How to not Exoticise Locals When you Visit a Remote Place

How to not Exoticise Locals When you Visit a Remote Place
A Gujjar girl in the Aru Valley in Anantnag, Kashmir, Photo Credit: Renan Martelli da Rosa/Shutterstock

Here are a few ways to be a sensible traveller. The kind who doesn't head to Wayanad to see 'real adivasis'

Prannay Pathak
October 07 , 2020
11 Min Read

In the early stages of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown, much before tourism resumed, isolationist travel was tipped to be the buzzword in the post-COVID-19 world. And now, after the overvisited Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand opened their borders to tourists, and Bhutan—the sophomore dream of the Indian travel influencer—joined India’s travel bubble, the contention seems to be getting confirmed. Getting to secluded destinations can not only facilitate social distancing but empower local communities in the tourist economy.

However, this comes with a hazard: that of greater appropriation of ethnic cultures and commodified consumption of fragile environments and their inhabitants. ‘Othering’ or ‘exoticisation’ in travel photography and coverage has long been an issue. And the pent-up hunger for travel could definitely translate into an obscene fastest-feet-first contest to see who gets the closest to tribal communities, into the thick of fragile ecosystems. It’s well worth remembering that responsible travel is the only way forward, and here are a few ways to be a sensible traveller instead of an obnoxious tourist who heads to Wayanad to see “real Adivasis”.


Local women in Malana, Himachal Pradesh; photography is prohibited otherwise in the tiny hamlet

Educate Yourself and Blend in
It’s embarrassing as it is to see travel influencers going around asking Afghan Hindus why they don’t speak Hindi – on camera – so it’s a good idea to educate yourself before you travel. Familiarise yourself with the local customs and beliefs and invest some time in learning the local language. It’s a good idea to time your visit so you can participate in festivals or fairs if any. It’s also ideal to go with a local tour operator and guide. Exoticisation, for the most part, is an outcome of ignorance, and educating ourselves about the place and people we are going to visit helps appreciate diversity without engaging in othering.

How not to take Photographs
Our collective memories stashed away on the Gram may have kept us going in the lockdown, but travel photography has run into its fair share of trouble for its inherent tourist’s gaze and its implicit othering. Photographer Alessio Mamo’s nauseating rendering of the impoverished Indian locals dreaming food earned him brickbats all over the world. Tourists’ unruly behaviour has apparently also led to a ban on not only overnight stays but also photography in Himachal’s Malana .

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These photographs are from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh two of the poorest states of India. From the series "Dreaming Food", a conceptual project about hunger issue in India. â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€ [This project has been the subject of much online debate. Please read Alessio Mamo’s statement, released on 24 July 2018, giving more details and apologising for any offence:] â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€ My name is Alessio Mamo (@alessio_mamo) an Italian freelance photographer based in Catania, Sicily. In 2008 I began my career in photojournalism focusing on contemporary social, political and economic issues. I extensively cover issues related to refugee displacement and migration starting in Sicily, and extending most recently to the Middle East. I was awarded 2nd prize in the People Singles category of #WPPh2018 and this week I’m taking over World Press Photo's Instagram account. â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€ Despite economic growth, a majority of the Indian population still lives in extreme poverty and disease. Behind India’s new-found economic strength are 300 million poor people who live on less than $1 per day. Government figures may indicate a reduction in poverty. But the truth is, with increasing global food prices, poverty is spreading everywhere like a swarm of locusts. These pictures are taken in rural areas where conditions are worse than in the cities and where close to 70% of India’s population reside today. Statistics show that 2.1 million children under 5 years old die of malnutrition annually. The idea of this project was born after reading the statistics of how much food is thrown away in the West, especially during Christmas time. I brought with me a table and some fake food, and I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table. â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€â Â€ #WPPh2018#asia #dreamingfood #india

A post shared by World Press Photo Foundation (@worldpressphoto) on Jul 22, 2018 at 9:30am PDT

It is essential to understand consent and accept rejection gracefully. Make efforts to become an active participant in people’s daily lives and not a shutter-happy consumer of ‘culture’. Buying/availing products and services and establishing relationships is one way that helps make portraits more organic. If you need to spend too much time, or at least more than usual, waiting for the right light or fixing the composition for a particular tonality—it could be a sign of manipulation and exoticisation/romanticisation. Another good idea often suggested is to carry a Polaroid and hand out an instant picture as a token of your goodwill as a traveller.

Read: Don’t Pee at Night in Switzerland and Other Bizarre Travel Rules to Follow

Don’t Go to Any Lengths for that Souvenir

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🇬🇧 Mako Lingi of Ahunli village in Arunachal Pradesh is a basket weaver and an Idu Mishmi elder. He remembers a time when barter was a part of life and basket-weaving was necessary for survival He can make a variety of baskets, using only his dao (knife), and his hands and feet. No other tools are required. “There are about a dozen different kinds of baskets that the Idu community uses,” he explains. “Each is designed with a specific weave pattern for a specific use – to carry food, to carry wood, or for hunting. We use different kinds of bamboo and cane for each basket. We go to the jungle, cut down the bamboo or cane, bring it home, cut it into thin strips, and then start working on the basket.” Some baskets are made in a few hours, some in a few days, and others can take weeks. 🇫🇷 Mako Lingi du village d'Ahunli en Arunachal Pradesh est un vannier de la communauté Idu Mishmi. Il se souvient d'une époque où le troc faisait partie de la vie et où la vannerie était nécessaire à la survie. Il peut faire une variété de paniers, en utilisant uniquement son dao (machette), ses mains et ses pieds. Aucun autre outil n'est requis. «Il existe une douzaine de différents types de paniers que la communauté Idu utilise», explique-t-il. «Chacun est conçu avec un motif de tissage spécifique pour une utilisation spécifique - pour transporter de la nourriture, pour transporter du bois ou pour la chasse. Nous utilisons différents types de bambou et de canne pour chaque panier. On va dans la jungle, on coupe le bambou ou la canne, on le ramène à la maison, on le coupe en fines lanières, puis on commence à travailler le panier. » Certains paniers sont fabriqués en quelques heures, certains en quelques jours et d'autres peuvent prendre des semaines. Pictures courtesy: Sweta Daga #basketweaving #basketry #bambooweaving #northeasthandicrafts #tribalhandicrafts #instacraft #handicraft #slowcraft #traditionalskills #basketmaking #sustainabledesign #handmade #artisanat #inde #indedunordest #artisanatindien #vannerie #faitmain #tressage #panier

A post shared by Eastern Routes Northeast India (@eastern_routes) on Jul 16, 2020 at 11:15pm PDT

No, I don’t mean stuffing those roadside pine cones into your backpack is wrong. Getting home souvenirs is pro-travel and if done right, supports the local community. However, when it comes to the wrong kind of attractions—like slipping seashells or even sand from Sardinian beaches or going after items made from slow-growing hardwoods—don’t give into the urge, no matter how strong. This includes animal products which you might see as representative of the place you’re visiting and even parts of monuments, ruins or other historical or culturally significant sites.

Read: Souvenirs You Can't Leave India Without Buying

Drop the Male Gaze/Erotic Fetishisation
Having had the displeasure of ‘celebrity’ travellers bragging about their ‘conquests’ in ‘foreign’ lands traditionally stereotyped as having attractive females, I can safely assure you that it’s the grossest thing ever. It is an absolute no-go zone no matter what your pal has told you or what you’ve seen or read. This objectification is part of the larger narratives of exoticisation and racism, and the traditional narrative of the intrepid traveller casually courting female attention in a primitive land bursting with sexual energy is hugely problematic. Travel can be empowering but don’t delude yourself too much expecting village belles or highland lasses to eye you coquettishly from afar as you prance around with your camera and safari jacket.

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