Profile pictures on social media platforms and dating apps are oh-so-easy to poke fun at: There’s the quirky girl with a cutesy fake moustache or the ex-frat boy chugging a pint of beer at his favorite bar.
But Brooklyn-based filmmaker Cody Clarke discovered a more unsettling trend in profile photos while flipping through the dating app Tinder that pulls pictures and information from users’ Facebook profiles: light-skinned women from developed countries posing with babies and children in developing countries.
“Obviously the original intent, is, ‘Hey, friends, look where I was,’” Clarke told Fast Company. “[But] if you see a lot of them in a row, it becomes a trend and becomes a disgusting thing. It’s like they’re standing around props.”
Clarke started a blog, Humanitarians of Tinder, to post the original photos he found last month and has been uploading new pictures ever since, adding similar photos of men showing off their international philanthropic efforts and inviting readers to submit pictures they come across.
Clarke doesn’t provide any written commentary with the photos (he told Fast Company that he’s just archiving a phenomenon he sees), but the message behind the blog is clear: Boasting about your altruism–and taking photos with locals as you would with exotic wildlife or tourist attractions–to get a date is not attractive. The blog also raises questions about the ethics of modern “voluntourism,” namely how it fits in with larger issues of race, privilege and imperialism and reflects a long history of the developed world’s misguided charity in developing countries.
But should we really single out these well-meaning, albeit naïve individuals, for public shaming on the Internet, especially as the Humanitarians of Tinder blog goes viral and their photos are posted across more and more sites?
“[Internet] shaming all too frequently divorces online behavior from its context—for all we know, Lauren [one of the blog’s Humanitarians pictured with a young boy] is playing with her nephew or something. Even more concerning, shaming often invites repercussions that are totally out of proportion with the perceived crime—i.e., “Lauren may seem tone deaf, but does she really deserve to have her face plastered on a zillion sites?” as journalist Caitlin Dewey wrote on the Washington Post.
While Internet shaming is a consequence of Clarke’s social media sensation, it seems like it is not the blog’s intent. Clarke is helping his featured humanitarians protect their identities by blurring their faces when he receives a request from someone who discovered his or her photo was posted on the blog. Obscuring the faces of these misguided philanthropists actually heightens the effect of scrolling down the Humanitarians of Tinder blog, seeing photo after photo, and recognizing the trend that these photos reflect–rather than getting distracted by the specific individuals taking part in what they see as good deeds.
Because–just as Gloria Steinem pointed out that we shouldn’t fault Miley Cyrus for her infamous Video Music Awards performance but we should criticize the culture that rewards her behavior with fame and fortune–we shouldn’t blame the naïve individuals on Clarke’s blog for wanting to do something good. We should, instead, turn a critical eye towards our society that perpetuates stereotypes about the developing world’s “need to be saved” and our role as saviors, as well as update our models of altruism to better reflect the realities of developing countries and their actual needs.
Image credit: Humanitarians of Tinder
Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru