In a YouTube tutorial called, “How to Get More Likes on Social Media,” a young white woman scrolls through her social media feed. In one image, a friend poses with a giraffe with a caption that says, “Life is an adventure.” In another, a man flexes while small African children hang off of him. Underneath the photo he’s written, “Real heroes don’t wear capes.” Soon, the woman is having her own adventure in an unnamed African country, posing with sick children. She concludes, “Suffering will get you twice the likes.”
The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) and the women behind the satirical Instagram account, Barbie Savior, have created a guide in how not to act like a white savior. The material is meant for potential volunteers, mostly from the West, traveling to the developing world.
The two groups work on combatting the well-intentioned but naive volunteerism (or “voluntourism“). As many as 1.6 million people volunteer while on vacation each year, creating a $2 billion industry. The photos captured on these trips can easily become degrading “poverty porn,” a term first popularized in the 1980s during aid campaigns for developing countries.
The downloadable manual and checklist include tips like, “Always keep in mind that people are not tourist attractions.” Volunteers are encouraged to question their intentions, use the opportunity to tell nuanced stories about the places and situations they are encountering, and to promote dignity by not taking photos of people in degrading situations.
“We think reflecting on how you would feel if you were the mother of that child being portrayed is helpful,” says Emily Worrall, one of the cofounders of Barbie Savior. “It’s also good to pause and think, “Would I take this photo in my home country?” Would you walk into a school and snap photos of kids you don’t know or waltz into a hospital and insert yourself into situations just for the photo op? Probably not.”