Thursday, February 07, 2013

you say you care about the poor ...

My friend D.L. is hosting a series of posts called "War Photographers" on her website. She is asking hard questions (of herself especially) about how we share the stories of others, and how we do that with respect. In the last year writing stories about others has become more difficult because of the hard questions. These questions are important to ask, important to wrestle with and examine. I loved this post on her blog today, you can read it in its entierty HERE. (Below are powerful excerpts.)

"My supposedly prophetic photography, which I dreamed could one day change the world, was doing nothing but showing the ugly surface and ignoring everything underneath. I was taking the assumptions and fears of everyone who I hoped would see the truth, and showed them only what they expected:
Look how poor our community is.
Look how dirty and run-down our buildings are.
Look how hopeless and dangerous our youth are.
Look how rough a place the city is."
~       ~       ~
"So how do we do all this? I still don’t really know yet. I’m still trying to learn how to do it well. But I do know what I’m striving for:

Where the world sees poverty, we want it to see a different sort of richness.
Where the world sees violence, we want it to see people longing for peace.
Where the world sees crime, we want it to see neighbors looking out for each other.
Where the world sees brokenness, we want it to see stories of hope and strength.
Where the world sees destruction, we want it to see signs of God’s redemption.
Amidst the darkness, we want the world to see the Kingdom."

~      ~      ~      ~
(reposting, originally posted here in 2011)

"You say you care about the poor.
Then tell me, what are their names?"
Gustavo Gutierrez

There are so many topics that are touchy and difficult to write about. I usually avoid speaking/writing with force about them in order to dodge any conflict that may arise as a result.  I hate internet word wars .... But more than that I hate when people misunderstand and jump to conclusions.  Discussion is great, but it seems that things tend to deteriorate quickly. 

The fights people have on line would never happen if they were standing face to face because we're all way more polite, gracious, and non-confrontational in real life. In face to face interaction it rarely happens that if you disagree with someone you jump them with the boldness that happens on line.

All that to say - Bringing up the book, "When Helping Hurts" and writing about Short Term Missions caused a little ruffling of feathers. It wasn't meant to put anyone on the defensive;  but it did anyway.  C'est la vie. In this case, I think it needs to be said and it was worth the conflict. That post was meant to make us think. It is not actually all about us and what makes us feel good.

Lately I find myself frustrated with some of the problems we create when we come to "help the poor" and that post was born of that frustration.  I dislike a lot of what happens between the poor and the people that come to help. I get squirmy and uncomfortable with the 'great white hope' attitude and the Santa Claus stuff that goes on. I don't think there is anything wrong with examining our own motives and asking hard questions about the things we do.

I'm struggling a bit with what I perceive as exploitation of people.  I recognize in some of the things we've done over the years (especially very early on) a bit of an air of superiority. I'd go so far as to say that in the past Troy and I have done things that I would now say robbed people of their dignity in that moment. I wish I could go back and undo a few of the things I've done, said, and thought.

I also feel a resentment growing toward others who don't seem to consider the feelings and position of those they come to "help" - nor do they ever allow their approach to be questioned without great offense. Truthfully, I desire to be far more gracious toward the people doing these things and I don't want to resent anyone. 

No matter what you've done in the past when on a short or longer term trip abroad - try to be open to this question. I ask that you honestly (without defensiveness) consider this and how you would react to it ...

You are with a friend of yours and a couple of your kids (or if you don't have kids you are watching someone's kids) and you've gone to run a few errands one morning.  At Target you notice a woman taking photos of the kids from about 15 yards away.  Later, you've stopped at the grocery store and you turn around to see five or six people taking photos of your friend and the kids.  That afternoon as you return home you look down your driveway to see someone else standing there taking a photo of your house.  You go to bed, the next morning you walk out of your house looking ragged in sweats and an old shirt. As you are walking your dog a truck full of people you've never seen before ride by and they all start snapping your photo.

Yesterday on facebook, out of totally curiosity, I asked this question - I ask it of you now:
Would you be okay with strangers taking your picture(or of your kids or family) while you were out and about minding your business, doing life?
Here are a few of the replies I got in response:
- I really don't know. I think they'd need to ask for permission first, but then they'd need a good reason. If they wanted a picture of clothing I'm wearing, a purse I'm carrying, shoes, etc so they can go home and find the same, then ok. If they have a valid reason maybe. I'm not a mom yet, but I'm pretty sure I won't ever be ok with someone just randomly taking pictures of my children, for any reason.

- That's tough. Normally I would say no, but I'm fine with people who are obviously traveling or when the new refugee families come to our city they want tons of pictures of everyday life stuff (often involving our family) and that doesn't bother me cuz I know it's new and exciting. I definitely wouldn't want to if I wasn't asked though or if it was someone I didn't know at all.

- Do you mean obviously focusing on my family or me? I frequently get people in my photographs that I don't necessarily mean to, but they are there when I snap the pic. But deliberately focusing? I would not really like that. However, what are they planning on doing with it? I would not like to be used in a media sense.

- No! We've had that happen before & I was shocked. I will not let it happen anymore.

- Absolutely NOT, my children are not exhibits and I would not hesitate one bit to let whoever know that taking their pictures without consent is not son s daycare have a very strict policy on that, parents are not allowed to videotape,take pictures on school grounds.    

- NO! If you have the responsability of having a camera and want to take shots. You NEED to approach and ask, can I take a picture of your child on the swing for an article. OR for a art show. Otherwise NO!!

- That's a tough one. We are constantly approached here for a "photo" Sometimes I agree sometimes not. I can't even tell you why I make the choice that I do...When we first came I "obliged" now after having our photos taken a gillion times, ...I mostly say no. However, what I do not like is when we are walking and ppl take out their phones and "steal" our photo. Then again, I "steal" photos of random ppl, what to do?  

- Well, it is the paparazzi that drives me nuts. I just wish they would stop following me. lol. No, I wouldn't like it. But I did it in Haiti the first time I went and never thought once about my actions. Rude! I was an ignorant tourist the first time for sure! 

definitely not okay...we have the cell phone picture taking issue here too. way too much of a security risk in the country we live. Maybe more of us should think about it before we take pictures of others???

I'm not debating the ability for photos to tell a story and to draw people in. I know that the world saw Haiti after the earthquake and that the images moved people to respond. There are most certainly times where photos tell a story.  We ourselves have shared many stories with photos. We are not claiming we know where the line is - we are simply aware that there IS a line. 

Obviously within relationships and with permission it is a entirely different ballgame.  

I only know that I am uncomfortable with a lot of what happens here and embarrassed that visitors with fancy cameras often disrespect the Haitian people, sticking the camera in their face without greeting them, without any thought. There seems to be a real attitude of entitlement. (When large groups all have their cameras out, I hide. I cannot watch it.) 

Before these were my friends, before these were people I knew, people I loved, people I respected, I took photographs without much thought. I shared photographs without much thought. Now that these are not just "poor people" but REAL PEOPLE, I take and share fewer photographs. 
Remember, when you come here for a week you are one of many MANY snapping photos. (The number of groups in and out of Haiti is mind-boggling. Being 700 miles from FL ... 200,000 one+week visitors a year is the number being tossed around.)  I'm thinking if we all stopped and put ourselves on the other side of the camera for a moment, we might take very different photographs.

~        ~       ~

Does a post like this hit you wrong? Does it cause defensiveness or examination? I would love to hear your thoughts if you're willing to share.