Passions: The price of poverty porn

Published on Sep 24, 2022 12:24 AM IST

“These tours romanticise a harsh reality” By Urvee Modwel  In Gully Boy, Ranveer Singh’s character lives in the slums, and watches as foreign tourists take a look around his neighbourhood
In Gully Boy, Ranveer Singh’s character lives in the slums, and watches as foreign tourists take a look around his neighbourhood
ByUrvee Modwel, Jamal Shaikh

“These tours romanticise a harsh reality”

By Urvee Modwel 

Urvee questions, “Would you be as willing to let someone who lives in a slum pay money to tour your house?”
Urvee questions, “Would you be as willing to let someone who lives in a slum pay money to tour your house?”

Slum tourism, or poverty porn as it’s called, is voyeurism at its worst. First came NGOs with campaigns featuring malnourished children with hollow eyes and empty, bloated stomachs... of course, you donated money and felt better about Doing Your Part. It got worse from there. Today, you can pay to enter a slum in any part of the world and look at how ‘the other side’ lives.

While one could argue it is transactional and benefits both sides, that’s far from the truth. Only when you are in a place of privilege can you enter someone else’s house, gawk at them like they are animals in a zoo, and walk out feeling as if you’ve “experienced” something. Would you be as willing to let someone who lives in a slum pay money to tour your own house? Probably not—no matter if it’s transactional, the parties simply aren’t equal.

The people living in those slums probably feel all the more degraded as you stare at them doing routine things like washing clothes, making food or simply existing. Also, if you think you’re helping them by paying money to see all this, know that it’s mainly the operators who make money; there are no ‘benefits to the community’.

These tours romanticise a harsh reality—one that remains once the tourists leave.

Urvee Modwel, 33, is a member of Team HT Brunch who is only interested in food walks

“The exposure can turn sympathy to empathy…”

By Jamal Shaikh

Jamal says, “In Nairobi, five reformed juvenile prisoners took me into the gritty neighbourhood they grew up in”
Jamal says, “In Nairobi, five reformed juvenile prisoners took me into the gritty neighbourhood they grew up in”

I first experienced #PovertyPorn tourism in Johannesburg, South Africa, 20 years ago. A guide walked us through Soweto, the heart of the revolution against the apartheid.

A few years ago, on my second trip to Rio de Janeiro, I explored the favelas—similar to India’s giant slums—which are the centres of gang wars and crime.

And more recently in Nairobi, Kenya, I booked an “AirBnB experience” where five reformed juvenile prisoners, all between 20 and 25 years old, took me into the gritty neighbourhood they grew up in.

“Nairobi doesn’t allow photography of public buildings,” one of them told me. “So, if anyone asks, tell them you’re taking selfies.” When walking the streets, two of the five stayed a few feet ahead to look out for pickpockets, one stayed with me, and two watched from behind.

The “famous five” showed me the wires from which they stole power as little children—their first crime. They took me home for a humble meal of fish and rice. We travelled in a matatu—a local bus. For USD 60 for three hours, the trip gave me insights no tourist site can offer. It also offered a livelihood for the boys who wanted to escape crime. #PovertyPorn may sound exploitative, but if experienced without a sense of entitlement, it can evoke feelings of humanitarianism and gratitude, turn sympathy into empathy and lead ideas towards the creation of a more equitable world for all.

Jamal Shaikh, 44, is the National Editor, Brunch & New Media Initiatives, Hindustan Times

From HT Brunch, September 24, 2022

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