Monday, August 18, 2014

Wait! Before you snap!

I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with taking pictures in Africa over the years.  I have observed more than a few altercations with Africans objecting to their picture being taken by North Americans.  I encourage guests to get permission before snapping photos.  Yet, I feel I need to put photos up every week on this blog; every quarter I try to include pictures in my prayer letter; and every time I do a presentations in North America, I want to use pictures, which convey "more than a thousand words." 

The problem comes through the idea that people want to see (or perhaps more viscerally respond to) pictures that connote need, heartache, hunger, disease, or poverty. 

I'm taking a class now on culture and global change, and it described pictures of African babies with swollen bellies and flies hovering around them as "pornographic."  Really, I thought?  That is a very strong word.  But looking up the dictionary definitions, pornography is "obscene pictures with little artistic merit;" obscene is defined as "offensive to morality or decency."  The author of the book goes on to say this:
Photography combines voyeurism and control because visual images are taken by the powerful of the powerless; the subjects of the photograph are transformed into objects by virtue of being 'shot.' So photography can produce the colonized and the powerless as fixed realities:  entirely knowable and visible, but equally 'other,' irreconcilably different:  the objects of desire and derision. (Young 1990: 143).
These pictures are negative images which often lead to the wrong type of development, focused on charity, stripping of dignity, and development of dependency.  And wrong development has been pushed by many for many years   Development that objectifies and paints a helpless, hopeless picture.  Development that expresses need without expressing innate capacity.  Development that damages rather than restores - often by well intentioned people who wanted to help but do so with a short term perspective and maybe even self-serving in making ourselves feel good about what we are doing.

Contrast these pictures to this advertisement below by Christian Aid, where a young woman is on a bike, a national doing something positive in her community.  This is a positive image in which there is a name given to the person, she is working, there is mobility, a sense of community, and the need for health care which is universal.  This is a great picture of a glowing empowered subject: independent, competent, and self-determined,  instead of an object of development who is hopeless and despairing.
(BTW, "Third World" is no longer politically correct.  "Developing countries" or "Majority World" or "Two-thirds World" is better.)
So what to do with this dilemma?  I want people to see a positive, hopeful Africa.  But I also need to raise funds.  I want people's hearts to be moved by the positive, sustainable change that we see in the work that we do.  Yet pictures of classes or pictures of businesses are not as evocative as pictures of orphans or orphanages.  The challenge to myself is not to objectify people and justify my behavior by trying to raise funds for a good ministry. [Michael reminded me of the Benny Hinn story where he took a sad-looking boy, stood in front of a dilapidated building, with a makeshift orphanage sign, and raised a bunch of money. I wish I could say that I haven't experienced similar stories across Africa.  Ask me sometime to share what I think about orphanages in Africa because of these experiences.]  And my challenge to all of us is to be careful how quickly our emotions are moved by a picture - make sure that the brain has a chance to keep pace with the emotions; and if there is an opportunity to travel internationally, be careful in how those pictures are taken or presented. And feel free to hold me accountable if you catch me drifting toward bad development!