Posts Tagged 'Travel Journalism'

Knuckle Bumps and Stomach Punches: VICE Under Fire

“Negligent.” “Contemptuous.” “Appalling substandard.” “Morally bankrupt.” “A modern version of a colonial diary.”

Ouch. It’s some harsh criticism that isn’t undeserved. The VICE Guide to Liberia, which I did a post about a few weeks ago, has ignited a cauldron of contempt on the blogosphere. Big-time media attention from CNN and the Huffington Post led to impassioned and eloquent arguments against the documentary, and some frighteningly truck-rally-esque endorsements. It’s got me thinking a lot about the travel series I’d formerly enjoyed and endorsed, despite its arrogance, and wondering: did VICE go too far?

Well, the answer is yes. Clearly. As I dug into the dozen or so blog posts, and the scores of ensuing comments, I learned more about the current situation in Liberia. VICE didn’t portray it fairly, or even close to fairly, and fell woefully short of providing the kind of context one would need to draw any kind of informed conclusions about the country. But I don’t think the series was entirely without merit, entirely evil and shallow. And buried beneath smirks and bro language (“heavy vibe” is used a lot), there’s still an emotional depth to the documentary that keeps it, for me, from being too simple of a case: black and white, Western and African, exploiter and exploited.

Most of the voices crying out against VICE are from people personally invested in the country—they’ve lived there, traveled there, done development work there. If I were emotionally linked to the country, I’d be pretty pissed too. Penelope MC’s post post relates stories and experiences of positive progress in Liberia, while Kate Thomas’ post shares some of the tourist-friendly spots. On The Faster Times, Adam Karlin delivers the most seething and meticulous critique of VICE I came across, picking apart the faulty journalistic practices employed. On the other end of the spectrum are the positive comments that fill the VBS website, which basically amount to a Beavis & Butthead “Whoa.” I found only one blog from someone with experience in Liberia that lauded the series, and the rationale there was a little odd. Christine Scott Cheng offered a more nuanced review, as does Ethan Zuckerman, arriving at the point that the series, however flawed, deserves to be watched. I agree.

A different view

The VICE Guide to Liberia paints a bleak picture—so much so that I was surprised, only a week after its release, to come across a New York Times article about the country’s burgeoning surf scene. I began to suspect VICE hadn’t captured the entirety of the situation in Liberia.

Indeed, one of the main qualms people have with the series is that it only shows the most fucked-up parts of Liberia, largely within the capital Monrovia. While it’s true that “this is just what VICE does,” I think that reasoning is a cop out. VICE hypes the situation: the first episode makes it seem like the war is still going on (though I’d argued subsequent episodes firmly depict the war as over), and the UN is claimed to be leaving the country, an incendiary claim that isn’t exactly true.

I don’t have any experience in Liberia, so I did what I always do in this situation: related it to Oakland. Someone could certainly go in to the worst neighborhoods of Oakland and do a series that made the whole city look like a dangerous, drug-riddled hellhole. And that would have pissed me off, for the exact same reason it did people invested in Liberia—the 80s are past, crime is down in Oakland, and a lot of people and organizations are working hard to enrich their communities. That being said, I don’t think going into those places, documenting and interviewing and excavating stories, would be entirely without value. They are hard, painful stories to hear, images to see, but they are true and deserve to be heard. More context certainly should have been provided—something like: “we went to the worst slums and interviewed former warlords”—so that the series didn’t appear to be a blanket of this-is-what-Liberia-is-like. But just because the stories featured weren’t representative of the whole doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be heard.

Ambassador setting up a Girls Empowerment Center

Other arguments against the series include sensationalism, stereotype indulgence and bad-assedness. People argue that host Shane Smith is exaggerating the situation so that he can look tough, and the series more daring, and that in the process he dehumanizes his subjects, treating them like animals in a zoo. There’s a lot of validity to these arguments. The war is over-hyped, and less discerning viewers could certainly draw erroneous conclusions. Shane Smith, to me, looks scared and freaked out in most of the footage; rather than a bad-ass, as many of the site’s commenters lauded him as, he seems wholly untough to me. Not saying that I’d react any better, just that the series didn’t make him seem cool to me.

But the argument I’ve been grappling the most with is the stereotyping and dehumanizing one. Africa is again portrayed as a hellhole, Africans as savage cannibals. I can agree with this statement, but my experience with the series was completely different.

Granted, I’m coming from a pretty left-wing perspective, but to me, the series didn’t evoke an Us Vs. Them reaction. To me, it served as an exploration of how generations of war, poverty and exploitation create dire situations not easily remedied. It’s not an African issue, but a human one. What happens to former warlords and child soldiers? Do they try to reform and make amends for their actions, like Joshua Blahyi, or stay whacked and ready for combat, like former General Rambo? What about the kids growing up in all that, the women and all those folks just trying to live life as they best they can?

The most interesting part of the series to me wasn’t the shocking wartime footage or discussions of cannibalism—it was the visits to the boys school of former soldiers, to the brothels and heroin dens. Not because it was shocking, because it wasn’t, but because of the eyes of the people shown, the pain-beyond-pain. For me, it was incredible humanizing, touched on that part of me that makes me feel like we’re all connected, together in this often fucked-up world. I can see how that wouldn’t evoke the same reaction in a lot of viewers, and maybe the emotional depth wasn’t in the coverage at all, but in my own reaction to it.

At the end of his review, Adam Karlin touched on what the real shortcoming of the VICE series is, to me: “Bad travel is about going somewhere and reconfirming everything you thought you knew before you left, and this is exactly what Vice does in Liberia.” I don’t feel like anything was learned by the people making the documentary—they were shocked, sure, but their ideas and opinions about what was going on appear to have remained unchanged. I’ve never been on a trip like that, where something in my understanding didn’t change. And I hope that I can retain enough open-mindedness and humility not to ever.

Whatever the conclusions, one thing’s for sure: the VICE Guide to Liberia garnered a lot of attention for the country. And for VICE. It got people talking, even if they didn’t want to, and got people like me, who had a hazy understanding of the present-day situation, spending hours online to dig deeper and learn more. It won’t be easily written off, which means there’s more to it than mere caricature and hip packaging. And it might mean that VICE does a more thorough, honest job next time. Cause God knows they certainly have the resources to.

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Forget the Guidebook, This is the VICE Guide to Travel

Dolores Park: "You would think VICE Magazine threw up there."---SF Comedian Ali Wong

At the risk of sounding like a gold-lame-wearing, ironic-mullet-sporting Dolores Park denizen, I’m gonna say it: I like VICE Magazine. And I fucking love the VICE Guide to Travel.

Quick run-down, in case you don’t know: VICE grew from a Montreal zine into global empire of youth counterculture, serving as a kind of hipster voice of a generation in what some could argue was the next CREEM magazine. By 1999, VICE had exploded on to the hip-slick-and-cool scene. A free, glossy magazine peppered with American Apparel ads, you’d find issues at trendy clothing stores and serving as coasters on your friends’ coffee tables, or stacked beside the toilet for inspirational reading material. Having reached new heights of hipness, VICE was nearly immediately deemed as have “been better” in previous years, in the perennial way that everything was better before it got big. But here’s a little secret about VICE: it’s got some killer articles. Some are better than others, for sure, and many breach a little too far into the snarky, too-cool-for-school realm. But I’d argue a good half of the magazine is usually filled with quality journalism, covering super interesting international cultural phenomena.

Which leads to the VICE Guide to Travel. It’s not Rick Steve’s, or even Lonely Planet. VICE goes to some of the most fucked locations on earth, “the kinds of places that nobody else wants to visit”; digs up shocking and bizarre stories; sends sweaty dudes in v-neck t-shirts to interview warlords/cannibals/other locals; films it all, and sets it to a soundtrack of doom, gloom and rock. It’s “edgy,” it’s “off-the-beaten-path” (to say the least), and it’s some of the most bad-ass travel journalism out there.

First, some clarifications on the meaning of “bad-ass.” Empty, self-serving sensationalism with no emotional depth or historical perspective is not bad-ass. And there’s plenty of that out there in the travel world.

A couple months ago, I complained about this kind of trying-to-be-bad-ass-edness in a post blog and subsequent Matador article. Later, I came across an article titled “5 Totally Bad-Ass Travel Experiences” that made me want to vomit. The article listed 5 “daring” travel experiences, two of which capitalized on some of the most heinous aspects of a country’s history. The perspective reeked of a privileged disconnect with the suffering caused by events like genocide and drug wars:

Home to one of the biggest genocides and mass killings in modern history, Cambodia is awash in guns and weaponry. It’s a pretty peaceful place these days but there are still opportunities to get a taste of the weapons of war.

Oh, well, bummer the murdering is over, but at least there’s still cool guns to shoot off. I wanted to reach through the computer and punch the writer. Granted, the article struck a personal nerve; I guess when you know people who escaped the Khmer Rouge, but who’s families all died in the killing fields, well, that takes the thrill out of shooting war weaponry in Cambodia.

What separates the VICE Guide to Travel from lame travel “journalism” like this is skill (they hire professionals)—but more importantly, approach. Traveling to some of the most depraved and damaged places in the world, VICE toes the line, certainly runs the risk of lapsing into one-dimensional exhibitionism and aren’t-I-cool pats on the back. Some in the series are stronger than others, but I’d argue that all stay true to the basic purpose of bringing obscure, untold stories from the gnarliest corners of the world to a Western audience. The liner notes of the original 2006 DVD explains:

The news is all bad. Sitting in our Western comfort, it’s easy to forget that most of the world is hell. War, disease, famine, genocide, and poverty dot the globe like big chunks of cancer. Basically, humans are fucked.

We thought we already knew something about current international events, but we didn’t really know shit until we set out and started doing some serious traveling. These aren’t vacations to Disney World, Paris or even some Outward Bound safari. These are trips to the places that you see once in a while on TV and think, ‘No way in hell am I ever going there.’

Well, we went so that you never, ever have to go for yourself as long as you live. We went, and we’re glad we did. Here are the stories to prove it…

What the VICE Guide to Travel offers is what some of my most difficult, but ultimately most illuminating, travels have: a new perspective on this crazy-ass world we live in. It’s tough to watch—the visit to the shell of a high school in the episode in Chernobyl made me tear up—but I think it’s some of the most interesting and important stuff out there in the travel world.

Which brings us to the new series, the VICE Guide to Liberia. The 8-part series is being released on their website; currently, the first 4 installments are up. Prepare yourself: this is some severely brutal material.

While I don’t think I’ll be going to Liberia any time soon, I’m glad that these guys did, and that the stories they found are getting told. In a world of SEO, Twittered trends and Top-10 lists, the VICE Guide to Travel gets down to the unmarketable, inconvenient bone of what travel (for me) is all about: seeing how other people live, and glimpsing into the strange stories that compose this world.

(Okay, so, it may or may not be a secret fantasy of mine to one day tag along on one of these installments. But for now, the website’ll due.)


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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