The first time I felt awkward about it was in Cambodia.
We were on a service trip in a rural community. We spent the day painting walls and playing with kids. We all had Nikon cameras swinging from our shoulders. I handed mine to a friend and asked for a picture.
The impulse felt natural but unexplained, like flexing or bending a knee in front of camera. A conditioning kicked in, and it had everything to do with capturing the image.
The shutter snapped and the deed was done.
The red dust from the baked earth coated my face and forehead. My socks were wet and the floor was covered in blue plastic. Two boys cleaned the surface with soggy paintbrushes. One sneered into the camera as if fame had caught him for the first time. The second wore a poised expression, but with the slightest hint of discomfort.
I held the heavy Nikon and looked at the screen. I looked at the children in front of me and back again. Showing them the photo only garnered a few giggles before they ran away. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what, so I stored it in the back of my mind and went outside to watch the rain come in.
A few years later, I figured it out. These were not friends, partners, coworkers, or family. They were children. They were somebody else’s children.
Why the hell did I think it was cool to shanghai two kids into a photo? Why does my posture suggest I’m in a museum posing with an ancient artifact? What if I went to a playground in the US and jumped behind two children for the same effect? Why is it normal to do this on a service trip and not in my home country?
A small modicum of thought rose to my defense; I was a teenager; this was the norm for teenagers who went on service trips wasn’t it? All my friends had these pictures on their facebook. This was normal right? Sure, but that excuse is a thin veneer over a much rougher issue.
If anything I feel a sense of anger about it, because today I work for a small non-profit in Honduras. A portion of my job as Program Director is to publish photos and stories in an attempt to garner donations.
If we train our youth to treat impoverished children like animals at a petting zoo – never to know their names or their origins, only to have a light interaction we call ‘making a connection’ – what are we raising them to do as adults?
What does international aid look like when cast in this light?
The answer may require a debate, but lessons can be learned. From the personal fall-out of this photo, and many others like it, I’ve learned through trial and error the do’s and don’ts of narrative humility in a foreign culture. I’ve developed a step by step method for documenting with care. I found that we can advertise for someone’s benefit without defacing them. We can tell someone’s story without defaming them – by doing so on their terms.
Maybe if we do this, we can edit the impulse we all feel when posing before a lens or raising one ourselves.
To learn more tune in to the #NoMoreStolenStories campaign and check out La Ceiba MFI.