I remember opening up the box. It was a gift received in celebration of the completion of my college education – a right of passage, in a way – my very own Canon DSLR. I remember words spoken around me as I opened it up – I was to photograph what I saw in my adventures ahead. I thought of all the photos I had seen – photos taken by friends on our previous short-term trips. Photos of brilliant smiles amidst staggering poverty.
I arrived in Nairobi, camera ready – and wordlessly tucked it away. It came out to follow short-term teams, and capture any event it could. I was simply uncomfortable taking photos everyday. I am not a professional photographer, and was not familiar with a camera in a setting where cameras were unexpected. A celebration or a wedding? Cameras were there. People were more than happy to smile and pose for as many shots as I was willing to take. But in the slums? On the streets? Everyday life? Here, cameras were not as expected – and, I assumed, unwelcome.
But aren’t photos necessary to tell the story? How could I communicate the setting of this new place I was living in without them?
Every person that came through Nairobi on a team passed through an area of Mathare called Village one; The site of the first Hope Center, and home to the head offices. It is a community that is both known by and knows Missions of Hope well. In this setting, photos were allowed – because visitors to Missions of Hope, were visitors to this community. In homes, people were happy to take a photo with whoever visited them. I assume, and have been told, because they knew that photo will be a memory for the person who visited – which would hopefully be a reminder to pray for them.
In general, we asked people to use the general rule of respect – if people put their hand up, don’t take the picture. If they seem not to care, you’re in the green. If kids demand a photo (to the most joyful chorus of greetings and laughter), be ready to show them your screen afterwards! If you are in a situation where you just can’t tell if it is “okay,” – ask the staff member you are with. (Even long-termers didn’t go out into the community alone.)
This is what I learned, from those who had been there far longer than I.
Still, my camera stayed tucked away more often than not. Because, as I continued to discover, each of us must decide what our own guidelines will be for taking photos overseas – particularly when working with a people who have been exploited in one way or another. We start with the guidelines from the local workers as our standard – but still must wrestle with our own convictions.
The danger, as I see it, is that just like our words can easily misrepresent us and others when used incorrectly, so our photos can misrepresent whatever we have captured. When we gasp at the exploitation of the poor, and snap a photo to freeze it in time, are we continuing the exploitation that we vehemently work against?
We post photos of others freely on Facebook, sharing everything that we have seen and experienced, but are careful to post the best photos of ourselves – and quickly untag our unflattering shots before they have gone viral.
Yet at the same time, we feel the weight of need to capture photos of what we have seen to tell the story, to open our eyes, and to report on what we have seen.
I don’t think that keeping the lens cap on our cameras is the answer to these questions. It should, however, call us to question both why we take photos, and what we photograph. These questions have led me to the following thoughts. It is not comprehensive by any means, and I would love feedback and input – please join the discussion!
1. Know who you are photographing.
When you share your photos with family and friends at home, the stories that you want to share the most are of the people that you met. You may flip through fifty photos of streets and groups of people – but you will stop on the ones that you developed a relationship with – however slight that relationship may be. These are the things that connect us – these are the things that break down economic and cultural barriers. Though your expensive camera may separate you on the economic scale from those you are taking a picture of or with, let it be an opportunity for learning and connection. Ask questions. Use your curiosity, and your camera, as a chance to learn.
2. Take photos that dignify.
A photo can sometimes capture us at our worst moments. Take photos that capture the best in people – a photo that honors the person you have gotten to know (because, after all, if you don’t know them, why are you intentionally taking their photo?) While professional news photographers may be tasked with capturing people in devastating circumstances, this is not a responsibility given lightly nor to all. It certainly is one that I am not prepared to enter into. Though desperation is a often a very real part of the story of many, choose to capture images that dignify rather than degrade.
3. Don’t let your camera keep you from being present
While cameras around our necks can make us uncomfortable, viewing difference through an additional lens can be a barrier to allowing ourselves, and those around us, the gift of being present.
4. Protect children
If you have gotten to know a particular child’s story, count yourself entrusted with a sacred treasure to protect. The child is not old enough to own their story, and decide how they want it to be shared with the world. While stories are often powerful and may have had a significant impact on you, consider changing the name of the child, and protecting their image. This is both out of respect, and for their protection.
Join the discussion!
Why do you take photos when you travel – whether for tourism or for service? What other questions should be part of this discussion? What guidelines have you decided on for yourself?