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#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism

#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism

An essay in The Onion mocks voluntourism, joking that a six-day revisit to a farming African encampment can “completely change a woman’s Facebook form picture.”  The essay quotes “22-year-old Angela Fisher” who says:

I don’t consider my form print will ever be a same, not after a knowledge of holding such implausible cinema with my arms around those tiny African children’s shoulders.

It goes on to contend that Fisher “has been enlivening each one of her friends to revisit Africa, earnest that it would change their Facebook form photos as well.”

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

I HAVE PARTICIPATED IN not one yet three separate, and increasingly disillusioning, general health brigades, short-term visits to building countries that engage bringing health caring to struggling populations.

Such trips—critically called voluntourism—are a sepulchral business, even yet they do really small promotion and assign people thousands of dollars to participate.

How do they attract so many profitable volunteers?

Photography is a large partial of a answer. Voluntourism organizations don’t have to advertise, given they can crowdsource. Photography—particularly a robe of holding and posting selfies with internal children—is a executive member of a voluntourism experience. Hashtags like #InstagrammingAfrica are renouned with students on general health brigades, as are #medicalbrigades, #globalhealth, and of march a nostalgic-for-the-good-days hashtag #takemeback.

It was a photographs posted by other students that desirous me to go on my initial abroad medical mission. When classmates uploaded a knowledge of themselves wearing scrubs beside darling children in building countries, we believed we was blank out on a pivotal pre-med experience. we took over 200 photos on my initial general proffer mission. we modeled those we had seen on Facebook and even pre-meditated print opportunities to acquire a “perfect” picture that would accept a many Likes.

Over time, we felt increasingly worried with a ethics of those photographs, and eventually left my camera during home. Now, as an insider, we see 3 common forms of photographs voluntourists share by amicable media: The Suffering Other, The Self-Directed Samaritan, and The Overseas Selfie.



In a sketch taken by a associate voluntourist in Ghana (not shown), a child stands removed with her unclothed feet digging in a dirt. Her hands lift adult her shirt to display an umbilical hernia, heavy belly, and a span of too-big underwear. Her face is capricious and her scalp shows justification of dermatological pathology or a nutritive deficiency—maybe both. Behind her, usually weeds grow.

Anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman note that images of distant, pang women and children advise there are communities unqualified of or unfeeling in caring for a possess people. These photographs clear colonialist, paternalistic attitudes and policies, suggesting that a particular in a sketch …

… contingency be protected, as good as represented, by others. The picture of a subaltern conjures adult an roughly neocolonial beliefs of failure, inadequacy, passivity, fatalism, and inevitability. Something contingency be done, and it contingency be finished soon, yet from outward a internal setting. The authorisation of movement by an interest for unfamiliar aid, even unfamiliar intervention, starts with an evocation of inland absence, an deletion of internal voices and acts.


Here we have a smiling immature white lady with a French braid, medical scrubs, and a well-intentioned smile. This immature lady is a centerpiece of a photo; she is a protagonist. Her scrubs advise that she is doing critical work among those who are so poor, so vulnerable, and so Other.

The lady is me. And a sketch was taken on my initial outing to Ghana during a 10-day medical brigade. I’m lucent in a photograph, half soaring and half hovering over these children. we do not know their names, they do not know my name, yet we destined a crony to constraint this impulse with my possess camera. Why?

This sketch is reduction about doing tangible work and some-more about retrospectively appearing to have had a certain impact overseas. Photographs like these paint a abroad knowledge in suitability with what author Teju Cole calls a “White Savior Industrial Complex.”

Moreover, in directing, capturing, and behaving in photos such as these, voluntourists forestall themselves from indeed enchanting with a others in a photo. In On Photography, Susan Sontag reminds us:

Photography has turn roughly as widely used an entertainment as sex and dancing – that means that…it is especially a amicable rite, a invulnerability opposite anxiety, and a apparatus of power.

On these trips, we censor behind a lens, immoderate a universe around us with a absolute gazes and a clicking of camera shutters. When we destined this print event and starred in it, we used my payoff to constraint a sketch that done me feel as yet we was enchanting with a community. Only now do we comprehend that what we was indeed doing was creation myself a hero/star in a story about “suffering Africa.”


In his New York Times Op-Ed, that complicated champion of a selfie James Franco wrote:

Selfies are avatars: Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a clarity of who we are…. In a age of amicable networking, a selfie is a new approach to demeanour someone right in a eye and say, “Hello, this is me.”

Although associated to a Self-Directed Samaritan shot, there’s something extra-insidious about this form of super-close operation photo. “Hello, this is me” takes on new meaning—there is usually one theme in this photo, a white subject. Capturing this picture and posting it on a Internet is to know a Other not as a apart chairman who exists in a context of their possess family or community. yet rather as a prop, an extra, someone usually lucid in propinquity to a Western volunteer.

VOLUNTOURISM IS ULTIMATELY ABOUT a accomplishment of a volunteers themselves, not indispensably what they move to a communities they visit. In fact, medical volunteerism mostly breaks down existent internal health systems. In Ghana, we satisfied that internal people weren’t purchasing health insurance, given they knew there would be giveaway unfamiliar health caring and drugs accessible each few months. This left them exposed in a inserted times, not to discuss when a classification would leave a community.

In a end, a Africa we voluntourists sketch isn’t a genuine place during all. It is an hypothetical embankment whose landscapes are fake by colonialism, as good as a good understanding of narcissism. we wish my associate students consider critically about what they are doing and because before they pointer adult for a short-term tellurian proffer experience. And if they do go, it is my wish that they competence consider with some grade of narrative humility about how to de-center themselves from a Western savior narrative. Most importantly, we wish they leave their iPhones during home.

This post creatively seemed on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism.”

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