The Cambodian family hopped out of their rental car and walked up to the charming, if rundown, school building in rural Scotland. Unpacking their cameras, they spotted a group of schoolchildren in the cute uniforms they had heard so much about, and approached the gates.
A few of the younger ones in the playground eyed them curiously, and smiled. The perfect shot for Instagram.
Is the above scenario absurd to you? Or even disturbing? In reality, alerted by the older children, a teacher would run out and ask what the family thought they were doing. The police might be called. Angry parents would ask why the school wasn’t doing more to protect their kids from strangers.
So let’s think about the reverse of this situation.
The French version of the online magazine Slate recently collated data to prove that tourists were much more likely to upload photos of children on popular travel website Routard.com if the country where they were taken was poor and African or Asian.
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.
In the western countries where photos were taken, the images were more often composed from an angle where the children’s faces were not visible.
We would be naive to think British tourists are any different, even if the African countries are more likely to be former colonies like Kenya and Uganda, rather than Benin.
Take a second to browse your Instagram for #poverty, #Cambodia or #Africa. It won’t take long to come across images like these.
Can you imagine seeing yourself for the first time ever? @travelkuna for more L, C & T your travel buddies for more vacation inspiration. . My friend had the pleasure of doing this in #uganda and the smiles are priceless! . Pics belong to their respective owners | @the_candourist @travelkuna @adventuremafia . . #wanderlust #trip#worldnomads #travellushes#natgeotravel #adventuretravel#worldtrip #ig_capture #wheretonext#explorer #nature#natureart#sharetravelpics #TravelPhotos#beautyofnature #wonderfulplaces#openmyworld #bestview#greatoutdoors #godscreation#getoutdoors #beautifuldestinations#travelpics #welivetoexplore #passportready #africa #travelafrica #seetheworld #lifeofadventure
Humanitarians of Tinder has poked fun at “volontourists” – but it’s worth asking why exactly Westerners will take a photo with a bunch of grinning Cambodian school kids and post it on social media in a way that would be seen as bizarre on a Greek or Spanish holiday.
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.
An accompanying social media guide raised awareness of the dignity that can be stripped away from children who are photographed without their parents’ consent, and encouraged tourists to research the legal framework in which they were taking photographs.
“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.”
They may also be breaking the law. Taking photos of children without parents’ permission is illegal in Senegal (high up on the Slate list), for example, though the rule is rarely enforced against tourists.
Some professional photographers are taking action, and attempting to set an example in a medium that has at times celebrated clear ethical compromises in favour of an “authentic” aesthetic.
With a background in anthropology, Savannah Dodd set up the Photography Ethics Centre, which has developed training programmes aimed at instilling critical thinking about taking and sharing photographs in developing world contexts.
“This double standard about photographing children in low- and middle-income countries comes from something very insidious in global affairs that cannot be disentangled from colonialism and the historical trope of documenting the native ‘other’,” Dodd believes.
Social media has only exacerbated existing power inequalities that are a hangover from the colonial era, she added. “Distributing a photograph of a child taken without consent across the internet is palpably different than hanging that photograph on your living room wall… There is a visual trope that perpetuates the stereotyping of low- and middle-income countries, and there is an ethical responsibility to challenge those stereotypes in the images that we create.”
Tess Guiney, an academic who has studied “hug an orphan” vacations in Cambodia, explained in a 2017 paper how insidious the expectation of a smiling child in the context of poverty can be.
“Children are expected to be ‘poor‐but‐happy’ and to engage intimately with volunteers and visitors to engender tourist satisfaction and encourage sympathy and donations,” she wrote. “The performance of this behaviour is mediated and controlled by their emotional supervisors, orphanage directors. Through volunteer tourism, children are now a tourist commodity, utilising their love and emotions and creating space for exploitation.”
Some tourists are making money too. Searches for “Africa children poverty” on the Shutterstock image website — where clients pay a monthly fee for images from amateurs and professionals — return more than 30,000 images.
At the heart of this issue is consent. Children may be too young to understand the concept of consent, or to grasp how their image might be used once it is taken.
“Mostly this urge to share these photos comes from a good place,” said Øgård of SAIH. “Most voluntourists wish to show their friends the reality of the communities they’re visiting, but they often go about it the wrong, and sometimes in a harmful, way. Consent is still key, even if you are away from home.”
The concept of informed consent from parents also becomes warped when the pressures of extreme poverty are taken into account.
Dodd, of the Photography Ethics Centre, believes that ultimately there are few situations that can ever justify taking images of a child without their parents present.
“Generally speaking, I would advise anyone approached by an unaccompanied child in a low- or middle-income country – or in any country, for that matter – not to lift their camera.”