Voluntourism: Volunteering for Photo Ops, Resume-Boosting

How negative can I be, how much of a Scrooge, that calling high school kids to volunteer overseas would set my teeth on edge? Spend $3,000 to send my child to Mexico or Guatemala to help build housing for the poor, because the experience is so enriching. Never mind that the same $3,000 donated to a community abroad would employ local construction workers and stretch the dollars a lot farther.

Leave it to The Onion to help me feel vindicated.

A Columbia University student and a professor http://www.sayantanidasgupta.com/blogs.html expand on this point. Dr. Sayantani DasGupta, as a young Indian American woman, entered medical school with a vision of saving lives and making the world a better place. Politics, sexism, and red tape make that dream hard to realize.

by Lauren Kascak with Sayantani DasGupta MD MPH
Jun 18, 2014

An article in The Onion mocks voluntourism, joking that a 6-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s facebook profile picture.” The article quotes “22-year old Angela Fisher” who says:

I don’t think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arms around those small African children’s shoulders.

It goes on to say that Fisher “has been encouraging every one of her friends to visit Africa, promising that it would change their Facebook profile photos as well.”

I was once Angela Fisher. But I’m not any more.


For the complete article, go to http://www.psmag.com/navigation/business-economics/instagrammingafrica-narcissism-global-voluntourism-83838/#.U6tbofxn71t.facebook. Excerpts here:

I have participated in not one but three separate, and increasingly disillusioning, international health brigades, short-term visits to developing countries that involve bringing health care to struggling populations.

Such trips – critically called voluntourism — are a booming business, even though they do very little advertising and charge people thousands of dollars to participate.

How do they attract so many paying volunteers?

Photography is a big part of the answer. Voluntourism organizations don’t have to advertise, because they can crowdsource. Photography – particularly the habit of taking and posting selfies with local children – is a central component of the voluntourism experience.

Over time, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the ethics of those photographs, and ultimately left my camera at home. Now, as an insider, I see three common types of photographs voluntourists share through social media: The Suffering Other, The Self-Directed Samaritan, and The Overseas Selfie.

The Suffering Other

….images of distant, suffering women and children suggest there are communities incapable of or uninterested in caring for its own people. These photographs justify colonialist, paternalistic attitudes and policies, suggesting that the individual in the photograph…

…must be protected, as well as represented, by others. The image of the subaltern conjures up an almost neocolonial ideology of failure, inadequacy, passivity, fatalism, and inevitability. Something must be done, and it must be done soon, but from outside the local setting. The authorization of action through an appeal for foreign aid, even foreign intervention, begins with an evocation of indigenous absence, an erasure of local voices and acts.

The Self-directed Samaritan

…. the photograph was taken on my first trip to Ghana during a 10 day medical brigade. I’m beaming in the photograph, half towering and half hovering over these children. I do not know their names, they do not know my name, but I directed a friend to capture this moment with my own camera. Why?

This photograph is less about doing actual work and more about retrospectively appearing to have had a positive impact overseas. Photographs like these represent the overseas experience in accordance with what writer Teju Cole calls the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”

Moreover, in directing, capturing, and performing in photos such as these, voluntourists prevent themselves from actually engaging with the others in the photo. In On Photography, Susan Sontag reminds us:

Photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that…it is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

On these trips, we hide behind the lens, consuming the world around us with our powerful gazes and the clicking of camera shutters. When I directed this photo opportunity and starred in it, I used my privilege to capture a photograph that made me feel as though I was engaging with the community. Only now do I realize that what I was actually doing was making myself the hero/star in a story about “suffering Africa.”

The Overseas Selfie

….Selfies are avatars: Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are …

….there’s something extra-insidious about this type of super-close range photo. “Hello, this is me” takes on new meaning – there is only one subject in this photo, the white subject. Capturing this image and posting it on the internet is to understand the Other not as a separate person who exists in the context of their own family or community but rather, as a prop, an extra, someone only intelligible in relation to the Western volunteer.


….Lauren Kascak is a graduate of the Masters Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, where Sayantani DasGupta is a faculty member. DasGupta is the editor of Stories of Illness and Healing and the author of The Demon Slayers and Other Stories and Her Own Medicine.

About carolkean

novelist, reviewer, editor, book critic for Liberty Island and Perihelion Science Fiction; native prairie/guerilla gardener; champion of liberty, indie authors & underdogs; one of the top two reviewers in Editors &Preditors Poll 2015; Amazon Vine, NetGalley Top Reviewer
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3 Responses to Voluntourism: Volunteering for Photo Ops, Resume-Boosting

  1. Susan Sloate says:

    Carol, thanks so much for re-posting this. This kind of thing makes me heartily sick, though in all fairness the people I know who have gone overseas on mission trips come back raving about it–NOT because of the photos but because of their chance to connect with people in other countries and feel as though they’re making a difference (in a very humble and absolutely anonymous way). I’m really glad someone took the time to write something thoughtful about this, and even gladder that you’re passing it on.


  2. carolkean says:

    Susan, thank YOU – especially for the reminder that many, or most, volunteers are serving from the sheer goodness of their hearts, often at great expense or inconvenience to themselves. How many have contracted malaria while volunteering overseas? Altruists exist. Just….an awful lot of “Look at me!” types exist too. I love the gospel reminder to give in secret, not to show off our good deeds.


    • Susan Sloate says:

      My mom taught me that too, Carol – never let others know what you’re giving. I just thought of it as good manners. Funny how that doesn’t seem too important to lots of people these days…


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