The Slippery Colonial Slope of Travel Journalism

Media empires like Vice and celebrities like Anthony Bourdain are reporting from the world’s most misunderstood countries. Is their brand of travel journalism just repackaged sensationalism?


| January/February 2014



Typewriter

Call the phenomenon “advenjournalism”—one of the least-interrogated new typologies emerging as an alternative to the ever-shrinking world of establishment print and broadcast news.

Photo by Madelyn Mulvaney

Perched on the roof of a boat drifting slowly along a remote stretch of the Congo River, Anthony Bourdain—celebrity chef, travel-show host, irascible personality—is truly on top of the world. It’s the season finale of his latest vehicle, Parts Unknown on CNN, and after sojourns to post-revolutionary Libya and the guerilla-riddled Colombian Amazon, our host is introducing a destination—the Democratic Republic of the Congo—deemed too extreme even by his most dedicated cameramen. Their hesitance hardly slowed down Bourdain, whose decision to keep shooting through an air raid on Beirut earned his previous series, No Reservations, an Emmy—and elevated his public image from “the anti-Rachel Ray” to “Anderson Cooper, with swearing.” Exposing a country visited by relatively few outsiders and scarred by an inscrutably complex, ceaselessly bloody conflict—the planet’s deadliest since the Second World War—the show’s finale alone allowed Parts Unknown to live up to its name.

A new brand of travel journalism

And yet it’s a name no less easy to live down, conjuring as it does antiquated echoes of Eurocentricity and empire. Bourdain’s desire to case the Congo was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s colonial-era novel Heart of Darkness, in which a central character, Kurtz, is driven mad by his immersion in an African interior it portrays as mysterious and malignant. Parts Unknown visits Goma, the DRC’s most battle-scarred city, but only as a short subplot to Bourdain’s extended homage to Heart—a waterborne journey, like the book’s, complete with a Kurtzian breakdown when our host attempts to cook by flickering generator light. And it’s with Conrad’s plot in mind that Bourdain begins the episode with a phrase that comes off as an unfortunate, flippant introduction to a country struggling with underdevelopment and atrocity: “Welcome to the jungle.”

The modern media landscape can feel like a festering swamp of uninspired ideas, and it may seem unfair to pick apart any television program as comparatively intelligent and original as Bourdain’s. But it’s precisely the potential of his show—and of other media offerings pushing similar combinations of food, fearlessness, or foreignness—that compels critical examination. This new genre’s influence can be felt in stories produced by a number of outlets, from the multimedia conglomerate Vice to gonzo mag NSFWCORP to Roads & Kingdoms, a web publication that sometimes makes even Bourdain seem like a timid package tourist. Call the phenomenon “advenjournalism”—one of the least-interrogated new typologies emerging as an alternative to the ever-shrinking world of establishment print and broadcast news.


Advenjournalism may appear in diverse forms, but the category is united by a number of common characteristics. The genre often focuses on isolated, rarely visited, conflict-ridden, or closed societies. Its programming tends to blend travel narrative with professional reporting—fusing basic background and recent news with the challenging process of getting the story itself. The genre’s public face is overwhelmingly male. Pushing voices from a narrow range of perspectives and importing travel writing’s preoccupation with scene-setting anecdotes, it often plays off what’s most strange or different about the outside world to Western audiences, coming off as heavy on exoticism as it does on current events or culture.

Vice stories like “Paintballing with Hezbollah” are archetypal advenjournalism, providing less new information than a sense—by emphasizing, in this example, the strangeness of Lebanese militants participating in an everyday game—of cultural distance between subject and reader. In Vice’s case this tendency can reach a darkly comic level of cultural condescension; among the outlet’s worst offenses are The Vice Guide to Liberia, which advertises “cross-dressing cannibals,” and War Gin, a documentary that revels in Uganda’s status as the “drunkest country in the world.”