manifestation of modern day colonialism, reminding me of when missionary volunteers made their way across Africa, spreading the good news of Christianity and all the while helping to feed a Western imperialist agenda. Don’t come at me, it’s just my opinion.
Read this fascinating article about whether ‘voluntourism does more harm than good’ as further reading.
do you understand how consent actually works?
As a teacher, I can tell you straight up that children are vulnerable and they do not understand the full implications of your request to take a photo with them. They do not understand that your photos aim to show you as a white saviour, rescuing them from a situation they have no power to get out of. They cannot grasp the idea that you may have a blog or a platform that reaches hundreds of thousands of people that will see their face. Children cannot give you informed consent because they cannot understand the implications of one seemingly harmless photo.
Do you think that children understand that once an image has been published somewhere, given the general lack of regard for intellectual property rights in today’s world, it can and often will be used without permission on social media or elsewhere to illustrate anything, including completely unrelated issues, or taken out of context to give a different meaning to what was originally intended?
Images may be shared on forums by people who have a sexual fascination with the subjects (hello sexual predators and paedophilia). Gosh I just shuddered while typing that.
Ok so you’ve asked their parents or caregivers for consent. But let’s look at that critically. There you are- a well-educated, well-fed and well-dressed, relatively privileged and powerful person, treated as a special visitor. The fact that you are there to take photos- either as a volunteer or tourist- represents an organisation that controls some aspect of the beneficiaries’ wellbeing, perhaps things as vital as water, food, shelter and security, or as important as basic healthcare and education.
When you ask for their consent to photograph their children, naturally the caregiver wants to keep the organisation happy, since they depend on the aid for something important. The cost of declining consent could represent a risk for them. Who on earth is going to tell you NO?
A Haitian refugee in rural Dominican Republic might be unfamiliar with the internet, or television, or newspapers and magazines for example. Access to media is not universal. Telling someone that their photo will appear on Facebook or Instagram doesn’t mean much if they’ve never been on the internet. If they don’t have the reference points, they can’t truly give “informed consent.”
Put your camera down and walk away. Do not pick up that child or give them a sweet and stop using black & brown children as props.
Read more about informed consent for taking photos in disadvantaged communities here.
Anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman note that “images of distant, suffering children suggest there are communities incapable of or uninterested in caring for its own people”. These photographs justify colonialist, paternalistic attitudes and policies. As good as your intentions may be, unfortunately this is the harsh reality of what your photo with black and brown children as photo props actually means.
A few people on my Instagram came at me saying that these kinds of photos using black & brown children as props are ok if there’s good intentions like uplifting a community or helping to raise money for a project that needs funds. If you are trying to raise money for a project that needs funds then take photos of all the things in your project that needs funds and share those with people. You don’t need a child’s face to help you do that because there is no price tag on that child’s life. And as for the message about uplifting communities through these kind of photos… I don’t believe it.
I see so many images that make impoverished people look passive and helpless as opposed to empowered or uplifted. People need to take the time to think about the stories their social media posts are telling.
If you are thinking about going on a volunteering trip ask yourself what you can really offer a community in a short space of time? And why not donate the money you would spend on the program to an organisation doing real work with local people who understand the community’s needs instead of going there yourself? Is it because you can’t pass up the opportunity to look like a white saviour through all the amazing photos you’re going to take surrounded by grateful and appreciative brown bodies?
You don’t need to take photos of children and you should not do so knowing that proper consent can very rarely ever be freely given due to the imbalance of power between the subject and photographer. If you don’t see a problem with using black and brown children as photo props then you are also part of them problem.
This is part 1 of 3 part series; the next post is 5 Things Us Africans Want You to Know about Our Continent and the last piece is Do’s & Don’ts When Traveling to African Countries. If you enjoyed this post, please pin it using the following image!
Some resources for best practices for international volunteering with organizations working with children can be found here.
I have written previous posts about sharing stories responsibly and how to travel responsibly.
Thank you for writing about this important topic, which is more relevant to travel and tourism than many “do-gooders” realize. You never shy away from the tough stuff and this is no exception. As a white American, I find these photos hypocritical and morally reprehensible, and you are right, we would never do this in Western countries.
You also brought up another great point, that there is literally no nuanced international view of Africa. I am not going to pretend I am an expert, as I am 100% not – but I know that there are 50+ countries in Africa and there are many cultural regions, not to mention tons of cultural and linguistic variation within each country. (We acknowledge that for countries with 50 states but not continents with 50 countries, apparently.)
I recently went to a travel site where the navigation under “places I’ve been” had a drop-down listing “USA, Brazil, Portugal, Africa.” Um…Africa is not a country. Africa is a HUGE, diverse continent, but our view of it is so stereotypical and monolithic.
Grr. Keep on doing this work. 👏
Thank you for your insightful comment! YESSSSS to everything you said especially how Africa is one generalised body of land but Europe is made up of distinct countries with their own cultures, languages and customs. I don’t know if black and brown people are not deserving of such distinctions. Its them same when people just group all South Asian countries as India when in fact we have India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh- all separate entities with their own languages and practises.
Anyway I only hope that by talking more openly about these issues, we can combat more of these awful misconceptions especially the one where black and brown bodies deserve less respect than their white counterparts.
*Edit: 54 countries. I’m sorry about that inaccuracy.
We have to keep talking about it!!! The disrespect never ends!
I am so glad you took the time to write this post…It’s a HUGE problem as we’ve seen time and time again, that people use these opportunities to show what they’re doing without really doing much. As we are coming from wealthier countries, I understand throwing money at the problem seems like a solution, but it is just one. Like you point out, a much better is to see what the people and children need. When we taught abroad, I’m really proud I organized a fundraiser. But that wasn’t without LOTS of conversations with the locals, with the students, with the instructors; it wasn’t without RESEARCH about how much these things would cost, and it certainly wasn’t without lots of effort. I understand we want to think of ourselves as helping, but really, putting down the camera and talking helps so much more.
Thank you for your comment Tara. Yes any project for a community should be developed with the community members and with the needs of the community in mind. Its extremely chilling when white people from other countries arrive with no clue of what’s needed and impose their own ideals of what they think is right. Sometimes their only qualification is their white skin.
Do you have any organisations you can recommend? I recently got a payrise and have some more money to donate.. I just never know how to decide where.. So many organisations spend so much on advertising and management and I’d like to know it’s actually doing something useful… Any suggestions?
Hi Jesska. I can recommend Gift of the Givers. They are the largest disaster response non- governmental organisation of African origin on the African continent.
Go have a look at some of the work they do using African people to assist their own communities.
Very thought provoking. I have volunteered in many places, and sometimes I felt I was doing more harm than good. I volunteered in Angola and while I learnt a lot, I soon came to the realisation that I was taking away the work of an Angolan local. There are some amazing NGOs doing great stuff (e.g. Development Workshop, ADRA…) and I just wanted to help, but I wasn’t.
I have the utmost respect for higher qualified, more highly trained friends working in charity who do so often at great personal risk. But for less qualified people like me, I feel we might be getting in the way.
I’ve also volunteered in a Palestinian refugee camp where it was less about offering services, than showing solidarity. It was about people having the opportunity to learn from each other. I feel I learned a lot and I think I did contribute.
I don’t think these people in your post mean always harm, but as you rightfully point out, it’s complex. And above all, kids should never, ever be a photo prop.
What an interesting post. I’d never thought about this issue, and now will keep it in mind on my travels. Of course I feel you should take pictures if you are a volunteer or visiting a place and these people have become your dearest friends. That’s for you, for your own personal memories. The problem comes when you plaster it all over the internet to show how open minded and racially unbiased you are. I can actually actually think of several other motivations for sharing this type of photo, but none of them very positive. Anyway, good point, thanks for sharing.
Thank you for reading and for providing some thoughtful feedback!