Monday, March 30, 2009

Glamorizing Poverty or an Innovative Way Out of It?

Check out this article, called "Rio tourists to slum it in style" about a German developer who believes that building a high-end hotel in Vidigal favela is the next big thing for tourism in the Cidade Maravilhosa.

Depending on the day, my mood, my geographic location, the latest news, etc. I can understand - and likely argue in favor of - both side of this type of story.

Be it favela tourism in Rio, visits to Khayelitsha in Cape Town, homestays in empoverished but breathtaking Sapa in the hills of Vietnam, or any other such venture offering an "authentic" experience to those willing to pay, it is hard for me to decide whether I believe the end result is exploitation or a fascinating way to bridge social differences and recognize the value of otherwise marginalized people and communities.

For each altruistic, socially conscious visitor who is truly interested in understanding how others live, I imagine there will be 10 others who are keen on staying in a favela hotel for the Experience - just so they can take the requisite photos of "innocent schoolchildren walking home past another child, only slightly older, holding an AK-47 and keeping watch over a drug sales point" or "visibly destitute but smiling favela resident dancing samba with beer in hand and view of city lights in background" - and return home to impress friends and family with said photos and tales of authenticity and how, despite the occasional brush with gun-wielding drug traffickers (referred to in a very nonchalant manner), they were truly accepted into the Vidigal community during their 4-day visit.

As much as I am annoyed by the "Quest for Authenticity" in tourism (staying in a penthouse in Barra and eating sushi every day is just as *authentic* as playing cards on a stoop in Rocinha, although it's not necessarily *representative* of the way most brasileiros live...), is it really a bad thing? Is it harmful?

Again, back to the questions I can argue either side of, depending on the day.



Mbini said...

Difficult one really. I love the idea of job creation, maybe development, blah.

On the other hand I get so annoyed by "the 1st world" tourists who like to make fun of the poor. Most of these people come to Africa and some other middle and lower income countries to take glossy images of these innocent poverty striken people to make more money. Now they never bother to ask for permission to use their images, they just post them for the whole world to see.

Worse, they have nothing positive to report on these poorer countries. Its all about poverty, AIDS and corruption. Maybe I'm overly sensitive because thats all the news I hear about South Africa when I'm abroad. Nothing about the richness in culture, warmth of the African people, great hospitality..., just a dark cloud.

Sorry Ali I didnt mean to vent in your blog. I just think when people want to make a positive impact, they can by helping where they can without making fun of the situation and even exagerating.

Sadly, most of the people who have too much bad news to report about these countries have never set a foot in them. Hope you sleep well.

Let me publish this before I delete it.

Ali la Loca said...

~Mbini - I'm glad you commented! It is so sad for me to hear about tourists who make fun of the poor. Thankfully I've witnessed it very few times, as I'm at the point now where I call people out on their sh*t and I don't think I could keep my mouth shut if I heard a well-off tourist making fun of someone in the country they've come to visit.

That said, I agree about the bulk of media portrayal on Africa, and the developing world in general, having a negative spin. It seems like either you're hearing about the massive problems, or about the 5-star resorts and high-end holidays you can take in the very same places.

Things are slowly becoming more balanced in terms of media portrayal (or so I tell myself), but that's one of the reasons I like blogs so much - you get access to multiple realities on the ground that traditional media is either unaware of or reluctant to promote.

Monkey McWearingChaps said...

I'm also sort of lost on how I feel about the "take picture of the poor in foreign lands" everyman-is-a-National-Geographic-Explorer thing. On the one hand, I've seen poor people in India used to flock around Western tourists who actually acknowledge their presence (good or bad) whereas most Indians just zone them out. OTOH, I feel really uncomfortable making other human beings part of my "travel experience" and then posting up my 'spensive DSLR pictures of them on Flickr.

So yeah, it's a big complicated mess for me. For instance, did you photograph the native Montagnard cultures when you were in Sa Pa? I think I would after asking permission but I'm not sure I'd put it up on Flickr. But seriously, would anyone be asking someone in a Western country to pose for some of those photos? LOL, no. It's a very delicate line between exoticising and genuinely being taken aback by the beauty of the world's diversity.

At the end of the day, I travel to experience a smattering of that beauty and diversity. I don't put myself on a pedestal over other people and their reasons for travel nor do I sneer at their choices. I'm not always concerned about having the "most authentic" experience possible (umm, comfort is of import as well) so I hope that saves me from unintentional assholery. I also remind myself that 50/60 years ago my mom and dad would have been those kids in poverty shyly smiling at someone with a camera and would I want people on Flickr gaping at them and pre-writing their stories in their heads? Ummm, no. It's totally condescending and that's just for starters.

Gah, I am very jumbled up on this matter.

Monkey McWearingChaps said...

By the way, there is a very nuanced article on this in this year's "Best of Travel Writing 2008" regarding the incursion of tours into Mumbai's biggest and most infamous slum.

Ali la Loca said...

~Monkey - I am full of issues when it comes to photography during my travels, or even in my home-context in Maputo, or in Rio. I tend to take photos either of 1) architecture, 2) landscapes, 3) people I know - or at least have had some sort of interaction with -, and 4) food.

I have shockingly few photos of Mozambique, mostly because I feel super conflicted at each photo opportunity. If I don't capture images of the communities we travel through, I fear pangs of regret for not registering anything (and then get upset at myself for letting my inner voice spoil my photo opportunities in the name of being culturally sensitive). On the other hand, I feel like a typical "development tourist" or whatever you want to call it if I snap a photo of every market mama or wide-eyed kid wily nily.

In Sapa, I took about 5 photos of people. One was of our guide, who was from Sapa but working out of an agency in Hanoi. The others were of local women and girls who I asked permission before photographing. The whole thing was very charged with meaning, a bit weird for me.

I felt like since I was a tourist, the women - dressed in costume, whether it was their daily habit or not - expected me to photograph them. I was the curious tourist, and they were the exotic local - we each had our roles to play. Even thought I chatted with each person, and asked permission, I still felt like I was falling into the typical interactions. And, of course, in exchange for a photo I then felt pressured into buying something or giving a tip.

I asked our guide what was the protocol for taking photos, and he basically said you don't have to ask permission, you just take photos of anybody and then pay them afterwards.

Somehow that didn't sit too well with me, but likely that's my over-analyzing "sensitive traveler" mind at work. Hah!

Ali la Loca said...

~Monkey - One other note...I'm all about comfort in travel these days!!

Mbini said...

I am all for comfort too. The "tip" part is interesting. And off course we pay models, don't we. Now that sounds like business to me.

I always imagine seeing my relative not looking so great (models use heavy makeup to cover their flaws you know) in a Magazine in Frankfurt Airport, in her rural hut. That would be very upsetting, so this topic is very close to my heart. Thanks for raising this.