As spring break rapidly approaches, we can expect our social media feeds to be overwhelmed by wittily captioned images of our peers riding elephants in Thailand, sipping wine in Georgia and perusing outdoor markets in Beirut. Next time you snap a picture with your fancy camera, ask yourself, “Would I take a picture of my next door neighbor doing this?”
Social media provides an excellent platform for keeping in touch with friends and family, but it is also a powerful vehicle for creating a narrative about the subjects of your posts. Social media pages largely promote the narrative of their owner, but they also work to create narratives about the places the owner visits and the people they photograph. Privileged university students travelling around the world for holidays and class trips and bringing back images and souvenirs is reminiscent of the very travelling practices criticized by Edward Said in his groundbreaking book, Orientalism.
It is a strong claim to compare some university student’s aesthetically pleasing Instagram post of visiting an ashram in India to Delacroix's masterpiece, Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834). However, in terms of creating a narrative, they effectively serve the same purpose. Throughout France’s colonial exploits during the nineteenth century, artists would often travel to colonized lands. Upon their return, painters would create exceptional paintings capturing the so-called oriental world. These paintings featured patterns, colors and street scenes that had never been seen by those living in Paris at the time. The importance of these colonial painters is that they had a monopoly over the narrative of the people they were painting. It was entirely within their power to construct perceptions of the oriental world. Said, and many others since him, have criticized these artistic practices for dehumanizing orientals during colonization by depicting them as rudimentary, mystical and otherworldly.
Works by colonial European painters such as Delacroix and Ingres are canonical and are widely praised for the virtues of their techniques, but they also carry significant political contexts with them. Similarly, using photography to produce works of art while travelling abroad carries certain ethical responsibilities. It is imperative to not assume a photograph or painting can be dissociated from its political meaning because of its aesthetic purpose.
When students capture images of school children in the street or local shopkeepers and post those images on their social media pages, they are assigning their own narrative to those faces. Often their captions take one element of society the student experienced and extrapolate it to create a generalized statement about the entire culture. Examples include high resolution, vividly colored images of people in a market with a caption along the lines of, “People in X live so simply by avoiding supermarkets all together, they have definitely inspired me to shop at my local farmer’s market more.” This type of statement is problematic because it makes several assumptions about people in country X — for example, that they have simple lives, that they intentionally avoid supermarkets, that their culture especially values outdoor markets, and so on. Furthermore, this photograph and caption combination take a group of people's daily routine and turn it into some profound statement about their way of life.
Consider, for a moment, if the roles were reversed, and you were picking up your younger sibling from school and there were a group of tourists snapping pictures of the adorable children with their colourful backpacks as you made your way home. Or perhaps you stepped into the coffee shop on the corner and there were those pesky tourists again, watching you pour cream into your coffee. The problem isn’t that these people are tourists, or that they are interested in learning about daily life in your culture. The problem is that they are turning your life into some sort of lesson about your culture. Imagine the Instagram posts when they get back home, with captions like, “So inspired by the fast-paced environment that the locals manage to thrive in.” You were probably unaware that your morning coffee run before work was symbolic of some admirable trait that is allegedly embedded deep within your society.
Aside from the fact that this type of insta-voyeurism is creepy, taking pictures might be questionable with regards to privacy. For example, it is illegal to take pictures of people in the UAE without their permission
. The real issue is the power dynamic associated with the practice of developing a narrative for those people. Said called out the practice for its role in justifying colonial practices and, specifically, the role of art in constructing a certain paradigm around these people. The nature of the game has surely changed since the 1800s, but that does not mean the problem has dissolved.
NYUAD students have the opportunity to gain a uniquely diverse world view and most of them have read Orientalism in some measure, but that does not mean that we are not liable to fall into the same social media traps as everyone else. There is nothing wrong with chronicling your travels all around the world, but before you take a picture, ask yourself, “Would I take a picture of a person doing this in my hometown?” or, “Is this the kind of statement that I would be comfortable with someone making about my culture?” If the answer is no, then please treat the local of whatever country you’re travelling to with the same dignity that you would afford to your own neighbors.
Maya Morsli is Opinion Editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.