Poverty Porn

Hi fellow travelers. We have a problem. There's a scathing issue that's been running amok in the travel community for quite some time, and it's many traveler's strange obsession with poverty.

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I've traveled quite extensively and have spent lots of time with other groups of travelers. I've heard my fair share of heinous comments, but some of the most egregious ones revolve around a fascination with wanting to interact with the poor. More often than not these comments are presented in the form of, "Oh, this is nice, but I want to see the REAL _________." or "Hmm..this isn't what necessarily comes to mind when I think of _________. I just didn't expect all of this." I then try to decipher the hidden meaning behind these statements and while I typically try to give people the benefit of the doubt, I can't pretend that I didn't overhear the offending person one table over talking about huts and distended bellies and flies on faces to their table mates. And, as sad and angry as these comments make me, I'm just as confused when I try to understand them.

So, I have a few questions that I'd like to ask you and I seriously hope that you consider them before you take your next trip.

  • Why do you have such a skewed view of these people and these places and where did this fetishization come from? 
    • Traveling is a very introspective activity and we usually don't take the time to reflect on our travels until after we've been to a place, but it would seem that we could benefit from spending some time before a trip thinking about what we're getting ourselves into. We often see pretty, or impactful, or interesting pictures of places and we want to visit them in order to recreate these images for ourselves. When we fail to realize that photographs and videos represent only a microcosm of an area, we're creating an unrealistic fantasy that no one place can ever live up to. We've sexualized a place and have asserted our own desires on it and are forcing it to exist only as we see fit. That's not ok. 
  • Do you think your trip is an attempt at satiating some form of guilt by visiting poor communities of color?
    • If so, your actions are probably are a lot less altruistic than you believe and you can actually be doing some serious damage to the communities that you're visiting. Think of it like starting a new relationship. If you're doing it for the wrong reason, then it's bound to fail in the end. If you are really trying to satisfy some guilty feelings that you have there are other ways of helping that don't involve you seeking out people who probably didn't ask for your help.
  • Do these feelings only apply to communities of color?
    • It's very rare that you see the same sort of voluntourism happening in predominately white countries and communities, which is a shame because helpless people come in all colors. If it's hard for you to imagine someone of a lighter complexion than you in need, then there's a deeper issue going on. White people around the world are just as deserving of exploitative help as black and brown people.
  • When you think of the real wherever you're going what comes to mind? Be honest.
    • This one is hard because it forces you to confront some serious and potentially racist thoughts. If it's hard for you to believe that there are urbanized areas where you're about to visit then you should do a bit more research before you go. Every country is unique and is full of nuance and if one of the first things that you think of when visiting a place are stereotypes of the people in need, then you should reevaluate your reasons for going.

I support all forms of travel as long as it's well researched and responsible. The questions above are just a start to eliminating the fetishization of travel and the continual exploitation of less well off communities. The real work comes in the form of conversations and discussions that result in people practicing more responsible travel options. 

Patrick Springer1 Comment