When it stops [or maybe doesn’t even start] being about them.

When it stops [or maybe doesn’t even start] being about them.

A camera pans onto a young black girl from a perspective slightly above her. She stands alone in a field in an unnamed, unidentifiable location, looking away with a forlorn look on her face, never meeting the camera’s gaze. The voiceover: “This is Daniella. She’s nine. And her body is racked with pain from parasites; the same kind that killed her sister. Without help, Daniella could be next.” A single tear falls down Daniella’s face, as she now sits in a concrete doorway with no door, looking down.

The opening paragraph from this article titled ‘Poverty porn and a new way to regard social impactby Yasha Wallin. which poses some really great questions linked to the greater questions of short term missions trips and relief aid in general. Books like ‘When Helping Hurts’ and ‘Toxic Charity’ have recently drawn our attention to the idea that not all of the helpful things we attempt, may necessarily be helpful for those on the receiving end.

This is accompanied by a similar article I came across via a friend of mine today titled ‘The ethics of photographing locals’ by Christie Long, in which she takes a closer look at the ‘tourism’ of poor people for the purposes of the Facebook status, the Instagram pic or the ‘Ooh, ah, you changed the world story, of that time I visited that place with all of these kinds of people’ or something like that:

Too often I see tourists rush in to villages, and even homes, reaching for their cameras without attempting to make any connection with the people they are so anxious to photograph. Often this is without the permission of those they are photographing, or when those people are clearly uncomfortable.

Reverse the situation. Would you let a tourist visiting your home country – one that you’d had little or no interaction with – take a photo of you or your child because they thought the way you looked or lived was interesting? I would hesitate, and question why they wanted my photo and what they would do with it.

If no rapport had been built and there had been no attempt by the tourist to gain an insight into my life, I would find it insulting and intrusive. I would probably refuse, and be upset if they tried to take my photo without my permission.

Two things in particular stood out for me. One line in the second article that correctly summed up the heart of this phenomena as being ‘this is not about them’ – the person in the photograph or the story is simply a vehicle for another agenda or end result.

And the second is this quote from the Poverty Porn piece:

as Unite for Sight says, “in addition to violating privacy and human rights, poverty porn is damaging to those it is trying to aid because it evokes the idea that the poor are helpless and incapable of helping themselves, thereby cultivating a culture of paternalism.”

Christie Long has an idea of what is essential in these exchanges when she focuses on the relationship aspect between people and those they are photographing. Yasha Wallin, on the other hand, seems to have a helpful grasp on what is needed in terms of the bigger picture, with a stronger focus needing to be on partnerships and collaboration:

It’s time to catalyze a paradigm shift. If we want to advance positive social change—striving towards vibrant, participatory, open, just, economically stable communities in which the entire world can actually invest—we must partner with communities, not impose our constructs. And if we seek to truly collaborate with people, we need to think of each other as equals. We need to educate ourselves—donors, NGOs, and creatives—that our narratives and design need to reflect that equality and shared humanity, without whitewashing challenges people face, and while engaging audiences with good storytelling. We need to co-create stories with our partner communities, and build avenues for us to listen to their voices.

What is your response to these stories? Is this something you have witnessed first hand? How did that make you feel in the context of the situation you were in?

Brett Anderson

Brett "Fish" Anderson from South Africa (the country) is passionate about seeing the church live out what it says it believe in all areas of life. He is married to the beautiful Val (tbV) and hates raiSINs with a different kind of passion.