How can anyone get better than a tourist?

The social media trap

Travel is a basic building block for a cosmopolitan society, intercultural exchange and more empathy for other people on earth - but that is not a sure-fire success. Those who travel to the Global South from Europe or North America run the risk of unconsciously solidifying stereotypes about other countries. Nowadays, a video, a picture or a hashtag is quickly posted via social media, spreading outdated, neo-colonial clichés.

Volunteering or self-adulation?

A white1 Barbie doll has a black child in her arms and is delighted. The caption reads: “Orphans simply take the BEST photos! So sweet. #wiewardeinNamenochmal “. This and similar posts can be found on the Instagram account Barbie Savior. The protagonist, a Barbie doll, regularly sets the scene in the slums of Africa - for the perfect rescue selfie. The satirical profile is a parody of reckless voluntourism. Many tour operators use the volunteer trend as a business model to place travelers in projects in which almost nothing of the high travel price arrives and poorly prepared volunteers can cause considerable damage.

At the same time, Barbie Savior also addresses the travelers themselves, who generate likes and self-affirmation by depicting poverty on their social media channels. The initiators of the account are two young US-Americans who once did volunteer work in Africa. Even if Barbie Savior is only making fun of volunteers at first glance, there is serious criticism behind it. It is aimed at young people who think they can teach African children or convert poachers without qualifications. True to the motto # for Africa nothing. As entertaining as the site is, it is primarily intended to stimulate a discussion about how volunteers behave in their host countries - online and offline.

Social Media Guide to Vacation Photos

A short, thoughtless social media post can solidify stereotypes. This not only applies to volunteers, but also to holidaymakers. Often the disappointment is great when it becomes clear that globalization has also found its way into the travel destination and the Starbucks on the corner hardly differs from the one in the Hildesheim pedestrian zone. This makes it all the more important to long-distance travelers to give their vacation in the Global South an “authentic touch”. It is not uncommon for this shot to backfire when tourists look for particularly poor areas as a backdrop or use the local people as exotic extras for their “ghetto safaris”.

But it can also be done better: Language and images can help overcome neo-colonial prejudices and help to bring complex relationships closer to a broader public in an understandable way. To make it easier for travelers to share reflected content on social networks, the RADI-AID initiative has published a social media guide. RADI-AID is an initiative of the Norwegian Students 'and Academics' Assistance Fund (SAIH) ”. It has its origins in a satirical music video. With "RADI-AID: Africa for Norway" they target the assumption that is widespread in the countries of the Global North that Africa must be saved by the West. In order to poke fun at the abstruse excesses of the supposed auxiliary culture, black students quickly turned the tables and took the self-perception of the West, as it is conveyed in fundraising videos such as "Do they know it's Christmas", to absurdity. Since then, RADI-AID has been honoring the best and worst fundraising video for development projects every year to draw attention to the spread of stereotypes about Africa.

Four principles for cliché-free content

With its guide for travelers and volunteers, RADI-AID is now primarily addressing the portrayal of Africa in social media. Similar to Barbie Savior, RADI-AID criticizes the portrayal of neo-colonial clichés, but at the same time gives tips so that travelers do not fall into the social media trap:

  1. Show respect - and thereby preserve the dignity of others
    When visiting another country, you should behave respectfully. Familiarize yourself with the customs and appropriate behavior in your destination country beforehand. Above all, pay attention to how you talk about the local people and their living conditions - and don't rob them of their dignity. Avoid generalizations or formulations that reproduce stereotypes when reporting on your trip on social media.
  2. Ask for permission
    People are not tourist attractions and may only be photographed if they have given their express consent. With inappropriate photos on the Internet, travelers often not only violate the dignity of the people depicted, but also solidify neo-colonial clichés such as that of the “noble savage”. It becomes particularly critical when minors are involved. Photos of children in dirty or torn clothes - or even naked - are an absolute taboo. Always get the express consent of the persons depicted and the parents for all other pictures before you take a photo. Also, ask if it's okay for the photo to end up on your social channels.
  3. Question your own intentions
    Even good intentions, such as raising donations for an aid organization, do not justify disregard for the dignity of other people. Therefore, ask yourself why you are visiting a country before you travel. Can you really make a meaningful contribution as a volunteer or do you travel there primarily for yourself? Have you discussed the tradition and culture in your travel destination sufficiently in advance? These questions are important in order to correctly classify your experiences on site and to be able to reflect them on your channels in a correspondingly nuanced manner.
  4. Break with stereotypes
    No matter how shocked one or the other situation may have left you: After a trip, do not tell your followers one-sided stories of poverty that are intended to generate attention and compassion and only confirm prejudices. Much better are pictures that highlight positive features. Language is an effective means of breaking down clichés. Captions and hashtags should therefore be chosen in such a way that stereotypes are challenged and not spread further.

If you want to take beautiful holiday photos, you should concentrate on the unique landscapes, delicious specialties, cultural sights and new encounters with interesting people. They are always worth a post on social media.

[1] The ascriptions “black” and white ”are not real“ biological facts ”, but social constructs. You name the different backgrounds, socializations and realities of life. The spelling was chosen after the recommendation of the "brown mob e.V.", an initiative of Black Germans in the media and the public. See: https://www.amnesty.de/2017/3/1/glossar-fuer-diskriminierungssensible-sprache or: https://www.derbraunemob.de/faq/#f03

Lea Thin is a geographer and freelance journalist from Berlin. In her work, she mainly deals with the issues of sustainability, climate and development policy, and gender.