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Here’s Why People Are Mad at Ellen

by Shelby Hawkins on June 7, 2018

Ellen DeGeneres and her wife, Portia De Rossi, spent the last week touring various parts of East Africa.

As part of Ellen’s 60th birthday, Portia gifted her wife a wildlife foundation in her name. Placed in Rwanda, the foundation was set up to give a permanent home to the gorillas throughout Africa.

However, that is not why Ellen made headlines this week. She caused some controversy over a picture that she posted on Tuesday of herself surrounded by presumably impoverished children.

Some of these young, school-aged children can be seen not wearing shoes and holding sticks in front of a rural backdrop.

She tweeted, “Thank you to all of the amazing people I met on my trip, who helped make it so special.”

People feel as though images like these are oversaturated; we see them far too often in the media, and as someone with so much influence like Ellen, she should have known better.

While this could have been treated as a teaching moment for her rather than an opportunity to vilify her, it is apparent that individuals in positions of influence and power do not really have the luxury to plead ignorance.

Ignorance is not an excuse for you insert your own overplayed narrative to a country that is not yours. Images like these illustrate the extreme importance of caution and superiority.

It illustrates superiority because we only see content like this from regions that experience extreme poverty. Tourists do not go to England or Italy or Rhode Island and use children as props for Instagram.

If people took photos with middle-class white children without permission, it would most certainly be an issue.

This tweet from OkayAfrica reads, “A trip to the continent just isn’t complete without THE photo – you know the one”


How Do I Document My Trip Without Being Insensitive?

Even people like Ellen who have the most sincere intentions can fall victim to the White Savior Complex. Although she may care deeply about the subjects in the photo, it comes off as an opportunity to showcase her humanitarianism.

American author Teju Cole once said, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

So, how do people document their volunteer work without coming across as a narcissist?


  • First Understand Why The Photo Might be a Problem


Pictures like the one Ellen tweeted are not about the children. In fact, the subjects of these images are often robbed of their agency, dignity and privacy; they are practically invisible. There is not even context to the location of the kids, who they are and what they are doing. They are not being portrayed with any importance. Ellen is in the middle of the 14 children, therefore she is the main focus – the main character.


  • Try Leaving Yourself Out of the Photo


Documentation of your journey does not even have to include photos of you. Keeping pictures of the trip is still relevant without your image. For what reason did Ellen, or anyone else who has travelled to poor countries, need to insert themselves in the narrative? While travelling is partially about experiencing something for yourself; it is supposed to be a humbling experience. It is a time to reflect on the vastness of our world and your understanding of the world is not the most important aspect. Before posing for a photo op ask yourself why you need to be inserted in the image anyway. What are you trying to portray?


  • Be Empathetic


This is probably the most important rule – think about how you would feel on the opposing side. Would it be okay for a stranger (albeit a celebrity) to share photos of you or your children with their millions of followers? If not, reevaluate your intentions.

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Shelby Hawkins
My name is Shelby, like the mustang, and I am an avid lover of photography, literature and desserts. I identify as a proud feminist and Pan-Africanist; hopefully that manifests in my writing.