Slumdog Tourism -By KENNEDY ODEDE -Nairobi, Kenya
"Slum tourism has a long history- during the late 1800s, lines of wealthy New Yorkers snaked along the Bowery and through the Lower East Side to see 'how the other half lives.'
But with urban populations in the developing world expanding rapidly, the opportunity and demand to observe poverty firsthand have never been greater. The hot spots are Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai — thanks to “Slumdog Millionaire,” the film that started a thousand tours — and my home, Kibera, a Nairobi slum that is perhaps the largest in Africa.
Slum tourism has its advocates, who say it promotes social awareness. And it’s good money, which helps the local economy.
But it’s not worth it. 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.
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.”
For a moment I saw my home through her eyes: feces, rats, starvation, houses so close together that no one can breathe. I realized I didn’t want her to see it, didn’t want to give her the opportunity to judge my community for its poverty — a condition that few tourists, no matter how well intentioned, could ever understand.
Other Kibera residents have taken a different path. A former schoolmate of mine started a tourism business. I once saw him take a group 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. What did they learn? And did the woman gain anything from the experience?
To be fair, many foreigners come to the slums wanting to understand poverty, and they leave with what they believe is a better grasp of our desperately poor conditions. The expectation, among the visitors and the tour organizers, is that the experience may lead the tourists to action once they get home.
But it’s just as likely that a tour will come to nothing. After all, looking at conditions like those in Kibera is overwhelming, and I imagine many visitors think that merely bearing witness to such poverty is enough.
Nor do the visitors really interact with us. Aside from the occasional comment, there is no dialogue established, no conversation begun. Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.
Slums will not go away because a few dozen Americans or Europeans spent a morning walking around them. There are solutions to our problems — but they won’t come about through tours."
Working in a region where there is plenty of poverty on display I am often faced with the dilemma of "To shoot or not to shoot?" as I move around. It's something like the proverbial angel and devil sitting on my shoulders arguing it out. On one hand I often remember an admonition from a photography professor when it came to being timid, "You are a photographer. It is your JOB to get the image." I am obviously required to produce good photographs for my occupation, and I feel an obligation to show things as they really are: good, bad, and ugly. I think there is a valid need to show those who have never left suburban America the reality of life around the world in order to awaken them to the needs and help them better understand the stories we tell them. I think we all need to see the conditions people live in, see the challenges they struggle with, and have a face with which to connect. We need to hear how God is working in places in spite of poverty, or sometimes, because of poverty. I think it is important for us to recognize just how blessed we are and to be aware of how we can impact a hurting world. I think photos can help us do that. And I think it's my job to take those photos.
But on the other hand, I have an overdeveloped sense of wanting to err on the side of respect to the individual. I know some people who have no problem getting in a random person's face and taking a picture without ever saying a word to them, and I'm fine with that in certain situations. But there's something in me that when I'm around extreme poverty or people in vulnerable states, while I very much want to be able to photograph freely, it restrains me. It's thinking of how I would feel to have a photographer show up in my world, snapping away at my simple life. "Oh! Look at how she holds her coffee while she browses facebook! Look how boney her hands look peeling those carrots. Let's get a closeup of that. Her uncombed hair and faded pajama pants will really sell this." For some people, being photographed without prior notice or consent can very much feel like an invasion of privacy. That's true no matter the level of wealth or status. But I think it is exacerbated by poverty because poverty so often robs people of their dignity in and of itself. They are already living in overcrowded quarters with little privacy and without some basic necessities, often working in jobs where they are looked down upon. Then someone comes by with a camera and exposes them even further. That's why my fear is making someone feel less than human because I come by with a big expensive camera and start snapping shots of them just trying to scrape up enough to feed their family.
Thus my dilemma. I don't have the perfect answer yet. It's something I still mentally struggle with when shooting in those situations. Other photographers might disagree with me, but when I am in doubt, I don't take the shot. I would rather miss some excellent photos than just shove ahead shooting and risk leaving people feeling disrespected and resentful. Yes, I am a photographer. Yes, it is my job to get the shot. But I am a fellow human and a Christian first, and it is my job to be respectful and show empathy, compassion, and the Love of Christ above all else. So sometimes, that may mean letting a powerful photographic moment slip by. And I'm okay with that.
What do you think? Is there value in slum tours or short-term missions to those areas? How can we balance the benefits that come from such interactions against the negatives? I've had this conversation with a lot of different people over the last few years and everyone seems to have a different opinion so I'm always interested to hear what other people think about it.