To Post or Not to Post, That Is the (Research) Question: Representing Volunteer Tourism Experiences on Social Media

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 16:00
Oral Presentation
Kaylan SCHWARZ, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
This paper will draw upon two qualitative research studies (one completed and one in-progress) which chronicle the various ways British and Singaporean undergraduate students visually represent their international volunteer experiences to a public audience on Facebook and Instagram. Through a thematic analysis of photo-elicitation interviews and visual content uploaded to social media, and drawing on multiple theoretical re-articulations of Urry’s (1990) ‘Tourist Gaze,’ this paper will elucidate the framing decisions volunteers faced at the moment of snapshotting and during the album editing process, including debates over which images were discarded and why.

Taken together, these research projects seek to answer the following research question: How have the informal protocols which govern international volunteers’ self-presentations online changed over time, and in response to what broader cultural influences (for example, public backlash against the ‘shock effect’ imagery utilised within charitable aid campaigns; or viral blog posts, opinion pieces and YouTube videos created to mock or disparage international volunteering)?

In short, study participants took measures to avoid ‘stereotypical’ volunteer photography (including selfies and portraits of emaciated children), determined not to perpetuate the voyeurism and paternalism they associated with ‘voluntourism.’ Overall, participants appeared to err on the side of caution, striving toward an uncontroversial or innocuous documentation of their time overseas, and opting instead for ‘touristy’ photography which exemplified the ‘family gaze’ (Haldrup & Larsen, 2003), the ‘romantic gaze’ (Urry & Larsen, 2011), and the ‘gutsy gaze’ (Schwarz, 2016). In charting the rise of cautionary and sceptical stances within volunteer tourism practice, my scholarship elucidates the dynamic social context in which international volunteers operate, as well as how they police themselves online in response.