Ink-coloured waves curled out behind the boat as Jeff Benesi scanned the dense rainforest for a glimpse of brown fur. Admiring the pristine surroundings, the group of European tourists sat patiently with their cameras ready. Hope flickered across their faces at the sound of every snapping branch. Would they get to see a grizzly bear emerging from its winter hibernation?
Benesi, a First Nations guide, headed up river towards one of his favourite areas of Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest. He quickly killed the boat’s engine when he noticed something dark in the water ahead, expecting to see one of the playful harbour seals found along the west coast of British Columbia. But as the group got closer to the estuary, realisation hit: it was the severed carcass of a grizzly bear killed for trophy.
Where does the desire to take away trophies from travel stem from? As a budding broadcast journalist, I’m used to taking stories that rely on intangible trophies – photographs, interview audio – from my trips. Recently I’ve been thinking about the line between appreciation and appropriation. If taking and sharing can help to foster global awareness and increase understanding between cultures, surely this is something to be encouraged. But from stories to souvenirs, this line of thinking made me want to explore more broadly what might drive us to take from our travels.
Nowadays, hourly Snapchat stories, tailor-made suits and as many carved wooden statues as you can fit in your backpack seem to be crucial for people to believe you went to South East Asia. When tourist destinations are lined with shopping malls, and glossy holiday brochures sell travel like an Argos catalogue, it’s easy to see how culture can be commoditised. You can buy flights, hotels, daytrips, clothes, souvenirs and postcards – anything that can be consumed is available at a price.
Trophy hunting is an extreme example, but to me, it shows how entitlement compels some travellers to take from places they visit. It might seem like a stretch to compare trophy hunting with buying souvenirs, but there are important parallels regarding material acquisition for the sake of memento.
Trophy hunting usually involves killing for the prized parts of an animal, rather than for meat. While we don’t really have any big game left to kill on our little island, it’s still an issue across the pond. Every year, trophy hunters kill between 300 and 400 grizzly bears in British Columbia, endangering the vulnerable wild bear population and consequently creating a stain on Canada’s green reputation. 91% of the province’s residents oppose the hunt – it doesn’t make sense ethically, economically, or ecologically (Insights West, 2015). Once you kill a bear, it’s gone forever: they should only be shot using a camera.
There are other reasons that could explain why we bring things back from our travels, whether it’s photos, trinkets or trophies. Maybe it’s something to do with the most basic of fears – our own mortality. One idea, according to Terror Management Theory, is that human experience is characterised by existential conflict: there is a tension between a desire to live and an awareness of our inevitable mortality. This anxiety compels us to try to find a sense of meaning in our lives: whether that’s falling in love, acquiring material wealth or travelling the world. We collect things, and become attached to them, because we want something to show for ourselves, our lives. Could this mean that trophy hunters might be killing because they’re afraid to die? The irony may be lost on them.
So, maybe we travel and take because we seek permanence from an impermanent existence. It could be that the transient nature of travel compels us to find tangible heirlooms that will endure when we can no longer tell stories of our adventures. Our symbolic investment in objects might be an attempt to manage this existential terror via culture. Travellers, often filled with the desire to make memories from our trips live on in our minds, thereby reveal a subconscious desire for them to live on after we’re gone. Photos to show the grandchildren, souvenirs to pass down through generations, a trophy mounted on the wall…
The digital revolution has enabled this age-old anxiety to find new expression. Social media has crept into our everyday routines, encouraging us to share and share again. Uploading hundreds of photos from your latest holiday has never been easier, but it does mean you risk coming across like the woman in the Onion’s tongue in cheek article: 6-day visit to rural African village completely changes woman’s Facebook profile picture. Underlying the mockery, it leaves an unsettling question: do we travel to learn and expand cultural awareness, or to impress our friends?
Being able to share details of our travels with such immediacy is great for staying connected, but it can prevent us from being fully present in the moment. Social media pushes us to obsess over what other people think – most of us have been guilty of it at one time or another, and it can be difficult to resist evaluating experiences based on how many likes a photo has received. Although we might recognise on an intellectual level that we would get more from travelling without this pressure, ignoring it is easier said than done!
While the relationship between travelling and social media can be problematic, I’ve been playing devil’s advocate to some extent – it isn’t necessarily bad to take something away from your travels. In fact, sharing our experiences is vital for promoting cultural awareness and strengthening understanding. At a time when our political discourse too often reflects division, travel can help us to illuminate common values and embrace difference.
Technology has enabled people who previously wouldn’t be able to travel widely to access the world from the comfort of their sofas. From blogs and articles, to Google Earth and digital photo albums, the Internet can help to foster a sense of global awareness. None of this would be possible without viewing the digital trophies – photographs – that people bring back with them.
Journalists play an important role in contributing to this wealth of worldly information: their work can broaden people’s perspective of foreign cultures and has the capacity to shine a light on social injustice around the world. Travel and journalism go hand in hand when it comes to increasing cultural awareness. Like I mentioned earlier, I tend to take audio from interviews, music and background sounds away from my travels, as well as photos like the one above. Here’s a clip from some audio I recorded with the intention of discussing the importance of India in the world today – if just one listener was inspired to explore this mystifying country, the piece would have served its purpose:
What’s more, it’s crucial for journalists to travel, take (photos, recordings, interviews), and share, in order to provide truthful reporting. Coverage of international affairs simply couldn’t be accurate otherwise. There are countless examples of when journalists and travellers alike have used their experience to increase understanding between different cultures, enhance international awareness of issues around the world and even spark change.
The photo of three-year-old Hope, who was accused of being a witch and abandoned by his family, went viral almost instantly. Taken by the partner of Anja Ringgren Lovén, a Danish aid worker, the photo was pivotal for making the world aware of the prevalence of superstitious beliefs in parts of southern Nigeria. Anja decided to set up a charity dedicated to helping ‘witch children’ after seeing their plight while she was travelling alone in Nigeria a few years ago. Although Anja and her partner David are not just transient travellers these days, this story demonstrates the power of amateur photography to change minds, a capacity that any traveller has the potential to do.
And it doesn’t need to be a dramatic, heart-wrenching photo like that of Hope to capture people’s attention. It would be impossible to set a benchmark for when it’s okay to take from travelling, but being driven by the sense that ‘people should know about this’ might be a good place to start. Those of us who are lucky enough to travel and experience different cultures can only ever aim for the bar that Anja has set for us.
Ultimately, all we can do is try to travel in a way that is open-minded, ethically conscious and respectful. If you want to take a thousand photos and hours of GoPro footage during a week’s holiday, who am I to tell you not to? Listening to audio of your thoughts on a new country, or simply looking at one incredible photo, may be enough to pierce the wall of resentment that can appear between you and your friends left at home. They might even be inspired to go explore for themselves. It’s like the old adage, ‘leave only footprints, take a ridiculous amount of photos.’ Or something like that.