Note: I received a response from Conde Nast Traveler and posted their response and my reply at the bottom.
The prose is intricate, the photos are luscious, and the implications are racist. In a world where National Geographic has had to do an expose documenting their own racism, how does a travel magazine with as much cache as Conde Nast Traveler put out an article and an Instagram story that could easily have been written in 1965? (God, can you imagine what Instagram stories would have looked like in 1965, shudder?) I posted this on my personal social media accounts and got a few reactions where people don’t understand why the particular use of the images and words here are racist. So let’s break it down.
A caveat: I am a cis-gendered, white woman. I genuinely work every day to eradicate the parts of my brain that are brainwashed with decades heaped upon centuries of white supremacist systems and messages. I am not perfect, and I doubt I ever will be. However, I am a one-person shop and I have no issue apologizing where I make mistakes. All I expect is for Conde Nast Traveler, a premier travel magazine with far superior resources and multiple staff members, to do what any other blogger or influencer would do in this situation: apologize, reflect, and do better.
Some Back Story
On May 3, Conde Nast Traveler published this story by Sophy Roberts about taking her son to Papua New Guinea. While there are definitely issues in the piece, which I’ll touch on later, the major reason this story is receiving attention now is because of the Instagram stories that the @cntraveler account used to promote the piece. Since IG stories disappear after twenty-four hours, I screengrabbed them so you can see the problematic ones here. Because the issues arise from both some of the story in the piece and the social media images used for promotion, CN needs to take a look at what happened in total. There is clearly a systematic breakdown with how the magazine discusses people of color and non-western communities larger than one contributor, editor, or social media manager.
Using Indigenous Bodies and People of Color as Props
When it comes to social media marketing, the images and text you use are about as much context as you get. This means that there’s not much room for nuance. Before you hit publish on a piece of social media that uses images of people or discusses other cultures, you genuinely need to take a step back and look at it objectively. Ask the question “what am I trying to say here?” If it says something else, then that piece of social media is a failure. It’s not a huge issue when you’re talking about using a pic of someone from your own culture (though it’s still good to be conservative with commentary). However, when you’re using an image of someone from a different culture or part of the world than yourself and your audience, you have a heightened responsibility to convey dignity, respect, and understanding through your work. This is a primary reason that it’s considered problematic to photograph homeless people, because it’s hard to post this kind of image and convey the humanity and respect the subject deserves.
In the IG story, CN chose to use several pictures of the travelers posing with locals from Papua New Guinea without highlighting their dignity or humanity. Instead, they seemed to be used solely as props to convey messages about how much the white author and other people on the trip learned. We don’t learn anything about who they are or any really great information about their culture, but we also aren’t given them solely as portraits, either. Instead, they are simply vehicles for lessons for white people and to increase the perceived travel authority of the author. A person of color or a person from a different part of the world does not exist only in relationship to white, western audiences.
The pictures are beautiful, and the people in them deserve to have their stories told. Or to stand alone as people. Instead, they are used in ways they make them less human.
Labeling People and Cultures as “Exotic”
Exotic implies other, far away, distant. I use exotic when describing lands and landscapes, because if I’m from point A and point B is on the other side of the globe, then that is a long trek. However, people are not exotic, they are people. There is no good way to imply that people and cultures are other, distant, etc. The best way to use the word exotic is when describing plants and animals, but never people.
Joshel Melgarejo does a fantastic job explaining why using “exotic” to describe people – even as a compliment – is problematic. You should read the whole piece, but here’s a snippet:
This standard of beauty lists features such as light skin, light eyes, a slim body, and straight hair as valuable to society.
The use of the term “exotic” to describe women of color maintains the idea that these women fail to meet the beauty ideal because they lack these features, since they are not white.
An “exotic” woman is not seen as beautiful on her own terms; her beauty is constantly judged against a white, western standard.
The story juxtaposes the picture of a woman from Papua New Guinea with the term “The Exotic,” implying that she is exotic. Whether it’s a comment on her physical appearance, clothes, etc, she exists in the photo only in comparison to the default beauty and cultural norms of the author and audience.
This one is hard. When we write travel stories, especially narratives about our own journey, we are the main character. While on my history and travel podcast, I interview experts and deal mostly with facts. However, I try to bring people along and make them feel what it’s like to travel there, and that means using my experiences and opinions. When I write a travel guide, like this one I published yesterday on what to know when you rent a car in Baku, I use my personal experiences to explain both what happened to me and also to show the limits of my knowledge. I’m not a journalist; I’m a blogger and podcaster. Bloggers, like travelogue authors, tend to center their own stories. So while I wish the story had more information about the people she’s meeting, I understand that this is her story.
However, there’s something especially disconcerting about the use of phrases like this:
I took a 124-mile journey up the Sepik River to the village of the Insect tribe, where I witnessed a violent local brawl, and later to the Kaningara tribe, whose men ritually scarify their bodies to resemble the crocodile they revere. But the adrenaline rush and the haunting sorcery and ceremony stuck, like the tattoos on the men’s backs.
These men’s rituals have been reduced to their emotional resonance for the author. I want to know more about the tattoos. What emotional significance do they have to the men? Instead, the people are reduced to stereotypes: violence, tribal tattoos, and witchcraft.
Another jarring reference:
The boys make their own friends, my son with a kid with a blind eye as white as a cloud. Jack gains confidence—eating steamed taro with his hands from a banana leaf, flying off a long rope with the villagers into the sea.
The implication here is what, that Jack’s personal growth is being documented by his willingness to make friends with a blind local child? The child is reduced to his disability and then used as a way to show how her son is becoming a better person? WTF.
Further, one of the Instagram story pictures (which was not used in the online version of the article) presents the author, flocked by locals she met on her journey. Since the IG story provides zero context for who these men are and why they are in the photograph, it comes across simply as a picture of a white woman flanked by locals to show how “authentic” her experience is. Worse, she’s in the center, the focal point, the person for whom everything else happens. In her story, she deals a little bit with the performative nature of this kind of “authentic” travel experience, but in the promotional materials that CN put out, that context is completely lost.
Labeling a group of People as “Gentle” and “Not Scary”
Just because something sounds like a compliment, even if it’s intended to be a compliment, it doesn’t mean that it actually is one. In the article, Roberts explains why she’s chosen this specific travel itinerary:
This time, with our families in tow, I decided on a relatively affordable land-based journey among the gentle sea people on the eastern coast…
Further, in the Instagram story, a picture of a white child with a local woman is used as the illustration for the concept that “the world is less scary than we think.”
In both instances, something that is ostensibly positive (it’s good that people aren’t scary?…) is actually an indication of the problematic assumptions of the author. In this instance, the fact that the author feels that locals need to be referred to specifically as gentle indicates a default position that locals in Papua New Guinea, in general, are expected to be the opposite. Harsh, violent, and severe are just a few antonyms of gentle, but any way you slice it it’s offensive.
The quote with the woman is also jarring. The notion that travel can teach your child that the world isn’t scary – yes, that’s fantastic. But juxtaposing that with the picture of a woman of color indicates that this woman is part of the thing that would have been scary. The default position is that people of color are inherently scary until you get to know them.
Prioritizing Western Standards of Beauty
A few places in the article we are given information about a locals appearance, and every time this is used in the article it’s as a way to “otherize” them, like in this passage:
When the water becomes too shallow, we step into thick mud, where we’re met by two men with faces painted in black-and-white nightmarish grimaces…
The author never circles back to explain the significance of the face paint or anything else about these men. Another jarring reference to appearance is in this photo from the Instagram story. We are told that the local women are opting out from traditional face tattoos:
For this one, we just need some context. Why are they making this decision? Is it because they want to? Are they being forced to conform to western beauty standards? How do the women feel about this decision? Without context, we can’t know if this is something that’s a net positive or negative for the women in the community.
What You Can Do About It
If you find this language and presentation upsetting, racist, insensitive, etc., then say something! Let Conde Nast Traveler know that they need to do better. Share it with your own social networks. Words matter, and you can use yours to let them know that you don’t stand for this.
Contact Conde Nast Traveler:
Response from Conde Nast Traveler and My Reply