A lot of life now takes place online, especially so after the pandemic. And that means multiple social-media accounts and detailing your life on Facebook. Some people will just happily post a status and engage in a care-free manner. But why do that when you can overthink everything?
I think very carefully about my posts and what I put up and what I don’t. (I’m not always happy with what goes up even after that.) I have thousands of photographs and videos of Cambodia on my camera reel but most of those never see the light of social media. This is because I am very aware of what it can portray and the messages that I’m giving out.
Again, I would like to say, I get it wrong. I will sometimes go back and read blog posts, Facebook statuses or see photos that I’ve put up and cringe. I’ve deleted a fair share of ill-advised, poorly worded posts. Also, others will not agree with me about how I do things or they will have entirely different approaches. But, these are some of the thought processes and how I view my relationship with Cambodia. It obviously comes from the perspective of a white guy that was born in a country with a very deep and terrible colonial past.
I try very hard not to come across as the white saviour. Therefore, I can be reluctant to discuss negative experiences and also to portray what I do as anything incredible. (It really isn’t. I am not winning any prizes anytime soon.) It is also something that I have to really battle with personally. I could write a whole book about this and why I still do what I do and what I hope is achieved (note, not what I achieve) through the redistribution of experience and education. There are also very long books that have already been written that define poverty, but this is not the place to go into that.
To put it succinctly, I am not special, clever or a hero. The only difference is that I, through my birth, had been dealt a set of cards that gave me access to more opportunities. I know many Cambodians who, given the same opportunities that I have, would have got firsts at Oxford or been Hollywood movie stars or something amazing. And yet they did not have those opportunities. Two of the opportunities that I have had is easy access to higher education and the ability to speak fluently in English, both of which have, for want of a better word, currency. Teaching English is a relatively easy (although arguably not the most effective) way to redistribute some of this currency. (That is a very poor way to explain it, but there you go.)
Therefore, I don’t like to post photos up of me actually doing things. First of all, most English teachers will not put photos up of their job because it is, let’s be honest, rather dull. You won’t really see a tweet or instagram post saying “Here is my board of future continuous sentence examples! #teacherlife #adrenalinejunkie”. Secondly, it’s really hard not to do that and make yourself the hero of that story. Not all heroes wear capes. But often, those who don’t wear capes aren’t heroes.
White person’s playground
South East Asia is not a playground for white people. It’s not a place for us to go and party, try drugs, do adventure sports, have spiritual experiences and find ourselves. So, I’m not really up for posed photos on Angkor Wat or markets or villages. These are people’s countries and homes and lives. They are not to be objectified and made into curios for our consumption. There are times when I do, indeed, take photos of people living their normal life. And it often doesn’t sit easy with me. But I will try and do it in a way where some sort of judgment isn’t implied. Unfortunately, when anyone takes anyone’s photograph and posts it to social media (especially without permission), there is always an imbalance of power. There has to be a sensitivity to that.
Before you get too upset by the use of the word porn, it’s actually a technical term. I used it class with some grade 8s when discussing this issue. Many focus on its use in the charity sector. My argument is that when you are reducing someone’s humanity and whole existence to just their experience of poverty, you’re creating poverty porn. It’s deeply patronising and unfair. Furthermore, the narrative about Cambodia is generally just genocide and terrible poverty. The narrative of Cambodia and the lives of individual Cambodians are so much richer, bolder, nuanced, tragic, joyful, deeper than any photograph of them in poverty could ever show. My social media feed is by no means just affluent Phnom Penh, but I try to either have a balance or do it in a way that avoids judgement.
This also goes for phrases such as “They’re so poor yet they’re so happy.” It’s demeaning and again reduces their live to a romanticised view of the situation they are in. Their stories, their lives, their experiences are not yours to tell or to interpret on their behalf. If you want to write or convey something, use their words and attribute it to them. They don’t need some white person going around narrating their lives when they know next to nothing about it. Furthermore, if you’re making their poverty the defining feature of their lives, once again, you’re reducing them and their lived experiences to just one rather demeaning word. And yes, they may seem happy in front of you, a complete stranger. But what about the times you are not there? Even if you were trying to be humble and think about it from the perspective of learning to be grateful, that’s still bad. Only you benefit from that experience. Their situation doesn’t change. They’re still poor. You just feel better about your life and wealth and comfort and are more thankful for what you have. You’ve used their lives to make you feel good about yours.
Questions to ask yourself
Obviously, I try to think long and hard about what I put on social media and on the internet. It is sometimes the reason I don’t blog as much as I would like. I often have mixed feelings about what I do write. I also am aware that often, it’s not my story to tell. However, here are some ideas about how you can be critically reflexive about what you post.
- Who benefits from this image/post?
- If the person in the picture or a Cambodian person in general was to see what you posted, how would they feel?
- What narrative does this post tell about the subject/Cambodia?
- What narrative does this post tell about you?
- Am I reinforcing or perpetuating harmful or shameful stereotypes and narratives?
- Is there an imbalance of power? Can it be addressed?
Other posts I wrote
- Answers to questions… where I discuss ideas about voluntourism, and why I never post photos of children (unless I have the parents’ permission or using natural censorship (i.e. they are facing away from me or obscured by an object).
- A single story of Cambodia reflects on an amazing TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about how narratives are often reduced.
- Being a good guest discusses how we should talk about and view a country we call home but isn’t ours.
- The Mother-in-Law’s hat explains why there are some aspects of Cambodia I will never discuss online.