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Human Safari - Communities Or Commodies In The JPG Age

in Culture Photography Responsible Travel 702 views


As incredible and insightful an experience as our recent trip to Togo, Benin and Burkina Faso was, in many respects it was another Human Safari, with cameras clicking in villagers’ faces at every stop, some group members more respectful than others. 

This is something we would never consider doing back home.

It is a very de-humanizing act.

Especially when these photos are now often ending up, out of context, on someone’s FaceBook background, Profile photo, or other social media.

Or on calendars, holiday and gift cards, with funny captions under them, as some villagers distressed at having their photos taken were quick to point out.

Having said this, our guide on The Voodoo Trail took pains to keep our cameras in check, and to TRY TO reinforce a respectful awareness of these tribes as human beings, not just exotic oddities for our jpg pleasure.

These are communities, not commodities.

Technology has allowed us to move from adventures that amounted to a few precious rolls of film at the end, to taking hundreds of photos every day, often with bazooka-sized lenses.

And many villages that once saw only a handful of visitors every now and then must now suffer a sometimes daily onslaught of buses, vans, 4 x 4’s, or hikers.

Cameras and overall visitor (in)sensitivity are just some of the very serious issues facing the travel industry.

Ministries of Tourism are pimping their tribal cultures by putting their painted faces and ornate headdresses on brochure covers and in magazine ads.

In many cases the volume of tourists descending on what is left of traditional culture is also having disastrous results. 

Witness the Omo Valley, in Ethiopia, where tourists paying for photos of tribal members like the Morsi directly funds the illegal arms trade as the money is used to buy AK47s and bullets from Somolia and South Sudan. 

Travel companies and their groups are subsidizing illegal Arms trade. 

Do they really want to be connected with that? 

Furthermore, tour itineraries now include acts of violence in the guise of cultural traditions. 

There is the ceremonial public whipping of teenage girls in the Hamar Tribes of Ethiopia, while tourists take pictures and videos, many ending up on Facebook or Youtube or in private collections for the viewing pleasure of sick minds. 

Do travel companies and tourists really want to be supporting that?

An article in a 2014 Outpost, a well-respected magazine, shockingly suggests visiting a market in Saudi Arabia on Fridays as public hangings take place in the square next door!

Do travel companies and tourists really want to be supporting that?

Tourists, often not only insensitive and intrusive, are becoming, in many ways, the worst kind of voyeurs, condoning heinous acts by their very presence at the scene, and then dismiss any personal responsibility because "it is the culture".

Infinite opportunities exist for extremely beautiful, provocative, descriptive and memorable photos that don’t include portraits or head shots of any kind.

And tourists don’t belong anywhere where acts that would be illegal at home are not only witnessed but captured for social media and cocktail conversation back home.

Perhaps the time has come for a Code Of Conduct (a Memorandum Of Understanding) for all travellers to sign.

As intrinsic to travel as a passport.

And it’s time for the travel industry to consider what they include when organizing itineraries.

But then they must be prepared to address the economics of morals & ethics.

Rita Rayman

Co-founder, The Shit Starts Here - A Guardian Project Initiative                       www.theshitstartshere.com

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