Response to 'They come, they photograph us but they don't help' - Why ecotourism in the Amazon shortchanges the locals.
There are a lot of interactions occurring in the scenario illustrated in this Guardian report on tourism deep in the Amazon jungle. At the core is the exploitation and commoditisation of Otherness and the avarice of the photographic medium. At a different level rests the debate about exactly what is in the public domain - do I have the right to photograph anything and everything that appears in public, is my own visage and activity up for grabs. It may surprise some but my face has been a sort after subject, as an example of the hairy faced foreigner that passed through remote villages and ate in tiny restaurants, often frightening young children unused to bearded males (This was some years before the current hipster beard trend.) Likewise friends that traveled in similar parts recount tales of their daughter's blonde hair and complexion causing the flicker of so many cell phone cameras that they suggested she request payment for each side by side selfie. The point of this small digression is that the oddity, the unusual, will always attract the desire to document. The difference is the perceived power relations afforded by the camera - viewer and viewed and the perceived gains. It is, for example unlikely that that the gray haired tourist in the picture with the son of Felipe is of commercial value, but perhaps this is a poor example. Other photographs are probably executed with the aim of profit that may take many forms. An artistic, not commercial photographic exhibition will gain kudos for the artist and may lead to further openings possibly with commercial gain. Recently I witnessed an exhibition of photographs from an anthropological project, at a broad based tourism conference, a project that the photographer hoped would assist in finding employment in the academic arena. So profit can take many forms and it does Felipe no favours to complain that those behind the camera give their subjects nothing.
What it does do is highlight the incongruous thread running throughout this article, in that the indigenous Huaorani seem so keen to join a desperately rotten and failing economic system. It is this that drives much of the report, the desire for better pay, which the author points out does not recognise the indigenous guides skills and knowledge. The advice that educational equipment would be a welcome donation and the value setting of the souvenirs.
The tourists, for their part seem to exhibit behaviour that is typical of tourists, in that they "only buy small things". They are after all eco-cultural tourists, seeking to experience alien cultures and their environment, and it would appear that their approach, or at least that depicted in the article is perhaps dated, in that the indigenous people are framed as some sort of missing link: patronising smiles, deformed feet, ear extensions.
Another typical and complex behavioural trait of eco-cultural tourism is to tread softly and take nothing but photographs. Taken at a broadest extreme and less literal level, this often touted mantra means to travel without disturbing, without interfering with the natural evolution of things. At one end of this spectrum resides the colonial missionary (the article shows notes clear tragic evidence of their impacts) and at the other the fly on the wall anthropologist. Personally I have difficulty with this mantra, as it is open to an interpretation that see's the subject of the tourists visit or gaze, frozen in time, museumified, dislocated from the global network. Perhaps defendable when pristine uninhabited wilderness is concerned, but dangerously racist when other human being exist within the frame. Where then is the happy or beneficial medium. In my own travels I've experienced many discussions about disturbing the local economy and this does seem to be a dilemma, at least approached in this report, what is a reasonable level of tipping. (I am from a British/Australian culture, so a mean sod that doesn't tip - my outlook is robustly Scandinavian on this) How much does it take to appease the conscience of the average well heeled American eco-tourist?
Perhaps it is the value ascribed to the English language, clearly shown in the scene in which information is conveyed first in the local indigenous language before being translated into Spanish and then finally into English, that is the most telling and illustrates another imbalance in the power dynamics, in that the pay scale, like the advised tipping rate rises with each utterance, irrespective of skills and knowledge.
If you don't tip then can you justify it by not wishing to contribute to the polluting of the local exchange system by subjecting it to the western capitalist system and its self harming mantra of grow or die. It's a complex issue being an eco-tourist and a heavy conscience takes up a lot of space when traveling.
Finally it needs to be recognised that tourism is a development of modernism even the early incarnations of eco-cultural tourism may be traced back to Grand Tour, but such tourists collected more, trophy like objects with less consideration of size and weight. Now those objects as we see here have been reduced I size and therefore their authenticity (however that might be framed) has altered, at least in terms of the objects functionality, which is marginal in a western urban environment at best. Some souvenir type objects and artifacts simply don't work or don't appeal, which leaves photographs as the most enduring momento.
Perhaps a way forward is for this community and other in a similar predicament to exchange skill with tourists through through what has been termed craft tourism, through which indigenous craft skills are learnt, and therefore taken back home, while also making the photographs of the event more meaningful.