Elisa Morales’s Research on Images in Voluntourism Marketing and Her Advice For More Ethical Photography

Posted by | · · · · · · · · · · · | Ethics · Photography · Storytelling

Elisa Morales has experience working as a manager in the corporate sector and program manager in the nonprofit sector. She has a MBA in Nonprofit Management and MA in Sustainable International Development from The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. She currently resides in Los Angeles, California and spends her days working as a freelance social impact consultant for organizations whose mission is to help underserved and marginalized populations, or to achieve positive social impact more broadly. You can reach her through her website, http://www.elisakmorales.com.
Hi, Elisa. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Why did you decide to research voluntourism? What led you to focus on visual representations of identity and culture?
It is my pleasure!
My research interest stemmed from personal experience. When I was in college I spent a summer living and volunteering in a township in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. During my time there I was exposed to various forms of volunteer tourism. I noticed various ways in which voluntourists discussed their experiences, photographed the community, and shared perspectives about poverty—me, being a part of that. Privilege, power, and subjectivity seemed to be dominant themes in images and stories shared on social media, and I noticed that trend carried over to how voluntourist organizations marketed opportunities and portrayed host communities. This observation inspired my research.

Your research focuses on voluntourism organizations. How do your findings extend to NGOs and nonprofit organizations?

The case study analysis portion of my paper focused on the online images of ten different voluntourism organizations, but my research extended beyond the scope of the case to include general marketing practices of those working in the social impact sector i.e., nonprofits, NGOs, etc.
I developed two tools to conduct my analysis, and I designed them in such a way that they are relevant to any organization focusing on social good and working with marginalized communities. The “Image Analysis Framework” focuses on five representational conventions: exoticization, exclusion, cultural appropriation, disempowerment, and dependency. The “Scale for Measuring Harmful Representations” gauges the extent of harm caused by existing marketing materials that utilize these five representational conventions.

“Organizations have transitioned away from traditional poverty porn, where people are depicted as poor, destitute, and desperate, and have moved towards images that portray host communities as happy despite living in poverty. This could be considered a new version of poverty porn.”

What were the most common types of visuals you saw organizations use?
The images on the websites were mostly from past voluntourism trips. The majority of images focused on the voluntourist and the overall experience, although each website varied in how much the host community was included. I analyzed only images showing host community members. I found that representation of children is a dominant theme, which matches the popularity of childcare, teaching, and orphanage projects in the voluntourism industry. The images of children were typically used to market the opportunity as a whole, not necessarily a specific project or activities that specifically involved children. Out of the 268 images in the analysis, 42% involved children.
Another theme was showing children without adults from the host community. Out of the total of 268 images I analyzed, 146 images of them showed members of the host community. Of those 146 images, 65% (95 images) showed children alone or with voluntourists. Adults from the host community were pictured alone or with voluntourists in 24% of images. That is a huge discrepancy.
Most photos showing children from host communities also depicted racial opposition, meaning that the voluntourists – who were almost always white – are pictured with black or brown members of the host community.
Explain a little more about the scale you developed to identify what pictures were harmful or not.
In order to identify what images were harmful or not, I used the “Scale for Measuring Harmful Representations.” This ranks an organization’s visual depiction of host communities on a scale from 1 to 5, with one being least harmful and five being the most harmful. Each number corresponds to a specific definition of harm centered on factors including whether or not children appear in pictures, and with whom. Five of the ten organizations whose images I analyzed received a ranking of 5 since over 41% of their online images depict children as alone or in the care voluntourists rather than adults in the host community.

Is a solution showing images of children with the adults in their lives? Why or why not?

Yes, absolutely. And even more so, it is about showing an accurate and dignified representation of the community. Having a majority of images that show children without adults suggests they are absent and that the voluntourists need to fill that absence. In any context, showing the community members together, both adults and children, provides the opportunity to highlight the work already being done by local community members.
Other recommendations would be:

  • Provide context to photos, explaining the setting, circumstance, and relevant cultural elements as seen from the perspective of the host community.
  • Emphasize a cultural exchange and a partnership where community and culture is being shared vs. voluntourists taking and consuming
  • Host community should be referred and depicted as experts of their own community
  • Avoid the voluntourist being the protagonist in the photo, particularly when host community members are included
  • Avoid photos that depict the host community as in need of saving
  • Include marketing materials that show the agency, capacity, and capabilities of the host community
  • Include images that show the involvement of people in the host community working towards social progress and justice
  • Pay attention to power dynamics, body positioning, and body language
  • Avoid photos where the host community is pictured at a distance, downward angle, or posed as if they are a prop/backdrop

Why do you think organizations default to certain types of visuals and how can that be changed?
Organizations have transitioned away from traditional poverty porn, where people are depicted as poor, destitute, and desperate, and have moved towards images that portray host communities as happy despite living in poverty. This could be considered a new version of poverty porn, where poverty is an unfortunate consequence rather than a result of political and structural inequality. While this no longer exploits the personal suffering caused by poverty it still has harmful effects, such as creating a visual perception that adults in a host community are disempowered or dependent on Western assistance.
It is important to ask what kind of story photos tell and specifically how the representation of children and exclusion of adults influences the perception of identity and reputation of the host community. When the host community is not included in photos or in the creation process, the person, company or organization that is telling the story can manipulate it and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
How did the organizations respond when you contacted them about your research and/or they heard about your findings?
My paper was not a journalistic article, rather a scholarly one, and my case study was based on the observational analysis of online marketing materials. Since I used an observational approach on published content, I did not contact the voluntourism organizations regarding my analysis. I would be happy to share my research and I would be very interested to hear what they would have to say.
What advice do you have for organizations trying to create ethical visual and storytelling guidelines?
All organizations should continually evaluate their marketing practices to verify whether they are focused on representing marginalized communities in a dignified manner while empowering them to lead the process.
Ideally, the host community would participate in and even lead the creation of marketing materials that involve their community. The host community can then share the reality of their identities and cultures without being commoditized and stereotyped by someone who does not share or fully understand that social, political, or economic context.
For voluntourism organizations specifically, moving beyond inclusion and into justice begins with four steps. Step one is to listen to host communities and the people who experience marginalization to understand how they want to portray their community and livelihoods. Those working for voluntourism organizations should reflect the people that are being served. Step two is to utilize the “Scale for Measuring Harmful Visual Representation” to understand how current marketing materials portray host communities. Step three is to use the “Image Analysis Framework” to verify that the strategy and development of marketing materials does not involve harmful representations. Step four is to understand that there is always more to learn.


sheridan says:

July 28, 2016 at 8:36 pm


AS A VISUAL COMMUNICATOR, I REGULARLY PONDER – WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVE WAYS WE CAN TAP INTO MOTIVATIONs of our audience (e.g. willingness TO CHANGE ATTITUdES or BEHAVIOUR AROUND IMPROVING POLICY, FUNDING PROJECTS, voting ETC) WITHOUT PROVING SCARITY AS THE essential JUSTIFICATION TO MAKE IT BETTER, FAIRER ETC…? Put another way, how to counter that superficial reaction of “He/She seems happy, proud and content with the way life is, so perhaps so things don’t ‘really’ need to be different..?”


sheridan says:

July 28, 2016 at 8:38 pm

ps. no idea why some of my words come up in capitals – I wasn’t trying to shout any points!!


Laura Elizabeth Pohl says:

August 9, 2016 at 4:00 pm

Thanks for your comments. The point you bring up about “they’re happy so do things really need to change” is a good one. People are resilient and can adapt to many difficult situations and even find joy in those situations, but does that mean they don’t want change or don’t want more out of life? It’s a good question to ask the people being served. Thanks also for the link. Helpful content there!

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