In today’s world, anyone who posts a photo to Instagram or uploads a blog post to WordPress becomes an instant storyteller with the click of a button. This is especially true among the travel community as it’s never been easier to capture our travel experiences and share them with the world. After all, if you didn’t post it, did it even really happen?
However, this new age of instant sharing and easily accessible media outlets poses an interesting question. As privileged travelers (and yes, if you have the ability to travel you’re more privileged than most) do we have a responsibility or moral obligation to report and share stories about wildlife exploitation, human rights violations or other humanitarian issues that we witness while traveling? Should we use our access to social media sharing platforms to become advocates and give a voice to those who may not have one? Should we write an article for a news outlet to raise awareness? Should we volunteer our time for a given cause?
Or should we just mind our own business?
To dive deeper into the topic I spoke with professional painter, Nicholas McNally, to get his thoughts on the subject as 2 out of the 5 paintings in one of his more recent series, aptly titled Exiles, depicts the humanitarian issue of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe.
Meet Nicholas McNally
McNally started painting as a child with his first serious work being a series of large murals on the side of his parents garage. By the time he was a freshman in high school, he landed a front page article in the local newspaper thanks to a nosey neighbor who became intrigued by a mural he created on the fence that surrounded his family’s home. That cover story led to multiple mural jobs in his hometown of Springfield, MA.
After high school, McNally went on to get his BFA in painting from Massachusetts College of Art and his MFA in Illustration from the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Since then, several of his works have been published and exhibited in San Francisco, L.A., New York and Boston among others.
Today McNally is represented by Williams Fine Art Dealers and is in his 3rd year as Assistant Professor of Illustration at Jacksonville University.
LMT: How did the idea for Exiles come about?
NM: “I was in Florence giving a lecture on color theory during the summer of 2016, which also happened to be the high point of Syrian refugees coming to Europe. While I never witnessed any refugees first hand, the native Florentines I spoke to were always talking about it.
While in Florence, I visited the Uffizi Gallery, which houses one of my favorite paintings, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, in which Venus, goddess of love, is blown ashore by personified winds, and greeted by a figure who holds out a welcoming garment to her. For an entire year, the image of that painting and the idea of all of the Syrian men, women, and children forced out of their homes ruminated in the back of my mind.
In the summer of 2017, I made the first painting in the series, joining the 2 together. My The Birth of Love is based exactly on the composition of Botticelli’s painting, except instead of Venus on a conch shell, a Syrian refugee floats ashore on a makeshift raft. The personified wind to her right is not the European Zephyrus, but the Levant, the wind of the Middle East that blows the exiled West. And the figure welcoming her ashore is representative of the West, who ideally lives out its claim to value the traditional Judeo-Christian virtue of “welcoming the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.”
The second painting is titled, L’Inverno. It means “winter” in Italian. It too, is based on a composition of a painting of Botticelli’s, Primavera, Italian for Spring. Primavera hangs across from The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi, and depicts a group of figures in the glory of springtime. My painting depicts a family of Syrian refugees with full luggage tramping through a snowstorm in my home of western Massachusetts.
As you can see, Florence, and the refugees of Syria were only the impetus for Exiles. The series went on from there.”
LMT: Personally, do you believe travelers have a responsibility and obligation to become advocates for any social crises they witness abroad?
I do believe that travelers should tell the story of any social crisis they witness abroad but it has to be done in their own way, in a genuine way, in a form that comes naturally to them.
There are as many different motivations for making art as there are artists, and equally as many forms of expressing those motivations. For example, some artists make art that is only about social issues, sometimes to the point where they seem like social activists first and artists second. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I am not that kind of artist at all – that just doesn’t come naturally to me.
While the refugee crisis has always been an urgent issue for me, I found myself unable to address it in my work until a year after I returned from my travels, when the form of the idea came to fruition. I couldn’t have forced the form; it needed to develop on its own. That’s something I’ve learned over my many years of being an artist – you can’t force the form.
So you’ll notice that there is a waiting for the muse stage there. “Waiting for the muse” and addressing an urgent social issue don’t really go together, and that’s why the most enduring, beautiful, and meaningful art that addresses social issues does so on a universal scale.”
McNally raises an interesting point here. Just like artists, we as responsible travelers (and default storytellers) don’t have a responsibility to chase the story, only a responsibility to accurately portray the story should it call to us.
In other words, we don’t need to try to save the world and crusade for every single injustice that we witness throughout our travels. In fact, the assumption that we as travelers (especially white western travelers) have the ability, know-how and obligation to fix issues abroad can feed into the unethical notion of the White Savior Complex.
However, if a particular issue speaks to you or tugs at your heartstrings you should absolutely become an advocate for the cause – just go about it the responsible and ethical way.
Tips for being an ethical storyteller & Advocate
- Research – If you want to become an advocate or storyteller for any cause, the first step is to always do your homework. Read up on the regions’s history, ask those directly affected by the issue what their needs are (get the local’s perspective) and try to understand the local state of affairs and current politics.
- Be cautious of what you post to social media
- If taking photos of people, always ask permission first (one of the golden rules of photography)
- Avoid captions that oversimplify human emotions and generalize a group of people such as the “poor but happy” narrative
- Don’t objectify people by taking photos of them in vulnerable moments. While showing people’s everyday hardships may elicit empathy for the cause that you’re advocating for, it may also illicit pity which doesn’t leave the local people with the dignity they deserve. This a reoccurring issue with slum tourism that has risen in popularity over the past decade (blog post on slum tourism coming soon!)
- Report facts, don’t contribute to a sensationalized narrative
- Utilize the right channels for change – If looking for ways to become an advocate, reach out to grassroots organizations that are headed by the locals themselves or at least ones that work closely with the community that is being affected by whatever cause you’re advocating for. Too often, non-profits and similar organizations are run by outsiders, who while they may have the best intentions, do not posses the deep cultural understanding of the region needed to illicit sustainable change. Who better to understand the needs of a community than those within that community?
- If you don’t have transferable skills, be prepared to give $$ – If you follow tip #3 and reach out directly to an organization they can provide you with ways that you can use your unique skill set to make an impact.
For example, if their organization produced a documentary maybe you could organize a watch party in your community or host a dinner party to raise awareness. Have a communications background? Maybe you could to do some pro bono PR work to help build brand awareness. Are you a lawyer? Perhaps you can provide some free legal advice?
If you don’t have a skill set that could directly benefit the organization, be prepared to give money either by dipping into your own pockets or starting a fund raiser. Although this may be the least exciting way to contribute, financial support is often what advocacy groups need most… because the last thing an organization that is trying to solve a social or environmental issue needs is to babysit an unskilled volunteer.
Click Here to read why volunteering without a true skill set is a waste of everyone’s time.
These are my thoughts on a traveler’s responsibly when it comes to ethical story telling and advocacy. Do you agree? Comment below