August 10, 2010

Is slum tourism bad?

It brings attention and money to the impoverished places around the world, but this NYT op-ed, by Kennedy Odede says it shouldn't be done.
I was 16 when I first saw a slum tour. I was outside my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at the utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on.

When I was 18, I founded an organization that provides education, health and economic services for Kibera residents. A documentary filmmaker from Greece was interviewing me about my work. As we made our way through the streets, we passed an old man defecating in public. The woman took out her video camera and said to her assistant, “Oh, look at that.”...

I once saw [a tour go] into the home of a young woman giving birth. They stood and watched as she screamed. Eventually the group continued on its tour, cameras loaded with images of a woman in pain.
Odede stacks the deck with these anecdotes about completely inappropriate photography. Rude tourists with cameras are a notorious problem in many contexts. I'm sure proponents of slum tourism would assert that they follow good rules for photography, or they could fix the existing tours by enforcing new photography rules.

So the question remains, is the tourism wrong apart from the bad photography? I think it is, but then, I am not the slightest bit tempted to travel like this.

I can't imagine thinking that I am a better, more engaged citizen of the world because I spend money and effort to go look at things in person that I am capable of learning about the way I would learn about history: by reading. If I can't understand and empathize by reading, that is my problem, and I'd be ashamed to try to solve that problem by imposing my physical presence on people who are suffering. 

32 comments:

Big Mike said...

There are a lot of people who simply can't grasp reality by reading about it. But after the anecdotes Odede provides now I'm not sure that some folks get it even then.

Don't people understand human dignity? Even someone who's poor needs to be allowed their dignity. What's so hard to understand?

Randy said...

Sounds like a good way to end up less one camera, wallet and/or purse; discover just how good emergency health care in a foreign country is; or obtain first-hand knowledge about the existence of God (IOW, dead). A stupid idea, IMO.

Sofa King said...

Does taking a trip into East St. Louis count? Because I've done that.

traditionalguy said...

The smell, the trashiness, and the confused people cannot cannot be experienced out of a book. But one time is enough for a lifetime. It makes having clean and intelligent neighbors who care for their homes seem like a true blessing instead of something taken for granted.

jrberg3 said...

I was in Rio last year with family for a wedding and my brother-in-law was all gung-ho about going on a tour of the slums. I couldn't understand why, it seems like a waste of money all so you can regale your friends with stories of how awful these people have it. I'm sure it makes you think about how lucky you are until you're done and planning your next visit to the top of El Corcovado to see the statue of Christ the Redeemer.

That being said, if that is what people want to pay to see, so be it. Who am I to judge, although I'm sure it stinks to be photographed like you live in a zoo. I would be pissed and would make sure that those tourists captured my anger via sign language in their photos.

pm317 said...

"Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity."

She is damn right. It is all about preserving whatever is left of their dignity and privacy. Unless we are there to find a solution for them and work for it on their behalf we have no business gawking at them as some alien creatures. Shame on these "tourists."

Scott said...

In the late 80s, my partner and I took his nephew Wanbli to the Sioux Indian Museum in Rapid City. He was 13 at the time, sort of a quiet accepting kid, and he had dark skin and really long hair. He looked as Lakota as a kid could be.

The three of us were looking at the exhibits, minding our own business, when a tourist guy and his wife came by. The guy had a video camera. He basically stuck it in Wanbli's face and told him to say something.

I told Wanbli not to talk to strangers and the guy backed off. But if I didn't have good impulse control, I would have smacked the shit out of this tourist.

It's really, really good to learn about other cultures. But culture surfing is borderline evil. People are not objects. God made us all. If you disrespect people, you disrespect God. We all have similar purposes and aspirations in life. Let's not be consumers of culture porn. Let's try to see each other at eye level and interact with each other as equals.

AllenS said...

Back when I was a pressman on a web offset press, we used to get tours that came through the factory. I hated it when people in the group wanted to take my picture.

Sheepman said...

Tours to townships in South Africa are fairly popular, especially with younger tourists. I didn't do it when I was there but heard nothing bad about them from those that did.

The purported purpose is to show tourists the local culture with an emphasis on the positive rather than the negative. Using local guides makes it safe for the tourists and puts money in the poorer communities. Can't see anything wrong with that.

Robert said...

First hand experience of third-world slum conditions does not necessarily include boorishness.

When you read about it, inevitably you are getting someone else's impressions, not forming your own.

Nothing will snap your senses to attention as sharply as first hand experience in some of these places. You will leave with your conscience screaming "why" and the rest of your sentience asking "how can this be fixed? "

Scott said...

@Sheepman (welcome):

I guess culture tourism can be done well, just like ecotourism can be done without damaging the local flora and fauna.

But as consumers of tourism, we have to be aware and personally responsible for our actions.

For retirees, the Elderhostel organization does excellent culturally-sensitive explorations of different cultures. Check it out if you're an oldie.

wv: waste -- in Lakota prounced "wah-SHtay", means "good".

pm317 said...

The question is one of choice. If we accept our culture and live the way we want there is dignity in it and we probably don't mind sharing that with others. Nobody chooses poverty and the indignity that follows, dire poverty where even the most basic needs are not met.

galdosiana said...

Part of the problem with academia today is the notion that one can read/write about something without ever experiencing it first-hand, and still be just as--if not more--knowledgeable than others on said topic. I personally find it ironic that so many theorists today sit in their cushy offices in Ivy League buildings, writing about third world suffering and theorizing about cultural identity and hybridity, when they have never once experienced it.

I think it is good for everyone to travel outside of their comfort zones. Travel to third world countries, for instance, helps those local economies. Assuming the tourist isn't just a total self-centered jerk, you can also engage in volunteer groups in those countries and actually lend a helping hand. As a language teacher at the university, I am completely for this type of travel, provided it is done in a humble, caring way, and not used solely as an academic's talking point later on.

k*thy said...

There is nothing so powerful as to witness the inner strength and resourcefulness of those living under very difficult circumstances. Such experiences can lead an actual gaining of respect for how people keep their dignity under difficult conditions – and, perhaps, foster compassion and an appreciation/gratitude (or re-examination) of the material abundance of the tourist, himself.

Of course, the tourist should engage in dialogue and ask permission, first. But, too, the author should not assume that he is being judged and looked down upon. They both have something to offer each other.

dick said...

Actually what you are saying is that someone else's interpretation of the people in those slums and how they feel and how they think will tell you how they feel and how they think. I don't think you can really get a true understanding of that by just reading a book.

Some people who write about their experiences can do so and be truthful to what is really going on. Others take their own prejudices and layer them on what they see. You are at the mercy of the author in both cases and in one your point is made but in the other you are just piling onto the political viewpoints of someone else without having the facts.

This reminds me of a lecture series of books written about 100 or so years ago by a guy named Stoddard. He would write about things he saw and they would sound interesting. However he would also mention things like bed bugs and mosquitoes and rats and spoiled meat and eye diseases. Makes you wonder what to take from his experiences and how you can assimilate them and just how true the tourist experiences of these slum tours are.

Fred4Pres said...

Slum tourism is not bad...it's pathetic.

If you want to experience something, go experience it. But a short "safe" tour through some ghetto or slum is not going to do it.

I have traveled through plenty of modest and poor areas of the world. On my own. No guides. I did not take pictures excessively. I do not pick a neighborhood because of it being a slum, but because I find it has some small feature that seems interesting. I listened to people who spoke to me. Mostly people are friendly in such circumstances and curious why you are there. I was not looking at them like animals on a game safari, but as people.

edutcher said...

Fred's right. You want to know what it's like?

Live it for a few years. This sounds like something sociology profs would do and then piously intone the 'valuable insights' they gained.

PS Riding on the Market-Frankford El will do it, especially those days when there's a power failure and you have to walk from 69th Street to one of the forward stops.

PPS Stay off the Broad Street line. Even the locals take their lives in their hands riding that.

WV "dakyboy" (no kidding) Ann needs to talk to the people at Blogger about their vocabulary.

Salamandyr said...

I've experienced enough of my own poverty, admittedly of the rather wan American variety, to have no interest in experiencing someone else's, vicariously or otherwise.

Beth said...

For a short time in 2006 tour companies took visitors on bus tours through the Ninth Ward, where the levee had burst and homes were flattened, knocked off their slabs, cars were tossed into trees, street signs wrapped around phone poles. People objected to this and the City Council banned it. I understood residents' objections, their feeling "like a tiger in a cage" as Odede puts it.

But I also thought it was terribly important for visitors to witness this, to take it home with them along with their Bourbon Street and Garden District memories. I will never forget the first time I drove over the bridge that crosses the Industrial Canal, and from up high saw where it broke, saw the neighborhood there. I've never seen anything like that. We drove through the streets quietly, stopped and talked to a few people, and yes, took photos. This is history.

William said...

I was with some tourists in Mexico when a funeral procession for a child passed by. The casket was small and brightly painted and covered with flowers. The tourists all had cameras, but not one of them took a picture. The temptation and the virute were equally palpable.

ricpic said...

Slum tourism is obscene because those who practice it are shameless.

Cheryl said...

If you're not there to help, you shouldn't be there at all.

Class factotum said...

I was on a tour of Jerusalem. The guide took us to the Western Wall and asked that we not take photos. (I think it was the Sabbath.) The woman next to me took photos anyhow. I protested to her and she said, "It's OK. I'm not Jewish."

I wondered how she would have felt if a non-Christian had walked into her church on Sunday to take photos of the service with the excuse that hey, she wasn't Christian.

Joe said...

Slum tourism ties in with the concept of the Noble Savage and adoration of the primitive to the point where the repeated claim is that those in poverty live a more pure, righteous life. When those in poverty then find a leg up and modernize their "quaint" little villages, they are criticized for abandoning their virtue.

Unfortunately, there are those "noble savages" who buy into the bullshit and do everything they can to keep their fellow man down. (Keeping non-existent "tradition" alive is simply a pathetic extension of this.)

I don't which side is more despicable.

HT said...

edutcher said...

Fred's right. You want to know what it's like?

Live it for a few years. This sounds like something sociology profs would do and then piously intone the 'valuable insights' they gained.

___

This seems like a good place to recommend a book I read this year called Gang Leader for a Day. It was excellent! It's by this Indian-American sociology PhD student at U of Chicago - who decides to go LIVE in those towers in Chicago that have since been torn down. Now, that's as close as I'd ever wanna get to that kind of slum tourism. It was very dangerous. But his insights, I felt, were valuable.

Jack Wayne said...

This smells like BS to me. Why is he washing dishes that he hasn't used in 2 days?

Methadras said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Methadras said...

Ann, your first problem is that you think you are a citizen of the world. Secondly, this article only highlights how simple, basic decency is being bred out of people because it's not in their best interests to apply even the simplest of human decency. Especially when you are essentially deferring your humanity for the sociological need to capture or at least witness the depraved living conditions other human beings live under. Oh sure, the novelty of observing 8th world shit holes might have some kind of odd romantic notion to it. But going on a human zoological field trip into these wastes only highlights the utter conceit the affluent express in their affluence. Oh, look how the lesser live, let's take pictures and show our other yuppie friends how we survived the harrowing hollows of misery and death. Yeah, we are global citizens now. Hear us pour cab and chab into our heart shaped goblets.

googleBlog said...

A non-straightforward issue. Like with most complex issues, much is in the attitude of the participants, on all THREE sides (photographer, subject, viewer).

While I empathize (and have significant first hand experience) with many of the issues Odede references, overall his comments are very presumptive, one-sided, and puerile.


"Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really “seen” something — and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community right where we were before."


How presumptuous! Odede can not "know" this. While sure there are some (other) self-absorbed yuppies, I bet there as many (if not more) people who are fundamentally moved and educated by what they've "seen", with all five senses! While Oede may never see directly the ultimate manifestations of such realized on individual or population bases, information and awareness are the first steps to solving problems. It only takes a couple Jacqueline Novogratz or Muhammad Yunus to make large scale differences in raising the quality of lives.


a condition that few tourists, no matter how well intentioned, could ever understand.

Bullsh*t. Just because others can not completely understand everything without "living it," that doesn't mean there is no understanding. Would Odede just have people not even try?


What did they learn?

Did he ask them?


And did the woman gain anything from the experience?

I don't know, does he? How about direct $'s for her and her kid? How about indirect aid to her country/village from the US (or other) governments? How about indirect increased philanthropy by viewers moved by such photos? How about policy changes resulting from viewers educated on the situation who would otherwise have no knowledge that Kibera exists, let alone the conditions therein.

re: direct compensation, is he saying that the woman giving birth had absolutely no knowledge that photographers were coming or were there? Many who let others in to make photos choose to do so in exchange for payments. This was most certainly the case most recently for me in Cuba when we went through a "typical" farmer/peasant home.

Very one-sided "reporting."

Nor do the visitors really interact with us. Aside from the occasional comment, there is no dialogue established, no conversation begun.

Sooooo, has he tried to encourage/facilitate/engage in dialogues? how about using his power vis-a-vis the NYT to open up such conversations vs. shutting everyone out?


Leaving aside the potential capitalist exchange of monies of photos for access, one could apply ODEDE's comments to most hard hitting documentary photography (from Katrina victims on rooftops to Katrina looters to landmine victims to Australian Aborigines to American Indians to Vietnamese being shot in the head to American Presidents being shot to corrupt politicians, genocide in Rwanda, etc. etc.). Does that mean such documentary photos should be condemned?

no.


Open your mind and heart; get a clue Oede.

Bryan C said...

"Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity."

So people in "slums", all of them, would rather have everyone else stay away and never look at them. Because that's so much better than having folks stop by, see how bad/not-bad things are, and contribute to the local economy.

Taking someone's picture, in a public place, doesn't take their dignity. If you want to destroy people's dignity, put them on the dole, prevent them from making a productive living, and tell them that they're so hopeless and pitiful that they need to hide in shame and lock out the rest of the world.

lifeinrocinha said...

I certainly understand the controversy about slum tours. I am both FOR and AGAINST them. Let me explain this.

I was born, grew up and still live in brazil's largest slum or favela. Life is dificult yes, but not impossible. I am proud to live here in Rocinha. I will never leave here, but I do not want to leave here. This is my home. This is my feelings about this issue of slum/favela tourism.

What I like about the tours is the contact I get from foreigns who come here. This interaction helps me to educate people about my life here in the favela. When foreigns come here I feel like my home/favela has value and are worth to be seen. The Brazilian goverment mostly ignores us and helps us very little. We want our voice to be heard. I want to feel that somebody on the outside cares about us and recognizes that we exist. Up until about 5 years ago favelas did not exist on maps. Why was this?
Many foreigns come to learn how we create and live in our comunity with little or no goverment involvement. Others come becase of the art and culture that exists here.
I do not judge why people come, they confirm that we exist.

I started in tourism becase I saw the oportunity to show my favela and help create jobs for others here. We live here, and should be making the tours here. I have heard outsider tour companies exagerrate things or tell outright lies about my favela. They do this becase they do not know and do not live here. I am here to show a social experience not some adrenalin tour. With my work, about 20% return to volunteer in social projects or start their own programs in the favela. Recently people have contacted me wanting to make projects like a rooftop garden class and another person wants to help bring solar energy here. These are people who came on visits here in the favela. Is this bad?

What I do NOT like about the tours...the tours made in jeeps or trucks is the worst becase it presents us like a zoo. The tourists have no contact with the locals and this reinforces a sense of possible danger. Tours or visits where the guests walk in the favela are more welcome. There is one company that tells their guests not to interact with the locals if they are approached. This is wrong. The glamorization of violence is another thing that we do not like here. It is as if these companies are trying to capitalize on some kind of excitement. Favelas are not war zones and people need understand that real, honest hardworking people live there, we just make less money.

There are tour companies here who use the comunity to make money but they give very little or nothing back to the community. This is not right. They should contribute something for the betterment of the favela. There are plenty of social projects here who could use help.

I am not ashamed to live in the favela and people should not feel shame to come and visit. All we ask is please do not take fotos of us like we are animals and do not have fear if we say hello to you on the street.

If we want to stop or reduce poverty, we need to stop pretending it does not exist. I call it socially responsible tourism. If you chose to tour this type of comunity, try to give something back however big or small. I work with a art school and encourage people to bring art supplies, not money.

Slums, favelas and shanties are where 1/3 of the population live in all major cities, serving the needs of mostly the rich. Visiting these places may increase your knowledge and awareness at a much deeper level than visiting a museum or art exhibition. Ignoring poverty is not going to make it go away and those who have more, should not feel guilt. Unfortunately, this world will always have this unbalance of wealth. Sad but true.

Thank you,

Zezinho da Rocinha

lifeinrocinha said...

I certainly understand the controversy about slum tours. I am both FOR and AGAINST them. Let me explain this.

I was born, grew up and still live in brazil's largest slum or favela. Life is dificult yes, but not impossible. I am proud to live here in Rocinha. I will never leave here, but I do not want to leave here. This is my home. This is my feelings about this issue of slum/favela tourism.

What I like about the tours is the contact I get from foreigns who come here. This interaction helps me to educate people about my life here in the favela. When foreigns come here I feel like my home/favela has value and are worth to be seen. The Brazilian goverment mostly ignores us and helps us very little. We want our voice to be heard. I want to feel that somebody on the outside cares about us and recognizes that we exist. Up until about 5 years ago favelas did not exist on maps. Why was this?
Many foreigns come to learn how we create and live in our comunity with little or no goverment involvement. Others come becase of the art and culture that exists here.
I do not judge why people come, they confirm that we exist.

I started in tourism becase I saw the oportunity to show my favela and help create jobs for others here. We live here, and should be making the tours here. I have heard outsider tour companies exagerrate things or tell outright lies about my favela. They do this becase they do not know and do not live here. I am here to show a social experience not some adrenalin tour. With my work, about 20% return to volunteer in social projects or start their own programs in the favela. Recently people have contacted me wanting to make projects like a rooftop garden class and another person wants to help bring solar energy here. These are people who came on visits here in the favela. Is this bad?

What I do NOT like about the tours...the tours made in jeeps or trucks is the worst becase it presents us like a zoo. The tourists have no contact with the locals and this reinforces a sense of possible danger. Tours or visits where the guests walk in the favela are more welcome. There is one company that tells their guests not to interact with the locals if they are approached. This is wrong. The glamorization of violence is another thing that we do not like here. It is as if these companies are trying to capitalize on some kind of excitement. Favelas are not war zones and people need understand that real, honest hardworking people live there, we just make less money.

There are tour companies here who use the comunity to make money but they give very little or nothing back to the community. This is not right. They should contribute something for the betterment of the favela. There are plenty of social projects here who could use help.

I am not ashamed to live in the favela and people should not feel shame to come and visit. All we ask is please do not take fotos of us like we are animals and do not have fear if we say hello to you on the street.

If we want to stop or reduce poverty, we need to stop pretending it does not exist. I call it socially responsible tourism. If you chose to tour this type of comunity, try to give something back however big or small. I work with a art school and encourage people to bring art supplies, not money.

Slums, favelas and shanties are where 1/3 of the population live in all major cities, serving the needs of mostly the rich. Visiting these places may increase your knowledge and awareness at a much deeper level than visiting a museum or art exhibition. Ignoring poverty is not going to make it go away and those who have more, should not feel guilt. Unfortunately, this world will always have this unbalance of wealth. Sad but true.

Thank you,

Zezinho da Rocinha