Voluntourism: The Visual Economy of International Volunteer Programs
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This thesis examines images of volunteer tourism—or voluntourism—on internet sites and describes how the photographs that appear on them contribute to maintaining global systems of power. Voluntourism is defined as either the payment of a program fee to an organization to travel to a developing country to perform various volunteer tasks or as the pause of gainful employment in one’s own country to work for an extended period of time in a developing country at a local wage. Currently there is debate as to the real benefits of volunteer tourism: is it truly the sustainable form of responsible, alternative tourism it is intended to be, or does it merely replicate the conditions of mass tourism and exploit those it is intended to benefit? This study explores visual representations of voluntourism in non-Western cultures in developing countries, and the consumption of those representations by participants in Canadian-based volunteer tourism organizations. The primary focus is photographs of interpersonal relationships between “voluntourists” and “voluntoured” in an examination of how culture and skin colour are manipulated in an attempt to maintain Westerners’ positions of power in pictures and, by extension, in global power relations. I suggest that a complex interaction of the pictorial codes of tourism, colonialism and the popular media converge in voluntourism’s photographs, resulting in images that simultaneously offer potential volunteers the opportunity to “do good” in the world as well as to consume cultural difference as a commodity. The main body of work is a visual discourse analysis of the photographs of five Canadian volunteer organizations’ websites. I identify the thematic categories used to promote voluntourism and discuss them in relation to patterns of mass tourism, charity advertisements, colonial travel narratives and their associated visual representation. This paper includes interviews with Canadian past volunteers to assess the importance of images to their experience of voluntourism. I close with a discussion of multiculturalism in Canada which brings together the experience of working within another culture in voluntourism and the conditions of Canadian multicultural society.