Thursday, February 7, 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.


Brenda Y said...

OH..MY...WORD! This is amazing!!! I could cry just from reading it! This is so what I feel on a daily basis! Thank you for putting this out there even though I know you will take flack for it from some people. I hope and pray that this causes people to stop and think before any action they take whether in a different country or in their own country!!

mollie said...

this is the reason when people ask when i am coming back to haiti, i sadly say i am probably not returning. i feel that i came to help tell a story and i told it. i know the story changes and unfolds but i have been convicted by the cost it takes for me to travel there. unless the story changes or i feel led to return for another reason i have to ignore my own impulses to come to fill my own heart with the love i receive each time i come.

great post. hard questions i tried asking myself before each trip and still don't have the answers!

Apparent Project said...

You guys are professionals. No need to be shy about calling it like it is. You are really good at it, and your sensitivity and respect for visiting blans is obvious. I thought this was spot on. We don't need to ask permission from the ignorant to expound upon the truths we see from the priveleged vantage point or our shared lives with the poor. I don't expect a surgeon to apologize for letting me know how to behave appropriately in an operating room. And if it isn't clear to people that Haiti is an operating room and not "Operation", they need to be told before they start tweezing for the bread basket. Keep shooting straight, Docte'.

Meliana Giannetta said...

Very well said! I am very glad i read this, i lived in Haiti for a short time and plan on coming permanently in January. This was one of the things we express to groups when they go on trips. We also encourage to read the book When Helping Hurts as well. Thank you so much for sharing!

Patricia said...

Thank you for this. Exploiting the poor with photography is an issue that has bothered my daughter since she was a teenager. When she went to Rwanda a few years ago, the only pictures she took of people were posed, so that they knew their picture was being taken. Most of the time, she gave her camera to the Rwanda children for them to take pictures. It's a heart issue that goes beyond missions to even our neighbors at home.

Wade said...

Really good questions. Thank you for sharing.

sara said...

This definitely caused examination. As I look back on previous mission trips I have been on, I see that I have been guilty of that. In my heart, I was taking the pictures for remember and be reminded of what I saw. But even though my motives were seemingly ok, I never thought about the feelings on the other side of the camera. thank you for asking the question.

Mama Ds Dozen said...

Great questions. I'm not offended, but it makes me wonder about some things.

I have spent nearly 2 months (2 trips) in Ghana. I didn't focus as much on the "poverty" of life, but on the "differences" in life, when I took pictures. Shopping at the market is a DIFFERENT experience, that I wanted to capture for my family photo albums (we adopted 3 kids from Ghana). Ghanaian ladies carrying HUGE baskets on their heads was DIFFERENT, so I took pictures. (And, the ladies usually ran over to my car and put on their biggest smiles. They were excited for me to take their pictures.)

Our family did a mission trip to New Orleans after the hurricane. We took a LOT of pictures of people's homes. The destruction was unbelievable. Again, we wanted pictures for our family photo album. 6 years later, those pictures are still heart-wrenching to look at.

I spent 3 weeks in Argentina. I took pictures of the beautiful people. I took pictures of the neighborhood. I wanted to show the rest of the family where our daughter was living. I wanted to show the DIFFERENCES.

We live 5 miles from Canada (just an hour's drive from Vancouver, BC). We get a LOT of Asian Tourists in our area. They LOVE to take pictures. It does not bother me one bit when they pop out their cameras, even though for me what they are taking pictures of is just "every day life".

On the flip side . . . how many American's visit Hollywood and take LOTS of pictures. They take pictures of people walking down the street. They take pictures of the elite stores that actresses might shop at. They drive slowly down the streets, taking pictures of the houses. There is no exploitation here . . . just curiosity, and the desire to document a lifestyle that is DIFFERENT than their own.

I will be taking a mission trip to Guadelajara in June. I know that I will have my "expensive camera" slung across my shoulder. I will want to take pictures of the DIFFERENCES of life there. I will want to come home and use pictures to share the story of my travels with my family.

Again, I am not offended by your post . . . but for me it does bring up a lot more questions than answers.

picture taking mama of 12

Sammie said...

Great post. I think when you live in a country VS comming for a visit your perpective is forever cahnged. Most Americans are only visitors to 3rd world countries, they don't take the time, or have the time to learn the language and to be able to connect with the people.

I think its good for us,the people from the more afuluent western nations, to get out and see more of the world, as that is the frist step of change and understanding. I wish the misson trips could focus more on educating those who are going on them how they can really help the people they are seeing and the coutnry long term, and help them to take home changes in themselfs for how they view the world, both their world at home and the reality of the world that people in other cultures live.

What truely makes the difference is to see that we are them and they are us, there is not really a divide, we are all human beings with the same hopes and dreams. Keeping a camera between us and the people creates a divide, that most westerners will not understand. Its better that we keep a journal and record with words the immages we are seeing, the the truths we learn about ourselvs and the people, and families that we are meeting.

Thanks for making me think more deeply about my reason for picture taking, and how my "whitness and westernerss" can seperate me from the very people I am comming to conenct with. These people living in poverty are at home, this is their life every day.It never changes.How can we remember that and create some small change in a truely meaningfull way. That is what I belive we are called to do.

Anonymous said...

Your blog inspires me and I appreciate it when you can 'fess us to making mistakes.

My husband has been to Haiti 3 times to visit with a pastor we support. He takes lots of pictures while he is there but not of random people or personal moments - he doesn't do it here so he doesn't think he should do it there. But when he takes pictures there he always tries to treat them with the same respect he treats friends in Minnesota. Luckily these pictures have helped to bring our church closer to these people in Haiti and think of them as extended family rather than the faceless poor. The group he takes pictures of LOVE having their pictures taken but part of that is because he shares the pictures with them and part because they know he cares. I am so excited to be able to go to Haiti in a few weeks to see these people that I only know from pictures, so sometimes pictures are a good thing.

waitingarms said...

I think it really boils down to a heart issue and some underlying racism/superiority/disregard for people that we are not willing to explore. After all, we are helping thise poor helpless natives! I think the rule of thumb should be if it is not okay/polite to do in America, then it should not be okay to do on the mission field. I suspect some of the responses are defensive or filtered knowing what your position would be or they respondents are guilty as charged and are trying to put a positive spin on their actions. Knowing all the releases we have to sign for our kids pictures to be taken in publlic, I think we put a much higher value on our kids' privacy and dignity than we afford kids in developing countries.

Anonymous said...

A week or two after returning from Ethiopia, where I adopted my daughter, I found pictures of her on a website looking quite ill. I was not happy. The owners wouldn't take them down, as they say they document the AIDS crisis. I say they document my daughter.

I have never taken photos of people before while traveling, but I have taken photos of homes, of market-places from a distance, of churches. This isn't because I am especially sensitive but because I was too shy to ask permission.

Every time I see my daughter's face on that site--it's still up, I'm reminded that it's just not right.

Thank you for your essay.

T & T Livesay said...

I hear you Laurel, I guess a lot of it boils down to attitude and obviously a photo from far away is different than a photo taken mainly to document the misery of a stranger that has not asked to be photographed ... I think I would be uber bugged if people showed up at my house as they pleased to snap photos of me and our kids ... even if it was just because we're different, that would bug me.

Additionally, I realize that one visitor asking to take a photo here and there (asking FIRST) is not at all troubling, sometimes the huge groups of people just make it seem all the more obnoxious to me.

When it comes to STM trips I very much prefer a small group of people, I am not at all for big groups coming in and creating a circus-like environment ... but that's my personal opinion and I recognize many don't agree.

T & T Livesay said...

Corrigan -
You win the internet today for using the horrible (hate that noise) game "Operation" in your anaology. Congrats!

Sharon said...

Thank you for saying this so well. I've had some thoughts about this brewing for the last year or two, but I am so happy to learn from someone much, much more experienced than I am.
I wish I could take back some of the pictures I've taken and attitudes I've had.
This has hit me hard in the last year with 2 instances. One was when personal photo of mine was shared with out my permission and the other was when my family was standing in front of the White House a (creepy) tourist was taking pictures of women's butts and then started taking pictures of myself and my family. Opened my eyes and gave me glimpses into things that had been ruminating in my mind over the last months.

I will definitely be sending people here to read this.

Danielle said...

So glad you posted this! We actually include a talk similar to this during orientation for short-term teams and volunteers. We ask that they request permission before taking photos, and we forbid it in certain communities and places that we do ministry. There have been issues in the country where we work because some missionaries (long and short term) continue to take photos even when they have been asked not to because of abuse or custody issues involving the children. It disgusts me to be honest...too often photos are used to draw attention to someone's ministry or raise funds. Yes, we all have to walk the line of telling a story, but we shouldn't do it without someone's permission and understanding of why their photo is being shared. Thank you again for writing about this...examination is good, especially when we are examining how our actions are affecting someone else's personal privacy and dignity.

Brooke R. said...

Your post does not make me feel uncomfortable. When I was in Jordan, and particularly when I was in Baqa'a Palestinian refugee camp, your words were what I needed to read. I mean- I had my sweet brother-friend Abu Sufyan as a guide, but YOUR words helped to keep me in check too. You are a westerner and love this foreign place called Haiti and I am one who loves Baqa'a (and always will, God willing I will go back sooner rather than later) and I needed (and will always need) guidance on how to tell the story that needs to be told- while expressing the deep respect, and love, that I have for the Palestinians, Jordanians, those in the camps and not.

Now I'm back in the states. I'm doing the job search and have found a free clinic started by a bunch of do-gooders attached to the Occupy movement to bide away some time at. Every Sunday they have a clinic. Your words again guide me. I can't take pictures willy-nilly-- these are our patients!! (I am not a medical person. I do intake, record management and will be doing statistics).

In Jordan I failed, a lot. I took pictures I shouldn't have. I did it because I wanted to show the beauty of the place, the people. I say refugee camp and it brings an image to people's minds and the best way to change that image is through my words and images. It's hard to do that without being disrespectful. Thank God for Abu Sufyan and your words. Without y'all I would have been even more disrespectful.

Oh, and one last note. I've told people at the clinic about reading your blog and the work that you do. The people I've talked to have been blown away by what y'all do day in and day out. This is super do-gooder medical people who feel a call to help, volunteer, those who are unhoused, those on the edges in Eugene, Ore. So, my point is- I hope you can feel the deep respect and compliment in their blown away reactions. Thank you for your work, wisdom and continued reminder of the good in the world.

Lori H. from Minnesota said...

Great post, Tara. You should have written it LAST week before I came not the day I left - just kidding. After spending a week in Haiti, I got to see first hand much of what you are talking about here. My guide, Samuel, was so good and helped me be sensitive and respectful of the people and their culture. He encouraged me to take pictures of certain things, and would ask permission of people first. Only a couple said no and one wanted money.

Each picture was something that told me more about what is Haiti, which is a difficult question to answer. So much beauty and so much desperation. But the thing that struck me most was the attitude of the people. They are truly amazing and put us Americans to shame. Even with all of the poverty and dust and crowds and traffic, everyone was polite and kind and proud. Industrious. They are so industrious.

If you go to Haiti you will definitely see sad and raw things, but you will also see great and wondrous beauty. You will see the soul of a beautiful people who have survived and keep on with the struggle. I was lucky enough to have spent a week with wonderful, gracious people (including those at Heartline). It's hard to explain how different an entire people can be.

JenniferJ said...

I can actually relate a bit. SInce ours is one of the very few transracial adoptions in our area, I've had people wait for our family to show up before taking pictures or take way more photos of my kids than anyone else.

Once at the library they waited....and waited for my kids specifically so they could be included in the flyer.

Another time we attended the Easter Festival at a friend's church and a strange man took several photos of my boys. When I approached him he said it was for the church flyer. I told him that, since he hadn't asked first I wanted him to delete the photos....then I stood there and waited until he deleted them all.

So, yes, I can relate but only a little bit. This has only happened a handful of times. If it happened all the time (as I' sure it does in Haiti) I would be seriously annoyed.


Melda said...

First of all,
It's your blog - not a newspaper.
You should be able to say whatever you want without people going crazy.... I mean, for real -

Second of all - I've been that person and although I am thankful to see how God has changed my heart and mind - I know that He has more he wants me to learn. I can only cringe about my stupidity in the past and walk forward praying to decrease my stupidity with age and wisdom. (Some days are better than others)

Last but not least - for some reason, Michael is very popular among the Japanese (especially girls) here in Guam. I think part of it is because he is so tall. They can't believe he is only 15. People are ALWAYS taking his photo, (*but they do usually ask) We kinda make a joke about it.... but sometimes, it gets old.


Missy at Its Almost Naptime said...

No, you're right. We were just in Ethiopia and while I took tons of pictures of just 'street scenes' I did it covertly (sneakily, like from my lap) because I didn't want to seem like I thought I was at the zoo. Is that bad? Maybe. I did want to document the daily life of our daughter's birthplace, but I did not want to offend anyone.

And, I didn't want to look like an idiot. There's that.

Gardenbug said...

I have spent much of my life West Africa, India, China, Brazil, Russia and Haiti among other spots. (I am now 70 years old.) I think photos with sensitivity are my favorites. I love photos of friends everywhere, and usually those friends love having our pictures as well.

This past year we were contacted by the children of a former student of ours in West Africa. They located us on the web and told us that our photos were posted in their living room as they grew up. Although our friend has passed away, it was fabulous to hear from these now adult children, and to receive thanks for helping educate their Dad.

I do have trouble with photos of distressing topics... yet I think there can be value in opening people's eyes to problems. I have done that in my own community and that has brought about change.

Sarah said...

Having just returned from Haiti last night, I very much appreciate your post. This was my second visit and I found myself taking much fewer pictures then my first, mostly for the reasons you stated.
I think the pictures taken tell a story, but its important you know what story you're trying to tell. If you're use of the pictures is to make a "spectacle" of Haiti, whether intentional or not, I think we need to examine our intentions.
Pictures of the streets, landscape, countryside, can convey a tiny bit of what daily life looks like in Haiti, but pictures of strangers of which we know nothing about does not convey anything. It shows no connection or relationship to the person.
I have many wonderful Haitian friendships that have grown stronger by my short trips to Haiti and I don't plan on stopping them, but I agree that we all need to understand that Haiti and it's people are not zoo animals on display and to respect their lives and space and hearts.
You Livesays always make me think! Thank you for that!

Sara said...

I've been to Haiti twice on short term trips (a different post altogether, right?). Each time our group had a designated photographer. I think that made it a little better but there were still times that felt so uncomfortable. I'm still trying to figure out how to bring the story home and while respecting the story.