Picture Picture!! 6 Cautionary Tales

On mission, or on short-term mission trips, what is the ethics of picture-taking? At its best, it serves as a capturing of key memories of God’s work and important relationships in the field. It also may inspire others , drawing people into the experience through pictures.

On the other hand, pictures can be:

Balloon animals and a smile
Balloon animals and a smile
  • Exploitive/Self-serving
  • Humiliating/denigrating to the recipients of ministry
  • Disruptive
  • Deceptive/Manipulative

The dangers, however,  do not necessarily outweigh the benefits. When I was in the Navy, I was told, “If you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen.” This was emphasized to instill in us the importance of writing events down. However, the effect was at best mixed, as some decided that an embarrassing problem “did not happen” if one does not log it in. In missions, to some extent, if there is no picture, it did not happen. And more to the point, if the picture is not put up on social media, it did not happen. Some ministry must be done in secrecy, but some should be shared to inspire others.

As an example, for my wife and I, we have a counseling and chaplain training center. It is unethical to photograph counseling sessions. It is also unethical to photograph chaplains meeting patients in the hospital or inmates in jail. There are a lot of things we do that can be shared via pictures, but a major part of our work cannot be shared. But that is as it should be. (Some groups violate such ethics… but that is for a different post).

In missions, one must know when to photograph, and when (and where) not to photograph. One also needs to understand the story one tells in the composition of images.

Here are a few stories of pictures from least problematic to most problematic.

 1.  Trivial.  We were having a going-away celebration for a ministry partner who was leaving the Philippines to serve God in a distant country. At this celebration an acquaintance of mine asked to borrow my camera to take some pictures. Sure… why not.  Later, when I got the camera back, I had very few usable images. More than half were close-up selfies of the herself alone, or with her boyfriend.  This is trivial, because (a) there were still other pictures taken by others that adequately covered the event, (b) the pictures were not shared on social media, and (c) I know how to use the delete button on my camera.

But it does bring up the issue of motive. Some photograph on mission because they love to look at themselves, not on what God is doing. The pictures may simply be about themselves, or it may be more general but centers on themselves. This may happen once in awhile…but making the pictures always about oneself should not be the addiction. Frankly, however, it is an addiction that we all fall into at times. (I admit that our blogsite has an AWFUL lot of photos of our family, often in ministry situations. I may have to reflect on this.)

Note: I describe this issue as trivial because in my story, the photos were not put on social media. However, too many selfies put up on social media in missions can become more than trivial.  A very funny blog that looks at this phenomena of unhealthy selfies (with unhealthy motives) on mission, go to Barbie Savior or the associated Instagram Page (or the article in Huffington Post.

2.  Less Trvial.  Years ago, my wife and I worked with a team of others doing medical missions throughout the Philippines. It was fun, tiring, and sometime beneficial (and probably sometimes not). Often my wife or I would serve as the team leader. But not always. A friend of ours led about half of them. Early on, one time, our partner who was serving as team leader, said to me, “Bob, come over here and help with the dental work.” They were doing tooth extractions. He wanted me to hold the head of the patient while the dentist was working to extract the tooth. I suppose there is nothing wrong with that. However, after one patient and a couple of photos taken, I was done. Our friend just wanted to take a photo of me helping the dentist in a way that I never do. I also have a photo or two from a medical mission of me sharing the gospel with patients, although due to language inadequacies I very rarely shared the gospel at medical missions.

This is less trivial since there is open deception here. On medical missions, I would often organize the team, order supplies, work out transportation, coordinate with the local host and the like. On site, I would help get things organized, periodically check the stations, collect registration forms, take a few pictures, and make balloon animals. These pictures taken gave a very deceptive picture of what I do.

This can be harmless… but not always. Some “missionaries” have embraced the role of patron– giving money to local workers to do the actual ministry. They then have photo ops to give the suggestion to their supporters that they are, in fact, the ones doing ministry. In a related case, I have heard of missionaries taking pictures of people raising hands, for whatever reason, and then sending off those photos explicitly or implicitly suggesting that the photos show people responding to the gospel message of the missionary. This type of deception is getting more serious.

3.  Moderate Problem.  I have known missionaries who take so many photos of events that it makes local people nervous. I have heard of this particularly with missionaries from a specific country (since it is not my country, I won’t mention which one). Missionaries take so many many pictures that people wondered what was being done with the pictures.

If you are like me, you have seen some missions websites that appear to be primarily fund-raising sites… and they are filled with pictures that are supposed to pull on the heartstrings of those visiting the site. Whether this is good or bad is debatable (some go too far, in my opinion while others provide a genuine service in helping people be inspired and connect with needs).

The TOO MUCH photo thing varies. I had a friend who was a semiprofessional photographer who would join us on medical missions at times. He took LOTS of pictures. On one trip, he took over 700 photos. However, I never heard anyone complain about him. Perhaps it was because he was a fellow Filipino, so ministry recipients did not think that the photos would be used for inappropriate purposes (a good assumption in this particular case, but potentially a bad assumption in others). Or maybe as a semiprofessional photographer, he was good at getting permission and setting people at ease. Not sure in this case.

4.  More Serious Problem. We did a medical mission in the city, ministering primarily to children that work in the public market. We had medical services and dental services. We also did circumcisions. In the Philippines, circumcision is not mandatory, but expected at around 10-13 years old for boys (female circumcision is, thankfully, not practiced here). As such it is a bit of a rite of passage. Early on, we even got in trouble where one or two boys came in to get circumcision without permission from the parent. The desire to reach a new step in manhood overcame their trepidation of the procedure. At this event, we had several tables put together and we had 7 or 8 boys being circumcised simultaneously, with a line of other boys waiting their turn. As this was going on… some other missionaries were taking lots and lots of pictures… even holding the camera  up over the table to get birds-eye view of the proceedings.

Despite the impression one might get from perusing the Internet, MOST people don’t really want their genitals photographed and distributed via social media. It is disrespectful. Despite this, although the mission I just mentioned was the worse, case, I regularly had to filter out photos taken by others of medical mission trips in which pictures were taken of patients who were over-exposed.

Frankly, in this day and age, making such pictures available to the public could possibly constitute child pornography.

A few years back we were working with a group that was doing recovery work in a landslide zone after a major typhoon (Typhoon Pepeng). We were doing crisis care for the response workers. The workers were able to give us some photos of the recovery. One of the pictures included workers digging up a tribal weave blanket that had been covered by a mountain of dirt. That picture seemed appropriate and poignant in what they were doing. There was another picture and at first it took me a bit to figure out what I was seeing. It was a picture of workers digging up a human being that had died in the landslide. One leg had been freed from the dirt when the picture was taken. I did not share that picture. To me to share it would be dishonoring to the dead and his family, as well as exploitive.

5.  Serious Problem. A fellow missionary here was doing a mission outreach in a remote location and so took some ladies and youth from the home church to help in the outreach. Along the way, the missionary decided to stop to take a break, and while on break decided to take a few photos for “local color.” They were stopped by some rice paddies, so the missionary asked some of the ladies and youth to go into the paddy and look as if they are working there. Nothing really wrong with working in the paddies, but these individuals lived in the city, and worked various jobs in the city. Anyway, after everyone got back, concerns were expressed by the ladies about the photos done. Although none of the photos were deeply troubling in and of themselves, the view was that the missionary wanted them to look poor and messy because it “made a better missions photo.”

Earlier I spoke of deception, denigration, and exploitation. In the end, however, the judges are the locals being photographed. If they feel denigrated, then they are denigrated. That should never be the goal. Some people get worried about white middle income kids going to other countries to do STM with people of other nationalities and races. There is the fear that there is denigration going on. Sometimes there is, but not always. Often, everyone loves the opportunity for a photo op, and the thought that they would be on the Web is exciting. The judge of denigration or exploitation is generally the local people… not those who are dealing with personal issues of post-imperialist white guilt. A Nigerian missionary doing mission work among the urban poor in Moldova is just as at risk of exploiting as a White American in Tanzania (and just as likely to be doing good as well).

6.  Big Problem With Great Solution.  One day, many years ago, when we lived in the US, my 7 year old son came out of the living room and found his mom and said to her, “I don’t want to be brown.” His mom, my wife, is Filipina, so would generally be thought of as “brown.” My son and two daughters would be described as Mestizo or Mestiza (racially mixed). My wife asked him what this was about. He had been watching some commercials for agencies that were raising money to help starving children in other countries. Almost invariably, the commercials involved well-known white Americans who visiting places full of undernourished poor “brown” children. My son, was pretty sure from those commercials that he certainly did not want to be brown. For our son and daughters, we eventually moved to the Philippines, and they saw that those commercials gave a very one-sided view of the world.

Happily in more recent years, many of these organizations changed things. After, beyond the seeming racism and paternalism, the images showed the problem as too great for a single person to do anything about. So they changed. More recent commercials would often be more like this:

A young girl, wearing a nice clean, simple dress, hair taken care of, carrying school books with a big smile on her face greets the viewer. The narrator says, “This is Concessa, she comes from a poor family in a village where there are so few opportunities to better herself. But because she has a sponsor, just 3 dollars a day, Concessa is healthy, happy, has access to healthy food, safe water, and a good education. Because someone cared, Concessa has a bright future.”

This commercial does not denigrate. It shows that there is hope. Some, of course, could argue that it is still paternalistic. I can’t argue with that. However, pretty much any act of kindness can be viewed as paternalistic. It is a concern, but should never be used to justify selfishness.


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