If a picture says a thousand words, what story does your missions trip selfie tell the world about children living in poverty? Make every photo count with these five tips to ensure your travel photos not only look great but makes a positive impact too.
16 Oct, 2019
Joining an overseas mission trip is a life-changing experience that broadens your perspective of God and sharpens your appreciation for the cultural diversity in the world. With the widespread use of smartphones, social media and digital technology, modern-day travellers have more tools than ever before to capture memories and record their experience.
Photos are a powerful way to share your story and convey emotion, but without careful consideration, a seemingly innocent photos can leave a harmful effect on the children and families around the world that we love and serve. Discover how you can take incredible photos that capture the beauty you’ve seen on the field while also upholding the dignity of people living in poverty. Whether you’re preparing for your first missions trip or you’re a veteran in overseas missions, here’s how to take great photos without hurting others.
1. Recognise Your Privilege
Travelling overseas makes it easy to forget our everyday realities. You might have left your home in suburban Australia, but as we step out of our context and into new territory, the cultural values and perspectives we carry at home, follow us abroad too.
The first step to taking incredible photos of your mission trip is to recognise that we are not blank slates. We represent part of an imbalance of wealth and privilege in the world. As Australians, we walk under the invisible banner of the ‘lucky country’ where many others aspire to belong. Everything we do is seen by locals in a tinted frame of perceived privilege. As hard as you try to ignore or forget your privilege, it is already bestowed on you. No matter how many dreadlocks you get or the saris you wear, your privilege follows you like a shadow.
Privilege itself is not a bad thing. But the failure to recognise economic, cultural or educational factors that create privilege can be detrimental. You may not consider yourself ‘privileged’, but privilege is an uneven currency that travellers don’t realise they hold. As a tourist, there is an immediate perception of power and wealth that, sadly, places you ‘above’ locals, in their opinion. In that position of privilege, the requests you make or the actions you take with the purest intentions is not always fair game and locals may feel limited in their options to say no.
For example: ‘Can I take a photo of you?’ sounds like a simple request but many people living in poverty fear that saying ‘no’ will disappoint a visitor who could be a potential sponsor.
Understanding the uneven playing ground that our lives operate in can help us develop a heart of humility as we interact with locals. From this posture of humility and awareness, little things like taking a photo can still be a blessing for us and those we meet, rather than a display of privilege and wealth. During a recent trip to Thailand, a sponsor in the group brought along her polaroid camera. The sponsor offered to take photos of the family and left each household with a printed family photo. For families with few possessions of their own, getting a physical family photo was a precious gift!
Remember: Generally, the parents of children registered in a Compassion Sponsorship Program have signed a photo consent form but it is advised that you follow the guidance of the staff at the centre. Also, when capturing photos of children outside of a project, remember that ‘yes’ doesn’t always mean yes. There are other factors at play. Be safe and ask your trip leader or local translator whether it is culturally appropriate to take photos.
2. Ask Questions
Photos play an integral part in the preparation and decision to travel abroad. Most of us will flick through hundreds of photos of a destination before we even set foot in the country. They can help us broaden our comfort zones and see the work of God in a new way. Asking a few questions to keep ourselves in check as we navigate the complexities of overseas missions can equip us to take photos that are impressionable, encouraging and empowering for everyone! Every Compassion Insight Trip or sponsor visit is accompanied by a staff member who can answer your questions and address any concerns but even with an experienced leader present, taking a moment to ask ourselves honest questions can go a long way in preventing awkward and harmful situations.
Before my fingers instinctively tap the camera app, I’ve gotten into the habit of asking myself: What am I trying to capture here?
If we’re honest with ourselves, the intentions behind our missions selfies are not always pure. It can be tempting to glorify our philanthropic deeds and our generosity, candidly painting ourselves as the hero of the scene. Or sometimes, photos of shanty homes and dilapidated buildings work as evidence, proving to ourselves and our communities at home why we are necessary.
Taking photos of our work can make us look and feel good but these photos usually benefit us. It communicates to the world how benevolent we are, yet it does little to empower or uplift the locals that we are serving. By painting ourselves as the hero of a building project or children’s ministry, we are enforcing the ingrained idea that locals are subservient and passive recipients of our help.
In the book, When Helping Hurts, coauthors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert address the harmful effects well-meaning westerners can have in the world. Attempting to alleviate material poverty without recognising the underlying issues perpetuate the toxic stereotype that the materially poor are lazy.
If we take the definition of poverty offered by Corbett and Fikkert, it dawns on us that every human being is poor in the sense that our relationship in four key areas: our relationship with God, relationship with others, ourselves and the world around us, are not as healthy as God intended. When we embrace the reality that we all struggle with different expressions of poverty, we may be less interested in capturing someone else’s brokenness on camera.
Another helpful question to ask is: Who else will see this photo?
Each month, there are approximately one billion users on Instagram. In a generation where attention is the most coveted currency, voyeurism is at its peak. As we pose to take a photo or turn our camera on, where we intend to post it will always impact the photo we take. We are exposed to plenty of iconic missions photos that attract high levels of engagement. If you take a photo purely for a Facebook profile picture, it’s likely that people and environments will be maneuvered to take the most attractive photo. Depending on the platform you’re using to share photos, the children we serve can quickly become nothing more than a means to gaining likes or followers.
Try this: It can be helpful to eliminate the distraction to strike a pose on the mission field by designating one photographer on the trip that captures a variety of pictures as memorabilia. That way, you avoid situations where every photo includes you.
Before posting a photo, have you considered: How much knowledge do my friends and followers have about poverty?
It’s also safe to assume that the majority of your followers will not have a coherent understanding of poverty. They may not know what a mission trip entails and will not have read the training materials you receive. For these sorts of audiences, a simple photo of you playing with a child can give an out-of-context impression that a small gesture is the solution to lifting people out of poverty. This misunderstanding can lead to empty promises and superfluous gestures, but on the flip side, your photos can be an effective educational tool. Sharing unexpected photos that displays the humanity and beauty of real people living in poverty can shatter harmful stereotypes and challenge onlookers to reassess their understanding of poverty.
Try this: Use your photos as an opportunity to display the powerful and lasting effects of Compassion’s holistic child development. Check out our Instagram or Facebook page for examples of stories that display hope and dignity.
In most cases, embarrassing or unhelpful photos from the mission field can be avoided with the simple question: how would I feel if the roles were reversed?
Most would not feel comfortable if a busload of foreigners arrived in your front yard and started snapping photos of themselves playing with your children.
Imagine the discomfort you’d feel when a guest ignores the ‘nicer’ areas of the garden or house that you just vacuumed, and instead chooses to take multiple photos in your dirty shed or messy garage that you’ve always been a little embarrassed about… how exposed would you feel?
Try this: Buddy up and ask your partner how they would feel if they were to be the subject of the photo instead. If both of you are comfortable with the reversal of roles, it can be a positive indication that the photo you are taking is not misrepresenting poverty and is embracing people’s dignity.
3. Get The Right Story
Photos are a powerful storytelling tool, but some photos tell an inaccurate story of poverty. Being part of a Compassion trip or missions team will give you an incredible insight into the everyday lives of children in areas of extreme poverty but too often, the photos we take only show one aspect of poverty.
In When Helping Hurts, poverty is defined as a result of broken relationship with God, mankind, self and the world around us. This means there are multiple forms of poverty including material, socio-emotional and spiritual brokenness. Without thought, it can be easy to take a photo that displays only material poverty or financial lack.
When photos are simplistic and emphasise only one dimension of poverty, we risk perpetuating an inaccurate and harmful stereotype that we are not broken and the ‘poor’ are unclean, helpless, backwards and silent. We become the saviour of the situation, robbing Christ of glory and failing to portray locals in the image of God. Here are some damaging examples that we have seen far too many times, as demonstrated by Instagram account @barbiesavior, which aims to highlight the ‘white saviour’ complex.
A selfie-taker poses with African children and reinforces the stereotype that children in Africa are helpless and nameless, needing to be rescued by a Westerner
A photo taken of a local sitting on the floor may appear artistic but the angle that looks downwards communicates their helplessness—and implies our status above them
An expressionless photo of a child associates them with sadness and hopelessness and fails to acknowledge their laughter, dreams and personality
Getting the correct angle requires understanding and humility. In reality, we are just as broken as the people we serve. It may take a different shape and form, but poverty is a reality in Australia too. When we recognise that we are all broken, the stories we tell with our images focuses less on only the brokenness but also on the hope and resilience of people.
Stories about people can be told in many creative yet accurate ways. The world has seen far too many one-dimensional photos of hungry and hopeless children. The trick is not to ignore the brokenness around you but to capture both dimensions because with every story, there are traces of hope, humanity and dignity. Both stories are important to showcase!
Try this: If you’re unsure whether your photo accurately represents the person with dignity, consider how they would feel if this photo were to be framed and displayed in their living room. Would they feel embarrassed or pleased to be shown this way?
4. Address real risks
Privacy concerns are a real risk for minors in any country. Children living in communities where extreme poverty is a reality do not have the same safeguards as children at a primary school in Sydney, so it is imperative to think twice before posting an identifiable image of a child, their name and their location without the relevant safety checks.
In many instances, technology is an enabler for the abuse of children online. Images in the wrong hands can incite the global sexual exploitation of children.
Avoid exposing children to unwanted attention by doing your research about the country and some of the threats it faces. By taking precautionary measures, we can avoid hurting others and capture impressionable photos. Here are some additional tips to consider:
• Instagram and Facebook make it easy to ‘check in’ at a location. This is referred to as ‘geo-tagging’ your location. With every photo you take, avoid specifying your location, the name of the church or the street address of a child’s home. It is safe to include the name of the country or city with a photo but avoid identifiable details like the province or region.
• Protect the identity of children by mentioning their first name only. In sensitive cases, changing the name of the child is an additional safety measure.
• Uphold the dignity of children by steering clear of photos that feature nudity, children with excessive sores or tattered clothing, or suggestive poses. Even with informed consent, these types of photos are inappropriate.
• Maintain healthy boundaries with children by withholding your personal contact details, including social media profiles, as this can expose children to a plethora of new networks and content without appropriate safety nets.
5. Look outside the frame
The pressure to take photos and share your images with the world can become consuming and it’s easy to forget the real reason you joined an insight trip or mission team. As an observer in a foreign context, we often get trapped in our narrow understanding of situations. But when you step away from the camera and take a real, hard look at the people and their lives around you, there is more to see than any photo can reveal.
When it comes to capturing photos of people you meet, make it a priority to get to know the person first before taking a photo. Where possible, invest time into the relationship and create opportunities to create moments where you can appreciate the entirety of a person. What does this child want to be when they grow up? What is this child’s favourite game or subject at school?
Get to know the community and earn trust before you shove a camera in their faces. When you genuinely get to know an individual, the photos you take and the way you represent them will reflect a more accurate reality of how God created them.
Your photos have power. They can educate, inspire and challenge. They can dignify and celebrate. If a picture says a thousand words, let’s make sure they are words that honour your subject and their God-given value.
Share your snaps with us by using the hashtag: #CompassionAustralia
Words By Shona Yang
Photos by Ben Adams
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