After suffering an interminable period of disconnectedness from the world due to an appalling internet and communications service I am now determined to overcome the terrestrial limitations that living two hours from the official seat of Federal Government in Australia creates and bring to you the news of the latest trend in holiday travel.... Yes 'Voluntourism' is coming to an impoverished African community at a local NGO near you!
Recently I was quite perplexed to discover that Action Aid Australia weren't looking for a "seasoned professional" photojournalist to send to cover the larger story on food security in Africa but had organised a competition to find a 'talented hobbyist or amateur' to travel to Kenya and Zimbawe instead.
The successful photographer must (according to the brief supplied by this NGO) "be a highly skilled photographer (professional or amateur) who is able to take captivating photos that tell the story of the people they meet in Kenya and Zimbabwe"
Of course saving the fee from sending a professional photojournalist (who would more than likely waive it for a charity anyway) was obviously paramount to the organisation as a way of cutting costs but how much good does it really do to send a complete amateur to a foreign country to make 'happy snaps' of the indigenous people without meaning and intention?
I sent an email to the organisation questioning the wisdom and ethics of the decision to offer a trip to an impoverished African community as a prize for submitting a photo story that told a story about 'food security'. Call me silly but I must have missed when Africa became the next Disneyland...
After pointing out that without training the average amateur photographer will produce exactly the same wallpaper style shots of 'happy smiling natives' that already flood the internet, each even more indistinguishable from the next, thus creating absolutely no new dimensions of interest for the punters who are the people that fund these little jaunts, I was politely given the brush off.
My major concern, of course, is why should people who are in impoverished and traumatic situations not be dealt the consideration of having an empathetic and informed professional representing them and their issues photographically? And can a 'talented hobbyist' ...the words of the NGO's representative not mine... who can afford to buy an expensive camera and operate it on point and shoot, do justice to the greater politics, kick backs, pay backs, turmoil, stress, shitty conditions and quite often mad and territorial people, which are often the realities of working with foreign based NGO's.
But then thats not the point is it? If Action Aid wanted the real story told of the communities they minister to then they would employ a real photojournalist wouldn't they? Perhaps my cynicism is creeping in but maybe that's the whole point. The aid industry is well.... just that really...an industry. Where people get paid to continue doing 'good works' or at least the trade off is they get to alleviate their guilt and engineer some foreign travel for themselves that they can boast about when they are back in their comfortable homes sipping chardonnay with friends.
I blame Prince William and the 'Gap Year' he spent somewhere in South America for popularising this kind of thing. My colleague in arms Ian Birrell at the Observer has written an excellent article highlighting the dangers of the well meaning but absolutely naive 'voluntourist'.
I leave you today with a photo that I believe shows I understand 'food security'... Some one want to pay for my flights to Africa?