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If Nat Geo Can Face Its Racist History, Can You?

By Colin Lieu

Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the most racist of them all? While ‘National Geographic’ took a long hard look at its racist past, to say they’re the only offenders would be to ignore the millions who have walked in their privileged photographic footsteps.

Looking at the all the puzzle pieces that have gotten us to a place where we pose in front of favelas; and use poverty-stricken children as photoshoot props requires us to interrogate the sources which frame our thinking around photography and tourism.

As Junot Diaz asks us to do better and decolonize our bookshelves, it’s time we decolonize our photo frames and albums too. Lonely Planet has featured a jumping Maasai on the cover of its Kenya edition. The New York Times has reviewed tourism and nightlife in one of Brazil’s favelas. The dots start to connect and the ugly picture of reality begins to rear its head.

Not only do Lonely Planet and The New York Times have the resources to reimburse locals comfortably for their hospitality, one would hope they also travel with native language speaking guides and understand the ethics around consent as it pertains to photos and interviews — especially when working with children.

Cue ignorant privileged tourist: Wave at kids walking to school. Take photos of locals squatting on the sidewalk. Use poverty as a photo backdrop.

Would a middle class American travel to Flint, Michigan to take selfies in front of the contaminated waterways? No. But there’s something about objectifying the other and their plight that adds to a tourist’s sense of adventure.

Admittedly, I’ve messed up here. In 2017 I traveled to Nairobi, Kenya and thought it would be “cool” to visit Kibera — the largest urban slum in Africa. I did my research to join a tour run and owned by locals living in Kibera and patronized innovative businesses (one company recycles bones from food scraps into jewelry) but was ultimately still trapped in a fetishizing philosophy. I used their poverty as backdrop.

The highest irony is that not all those who live in slums are helpless, so the poverty porn isn’t even accurate! According to a 2013 census, 32% of favela residents in Brazil consider themselves working class and 65% middle class. In reality, there are lessons to be learned from slums that could (and should) inform the future of urban planning.

If folks are willing to pay thousands to volunteer with children in Cambodia, they’re likely going to flex their capitalist muscle and exercise their right to an Insta-worthy photo to show their friends how altruistic they really are.

As an educator, this area has been something I’ve innately been very sensitive about. I proceeded with caution when choosing to volunteer at an orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Could I commit to at least one month? Was I in a position to maintain a connection (albeit virtually) after my volunteer program? How flexible was I to offer support in any way that was needed?

I’ve since been back to Cambodia mostly to visit Ratanak, a boy I taught who has texted me regularly over the last four years. We refer to each other as “brother”.

Colin Lieu in Ratanak

I was open to the connection and felt a responsibility to not just come in with my English and tech high horse (another thing National Geographic has admitted to), only to abruptly leave.

In the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, I was traveling with a group and we had to put our privilege down, flip it and reverse it.  How can tourists take the “me” out of “meaning”? The women in my group watched the Maasai women make jewellery and other handcrafts and waited for the opportunity to ask if they were able to keep the money they earned from the sales of the products. They were interested in the roles the Maasai women played in the household and wider community. They asked permission before taking beautiful close-up photos of the Maasai women’s clothing, accessories and faces.

As much as those in our camera lens are being gazed upon and stripped from power, recognizing they can gaze back is the first step to acknowledging their story not as something ‘over there’ in the distance. The tourist must think of ways to empower the other in that moment of warped privilege because ultimately the gazed upon stays caged in their environment while the tourist gets to go home.

We’re all innocent until proven guilty. But in this case, the trial needs to be conducted on our own. Can you face the mirror of your own photo tourism habits?

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