Poverty voyeurism, versus tourism, is an ugly trait

Today would be the final day for me in Dakar. Part of me says, "Finally". The other part wishes it could last a bit longer. This is a near bona-fide rest day, and I can feel it already. The body has relaxed. The mind is not racing ahead to meetings and commitments and schedules. I have no one to call, no one to meet, nothing to collect. And my entire body senses that and I feel ... different. It actually feels stress-free. And I want to keep it this way for at least until I have to carry the bags downstairs for the taxi ride to the airport.

Right now, tourism has been a haphazard series of opportunities.

We managed, yesterday, to slip over the the Ville des Artistes in Dakar. This is a decent sized market where a lot of at is purchased is actually built by artisans inside the premises. They call it a 'usine' - a factory - and it has that sense to it. The men there are surrounded by wood, they have a small work space and they spend their days chipping away at wood, creating the same object again and again. That is moved on to the stalls and then to the tourists.

It looks like an incredibly hard life. Day after day squatting at the work station, which is little more than a spike driven into the work base that lies on the ground. They chip at the wood, and bring it to the final shape, be it a mask, set of spoons or figuring.

And they understand tourism - you are invited into the space and asked to take photos and talk to the artisans. They have weathered and leathered flesh and work with some speed. And there is something visually fascinating by these people. They are not the soft European forms that is so much the visual habit in my life. They have fascinating faces and they are compelling to photograph. And I took a few photos, spoke to some people and exchanged the basic chats that are the habit here (What is your name? Where are you from? Welcome to Senegal...). And they will do the chat in French, English, German, Dutch.... These are business people and they are polyglots, even in their hard lives.

But a lot of `Senegal looks like a hard life. It can be slightly embarrassing for touristy people like me. Yesterday I took and early morning walk along the beach to where the fishing boats set off every morning. This time I checked for high tide and timed myself better and was looking forward to collecting a series of photos.

By this early hour, some boats were already coming in - and I can only think they had caught the late night high tide and came in as others were leaving - and were selling their catch to the women who gather as the boats come in. There were a series of catches all in a circle and they were negotiating prices and I was working my way in, quietly, one of the pics here on the right, and was about to ask if I could take some photos. I would have made a clear gesture, asked permission from one of the elders, and then would take the shots. But just then, this incredibly thin young man, in heavily stained work clothes, came and asked if I had 100CFA or anything for him to buy food to eat. This is pennies .. nothing. But I had come out without wallet or pocket change and could offer nothing.

But here I was, in my shorts, Calvin and Hobbes t-shirt, a pair of crocs about to take photos (with a camera with a price tag that would have literally changed their lives for the year, at least) of some of the poorest people I would encounter on this trip - and suddenly my entire photographic venture smacked of tourist poverty/poverty voyeurism. The images served no purpose save for my entertainment. That my supposedly great photos that I would show to my friends back home while sitting on a terrace enjoying another beer, would be built on someone's abject poverty and hard life... and I lost my taste for it all and went back to my comfortable hotel for my breakfast of croissants, jam, toast, coffee and cakes - and did not speak about the morning's venture.

One of the more uncomfortable moments I had this trip.


Interesting point, and one I sympathise with. As much as we'd like to conserve these moments for posterity through photographs, in many of these situations taking photographs feels like a very awkward and unnecessary thing to do, and in fact it's far more natural and enjoyable to just take in all you are seeing instead of worrying about photos. I am sure it must be quite annoying for people to be photographed going about their daily business simply because this is different and bizarre to us...