Every week this past summer I received at least one text asking me if I was alive.
If I had contracted a deadly disease.
If I had eaten bats or embalmed bodies recently.
If my internet had crashed, if there had been a blackout, or if my phone and computer had been stolen.
Though most of these messages were meant lightly, it was disconcerting to know that my friends genuinely believed I could be in serious trouble. From across the globe they watched the news about the Ebola virus and thought of my internship in Ghana.
Fortunately I was alive and very much not bleeding out from the Ebola virus. However, I took one course of action that further concerned my friends and relatives—I removed myself from social media. My unexplained hiatus from Facebook was not the neutral absence as I thought it would be. It seemed that this was an unprecedented approach to an internship abroad; not posting implied that something was seriously wrong, inspiring this series of concerned messages.
When most students go abroad for a summer, their peers often encourage them to share their experiences on social media. Likewise, I went on the trip with every intention of taking photos of everything from waterfalls to exotic, foods. However, when I arrived I was told we couldn’t post work photos to any social media platforms. I felt myself raising my eyebrows with surprise and disappointment; the thought of not showing my friends the work I was doing gave me a serious case of social media FOMO.
When I asked why this rule existed, I was told that my internship did not want to be associated with the widespread online criticism of “#instagrammingAfrica”. Our work involved creating profiles of vulnerable children. Photographing them would further contribute to the misrepresentative documentation of western protagonists saving the “helpless” youth of the developing world.
The program wanted to avoid publicizing images of smiling children in orphanages—when confronted with a camera, most children automatically smile, regardless of any abuses they may have experienced. The very presence of a camera influences people’s behavior, which renders photo documentation inaccurate. These photos would unintentionally represent these orphanages as positive, while the goal of my internship was to reform them.
After hearing this rationale, I came to agree with the policy. However, the rule only applied to work photos—we were free to saturate the blogosphere in our Ghana-coconut-selfies. But my new understanding of the “western protagonist” photo mirepresentation made me question my urge to go shutter-speed crazy. Suddenly, my impulsive need for a social media platform seemed inherently narcissistic. If I posted something with the intention of sharing information I was ultimately just boosting my social media image. I no longer saw photos as innocent snapshots; they were commodities we circulate for social gain. They are cultural attitudes gone viral.
I mulled over this narcissism while carrying a friend’s camera through a rural village near a slightly touristy lake in the center of Ghana. The town was small and all of the buildings were made of mud. I got the impression that the populations of goats and humans were approximately equivalent. On the horizon, there was a hazy view of a lake surrounded by tropical mountains. Through the lens of a camera, the scene was both beautiful and exotic; the perfect place to pose for a “summer experience” photo. Apparently other westerners noticed this as well—two villagers looked up from the soup they were cooking offered that I could photograph them in exchange for cash. I received the same offer from many other villagers. They seemed to understand the narcissistic Western tourist—a picture of an “African village” in exchange for money—an even exchange!
By extending this offer, these Ghanaians concisely expressed how photos function as commodities. The western assumption is that we can take and post a photo of a villager; we don’t view the act as an exchange for social capital. This worsens when people in these pictures have little access to or knowledge of the social media platforms where the photo will be displayed. When we post about them, it’s in a context in which it’s virtually impossible for the subjects to mediate their online image. It’s a largely unrecognized form of exploitation—the subjects of the photo have no agency, while the western traveler increases his/her social status.
Even if we do acknowledge the nature of the photo as a commodity, we cannot change the fact that we are foreigners and that the information we post is coming from a western perspective. Our background influences the way we frame a photo. Regardless of the way in which we travel, we capture a snapshot through two lenses: that of our camera, and more fundamentally, that of our culture.
The information I encounter about non-western nations is always through a western lens. A typical Princetonian’s newsfeed in August is filled with South American alpacas, West African beadwork, and fresh-made naan. There are also photos of poverty, posted without any information about the photo subject. Because this is social media, the “protagonists” of new profile pictures are the westerners—we become the saviors and explorers, while the anonymous foreign figures in the photo are just movie-set extras.
While it’s affirming to see my fellow classmates’ interest lie across the globe, it troubles me that I rarely see beyond this western-centric global portrayal. This propensity for the western viewpoint becomes especially dangerous when social media posts play on stereotypes, or when the viewer lacks information to accompany a picture. If we post with ignorance, social media will simply spawn those misconceptions. Even if we post with the most culturally appropriate attitude, our photography will still be western in perspective.
Susan Sontag, a scholar on photography and its social impact, argues that extensive familiarity with a photograph affects what a group communally thinks. Although our western photographs on social media platforms are not identical images, I’m starting to see how this collection of pictures stored in the cloud contributes to a pervasively consumed and unintentionally ethnocentric worldview.
As we continue to participate in international social media we have to acknowledge our western standpoint, our biases, and the fact that our pictures are commodities. Whenever possible, we should encourage and support under represented viewpoint on our social media feeds – that of the people from the countries we visit.
One post on Facebook is rarely just one post—it encourages trends and then multiplies until we are flooded with variations on a type of image. Selfies, for example. The Duck Face. Or profile pictures in foreign countries with foreign children. Pictures that are so common that their absence is surprising.
So it turns out I didn’t get Ebola.
I stayed away from bats and funerals.
None of my electronics were broken or stolen.
And the scariest aspect of my experience abroad was not being close to the outbreak of a deadly disease but narrowly avoiding what I only recently became aware of—the ethnocentric social media epidemic.