Pictures are important… sort of. In missions, pictures are valuable because they inform in a manner that words just don’t. With digital media and cellphones with high quality digital cameras and GBs of memory, it is easy to litter the world with photos.
But sometimes… just don’t take pictures. Or, perhaps don’t post pictures. I would like to offer a few stories where pictures were a bad idea… and a few where the became okay.
- My classic story for “Don’t take pictures” was in my second year in missions. We were having a medical mission in the city, targeting children who work in the public market. This was a fairly needy group. We were partnering with two local churches who I was well familiar with and a mission team that I was unfamiliar with. One of the things being done at the medical missions was circumcision (“pagtuli”). In the Philippines, circumcision is considered important but not done when the boy was young. Rather it was done closer to puberty and is seen as a bit of a rite of passage. For a family to be too poor to have their boys circumcised leaves them in a bit of a state of moderate disgrace— failing to cross this transition to manhood. (This is not about whether you think circumcision is medically necessary or not, or whether you think it is religiously mandated or not. It is a cultural value here.) We had lots of circumcisions that day. We actually ended up putting together a bunch of tables and had a cadre of circumcisers to carry out this work. Several were being worked on simultaneously. I noticed that some of the volunteers from the other mission team were taking lots of pictures of this. In fact, a couple of them were standing up by the table with their cameras high over their head so they could take pictures of these boys being circumcised. …. Do I have to tell you how inappropriate that is? First of all it is disrespectful. How many of us really want to have strangers taking pictures of us with our pants and underwear down— those pictures to be seen by who knows and for what? Second, it is exploitative. I will get to this more in some other stories. But I am pretty sure none of these boys gave permission for those shots to be used. They were taken (most likely) to show that money for medical missions is a good thing, and, since the photographers were foreign, perhaps they wanted to “wow” their audiences, to show how weird things are in the Philippines. Third, it is arguably illegal. Pictures of unclad boys being sent to foreign countries for non-research, non-medical purposes could be viewed as illegal. This could be identified as trafficking in child pornography. Of course, perhaps some of the pictures were blurred for privacy sake… but the ones I saw were definitely not.
- A friend of mine pastors a church here and was telling a story of something that happened at his church. A young lady of a Muslim family became involved in the church youth group, and decided to convert to Christianity. Her family lived far away while she was at school and this gave her the freedom and confidence to make some important decisions on her own. The very next day, pictures and stories were put up on Facebook of this young lady leaving Islam to become a Christian. … Again, do I have to tell you why this is inappropriate? Sure enough, the pictures and messages got back to her family who were most unhappy. The family members were not the only ones unhappy. The young lady felt that she was used by her Christian friends… just another notch on their Evangelism gun. “Hey! We got ourselves another Muslim!!” She, dropped out of the church, the youth group, and all things Christian. Hardly surprising.
- A group of women and youth my wife worked with were asked to leave the city and go to a remote community to hold Vacation Bible School. These women and youth were very good at working with children. On the way there, the host, a foreign missionary, suggested that they stop near a rice paddy to eat. After eating, the missionary suggested that some of the ladies go down into the muddy rice paddy and look like they were tending the rice plants. He took some pictures. Later, the women talked to my wife, and they felt exploited. Were they? Well, they live and work in the city, but they were being encouraged to get dirty and look like they work in the fields. They also did not know what the photos would be used for. Were they exploited? Exploitation is primarily a perception… so I suppose they were. If the reason for the photos was clear and and the women were given full input into the picture-taking they might have agreed and even found the experience fun. Or maybe they would refuse. Either would be better than the uncertainty.
- For many activities we may say that taking photographs is okay, but sharing publicly is not. A restoration service of a pastor was publicly shared online, and some people reacted negatively and then shared it with still others, this time with words that greatly mislabeled both the pictures and the activity. Restoration services after a disciplinary period are rather controversial in the Philippines. (Most seem to prefer the traditional process of a pastor sneaking away to a new area and starting, over hiding the past problems.) Knowing this problem I told people to not share photos… but some shared the photos anyway. Sometimes one simply has to know human nature. When we were working with “Drug Surrenderers” here in the Philippines, I made a point of telling people not to take pictures at these meetings. There certainly is a stigma with being on the barangay drug watchlist. Occasionally we would take some pictures to show others what is happening. However, we would take pictures of the volunteers working with only the backs of the surrenderers. Human nature is often to blame someone for being in a drug recovery program rather than to congratulate them for doing the right thing. However, towards the end, the surrenderers wanted to be photographed. For example, they decided to do a treeplanting project to emphasize that they want to have a positive role in society rather than negative. They wanted to be photographed to show how things have changed. We honored that. It was their choice.
- We don’t take pictures in jail ministry. In fact, the correction officers take all cameras and phones away when we go there. But even if they didn’t, we would not take pictures. Many have considerable shame for being in prison. We don’t want to add to that shame. Correction officers take pictures in jail, including the counseling we do… but that is their choice. We can’t control that. We also don’t take pictures of patients we do counseling with in the hospital. On rare occasions, in non-hospital settings, I have taken pictures of counseling where I take the picture of the counselor and the back of the client. Again, it is about not exploiting. Additionally, hospitals don’t want groups going into their facility for photo ops. In fact, many institutions really don’t want that to happen.
- Exploitation is hard to identify sometimes. Two humorous stories that sort of relate to exploitation. The first is one that I heard about, but hadn’t seen personally. The story could be apocryphal, but since I have seen things that mimic this in a somewhat less extreme way, I suspect that it has basis. A missionary went to a church and asks “Who loves to eat chicken?” Hands went up all over the place. The picture of all of these people with smiling faces and hands raised was put on the missionary’s newsletter with the implied message that these were excited people responding to the message of the missionary. And speaking of newsletters, the second story is one I have more direct connection with although I wasn’t actually at the event. A baptism at a church plant was held in a large swimming pool. A lot of pictures were taken. No problem. However, then one missionary (Missionary “A”) began complaining that another missionary (Missionary “B”) at the event had used a picture of the baptism service in his newsletter giving the implicit message that it was his ministry. The Missionary “A” thought that “B” was taking credit and thus exploiting the event for personal gain— and told an awful LOT of people his sentiments. The problem was that “A” was also using these photos for support-raising work, so his complaints about “B” seemed more self-serving. But that is part of the problem isn’t it? Pictures often serve the missionary rather than the people the missionary is supposed to serve.
Do we take pictures? Yes… a lot of pictures in fact. Probably more than we should. We don’t always get the ethics right. But we try, at least, to ask a few questions:
- Is it legal? In some situations (jail being the most obvious example) taking photos is illegal.
- Is it exploitative? Do the pictures help the missionary while exploiting those who are being photographed.
- Is it kind? Is it honoring? Showing people in a miserable state may get more support money… but many food and child organizations learned decades ago that there is a danger in this. (I remember a young child in the US telling his mother that “I don’t want to be brown” after watching one too many of these child feeding organizations showing well-dressed people providing food for starving and unkempt “brown children.” The Philippines is full of beauty and joy. Yes there are miseries as well. But unbalanced photos deceive and such deception is not a victimless crime.
- Is it true? Pictures can mislead… often even moreso than words.
- Is it private? Some things should not be photographed. Often the public does NOT have the right to know.
- Is it voluntary? Are people supportive of being photographed for missionary (or fund-raising) purposes?
- Is it safe? (Not a Millenium Man reference. I have worked with people who go to places where Christian ministry is actively opposed (an odd thing indeed… but the world is indeed an odd place). They ask specifically not to have their picture put online… or alternatively, pictures shared should not be labelled with their names.
An old media trope is of a person going to a a remote technologically backward village and taking pictures with a camera (Polaroid perhaps). The people are deeply bothered because of the belief that in taking their picture, the photographer is stealing their souls. I don’t know if there is/was a belief of some cultures or not… but often in taking pictures there is indeed a theft involved. We need to be careful in this area.