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December 7, 2013

A Picture of Poverty Tourism that Still Means Business

Does anyone else miss those late night darkroom conversations between fellow students and/or staff photographers? With soft lighting, gentle water sounds, and hushed voices, many friendships and love affairs were no doubt forged amid the intoxicating smell of fixer. Hard to imagine the same is true under the bright lights of a computer lab. One conversation in the dark I will never forget is with a fellow student in a photojournalism class, Manuel. As a member of the civil rights organization La Raza, conversations with him often involved race relations. I admitted to him that I felt the curse of discrimination when my family moved from Oklahoma to Texas when I was nine-years-old. I had been a leader of my little league team with my Dad as one of the coaches in Tulsa, but couldn’t even make the squad in Laredo. Manuel under his ever-present maroon beret replied, “You felt discrimination once in your life. I feel it every day.”

As it turns out, money can be made from persons (I would assume most likely Anglos) who yearn for a discriminatory experience. Parque EcoAlberto in Hidalgo, Mexico offers tourists a chance to “live out the drama and tension of an illegal border crossing.” Run by the Hñahñu Indians, the eco-park also offers hot tub soaks and kayak trips for those who want more traditional resort amenities.

In a photograph by Luis Acosta, a flash color image illustrates an item in a “tasteless vacation” poverty tourism slideshow list on the “Foreign Policy” website a couple weeks ago. (Reassuring us the adventure and the image is still going strong, Foreign Policy reuses the photo with different text from a list, The World’s Worst Theme Parks, it ran in 2010. And demonstrating still greater resilience, the original photo story was actually created in 2008.)

The harsh light against the night reveals a masked “coyote” in a down vested jacket prone on the ground supervising his bundled-up charges around an elaborate Y-shaped bush. His eye contact with the camera’s lens supports the illusion that the viewer is an authority figure with a bright flashlight who has caught illegal border crossers. And yet, the picture is a set-up. Screams and giggles in the background are probably heard not unlike a scary Halloween house with vampires that jump out from a hidden doorway.

Despite that the photo was taken by a photojournalist, Acosta is a staffer for AFP who concentrates on Mexico and Latin America, the picture is effectively a publicity shot. Tribe members, conceivers of the so-called lesson in cultural sensitivity, are probably elated by the image as it shows their version of the truth. However, far too often photojournalists take such pictures that support commercial, rather than journalistic, interests. Instead, a photojournalist on assignment from a news source should go for another angle that presents the hypocrisy of wealthy patrons who feel the sting of discrimination for only one day.

– Paul Lester

(photo: Luis Acosta/Getty Images)

  • Scarabus

    Good stuff. Reminded me of the scene in Michael Moore’s Roger and Me where the monied elite in Pontiac have a big party and spend the night in jail.

    I was thinking about connections between this story and some that came earlier…

    Say you’re a photojournalist embedded with the military or law enforcement. They determine what you can see, and they often censor your photos before you’re allowed to publish. In addition, you tend to identify with them and can find yourself taking photos that make them look good and tell the story they want to promote. How big a step is it from there to promoting their viewpoint, interpretation, product or service?

    [As an aside, I think this is what happened to Lara Logan. Michael Hastings kept his self-awareness and integrity, and she hated him for it.]

    Wasn’t the White House kerfuffle about the administration’s having taken this practice to its logical conclusion? They just cut out all the middlemen! Why embed outside photographers when you have your own photographer on staff? Why take the risk and inefficiency of trying to manipulate independent journalists into showing stuff the way you want when you can simply give Souza direct instructions? Why bother with establishment media when you can use social media to go straight to the public?

  • Paul Martin Lester

    I published a research article with a colleague that looked at the photographs from the Gulf and Iraq wars. It was originally titled, “Out of the Pool and into the Bed,” but the editor nixed it. The conclusion stated, “The American public and the rest of the world have a much better understanding of the benefits, rigors and horrors of war when
    journalists are allowed to cover conflicts as closely and completely as
    possible. Given the results from this study, the embedding procedure was
    a progressive step in this process, but editors should make sure that
    the complete story of the war is being presented to the readers back
    home.” Comparing the immigrant story with embedded war coverage is indeed a useful comparison. Here’s the study: On the White House, I have been disturbed by the Obama Administration’s attitude toward the media for some time now. I was influential in getting a national journalism educator’s organization to publicly complain about the few press conferences offered. The latest edition of that attitude was rightly condemned by news organizations and the National Press Photographers Association.

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