Travel, Writing, and the Ethics of Observation

Lancaster University/University of Leicester

This free one-day event took place on 16th June 2011.  It featured a generative writing workshop, a projected photographic exhibition and presentations from Dr. Corinne Fowler and Dr. Harry Whitehead (University of Leicester) and photographer Richard Hanson.


Workshop: Travel, Writing and the Ethics of Observation

The day began with a workshop run by Corinne Fowler and Harry Whitehead, University of Leicester.

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‘I and my guide – it was not grammar, but racial pride comes before grammar any day -’ (Beatrice Grimshaw, From Fiji to the Cannibal Islands, 1907)

Travel writing is often held to be a stubbornly colonial genre that tells us more about the traveller than the destination. Writing about the Other in fiction and creative non-fictional genres has been similarly critiqued. This practical workshop concentrated on unpicking established conventions and considered some recent innovations in representing other places and peoples. Through discussion and generative writing exercises, participants were invited to explore the ethical implications of their own chosen mode of writing about travel. Participants tackled the challenge of evoking a sense of place while remaining alert to ways in which contemporary and historical global inequalities impinge on people’s relationships to that place. By looking at these ethical dimensions together with some established creative writing practices, the workshop considered how best one's own writing techniques may succeed in achieving more convincing and self-reflective prose.


Photographic Exhibition: 'Haiti: Beyond the Rubble'

A projected exhibition of Richard Hanson’s images taken in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Link to Richard’s work:

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Above photos: Richard Hanson / Tearfund.  Richard’s exhibition of images from Haiti will be running at Central Hall Westminster from 1-30 June 2011.


Panel Discussion chaired by Professor Graham Mort



Dr. Corinne Fowler: ’ Travel writing, fiction and affection: the case of Paraguay’

Despite its capacity for formal experimentation and self-reflection, contemporary travel writing retains a distinctive colonial orientation. Taking Paraguay as a case study, Corinne Fowler considered the ethical challenges posed to travel writing about this central South American nation, which is still governed by the paradigm of expansion and exploration. In particular, travel writers have persistently failed to communicate a sense of solidarity with Paraguayans. Corinne discussed whether or not greater fictionalisation of travel narratives can help to mitigate these tendencies.

Dr. Harry Whitehead: ‘Faking the Facts in The Cannibal Spirit’

Harry Whitehead read from his forthcoming novel, The Cannibal Spirit, which fictionalizes the true story of the trial of a Native Canadian man on charges of cannibalism, which happened in 1900 in Vancouver. He discussed some of the moral quandaries that arose in taking real events and people – especially those of a minority group threatened with annihilation by colonial forces – and moulding them to fictional ends.

Richard Hanson: ‘Haiti Beyond the Rubble’

Richard Hanson writes, "I'm particularly interested in the cultural and visual challenges of photographing something that even vaguely corresponds to the reality of everyday life in cross-cultural and wealth-divided contexts." Although most of his work is 'reporting' in some sense, he focused on his approach to visual storytelling, using examples that highlight some of the positives and negatives inherent in photographing away from a 'known' context: "In Haiti last June we gave cameras to fifty students at two schools and asked them to photograph their 'favourite things', and I use some of their images to illustrate similarities and differences in how they see their lives compared with my own view."


Presenters and Workshop Leaders

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Harry Whitehead
Corinne Fowler with Muli Amaye
Richard Hanson

Harry Whitehead teaches creative writing at the School of English in the University of Leicester. He has published a number of short stories on the subject of travel. Based on a true story, his novel, The Cannibal Spirit (forthcoming from Hamish Hamilton), is set in 1900 on the Northwest Coast of British Columbia, and concerns the trial on charges of cannibalism of a man whose father was white and mother Native Canadian. With a background in anthropology, he spent many thorny hours pondering the morality of how best to tell the tale.

Corinne Fowler lectures in Postcolonial Literature in the School of English at the University of Leicester. She is author of Chasing Tales: Travel Writing, Journalism and the History of Ideas about Afghanistan (2007), Travel and Ethics (Routledge, 2011) and has co-written (with Lynne Pearce and Robert Crawshaw) Postcolonial Manchester (forthcoming, Manchester University Press). Several of her short stories have been published and broadcast on BBC radio. Corinne co-edited an anthology of short stories entitled Migration Stories (2010) and (with Graham Mort) a special journal issue of commissioned writing called Region, Writing, Home (2010). She is Director of ‘Grassroutes’, an Arts Council-funded project that brings transcultural British writing to national and international audiences.

Richard Hanson is a freelance photojournalist based in Sheffield. He has worked with international NGOs in over forty countries, and has reported on how conflict has affected people's lives in Congo, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Rwanda. His UK and international work has appeared in many UK national papers and magazines. In 2010 he held an exhibition, in collaboration with Sheffield Futures and the Prince's Trust, entitled 'Scars', which told the stories of how young people and long-term residents of Sheffield's Manor estate had received their scars. He had two images in the 2010 'Shot Up North' final exhibition, and in June 2011 has an exhibition of images of Haiti since the earthquake in London. In 2008 he worked with the University of Lancaster's Centre for Transcultural Writing and Research on 'Regarding War', an exploration of how war had impacted five individuals lives.

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Centre for Transcultural Writing and Research, County College, Lancaster University, LA1 4YD, UK