I didn’t ask permission. I didn’t have any foundation of friendship with her; I hadn’t even met her before. She didn’t know my story and I didn’t know hers. I was passing her on the trail on my way out of her Honduran village and she was coming home after a tiresome day of work in the fields, machete in hand.
I had spent the afternoon with a couple local pastors getting to know some of her neighbors in the village and hearing their stories. After talking with them a bit, they agreed to let me take photos and video. They got comfortable with my camera and I got “in the zone.” I didn’t really think twice about snapping photos on my way back down the mountain.
The set up was perfect for a photo – she and another lady from the tribe trudging up the hill in their skirts, hauling farming tools, framed by mountains and tropical plants. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“NO! No pictures!” she yelled at me in Spanish after the shutter of my camera had already clicked twice. My eyes went straight to the machete she gripped in her right hand. I put my lens cap on as fast as I could and slung my camera around my back out of view. I had no idea what to say. Do I offer an apology? Introduce myself? Offer to delete the pictures? …and then explain exactly what deleting a picture even meant?
My boyfriend, Natán, who was next to me, stepped in as a mediator. He began to explain to her that I was not from here, I didn’t speak Spanish (a lie), and I didn’t understand… she should excuse my mistake. It reminded me of the market scene from Disney’s Aladdin where he saves Jasmine from getting her hand cut off for committing a social faux pas. “She’s a little crazy.”
The lady calmed down and we continued on our separate ways. I still have her photo but I will never post it online out of respect for her. She has most likely never seen a computer in her life, much less ever gotten on the internet, and will never know if I ever used her photo for anything.
In the moment, tensions were a little high and I was embarrassed. I am usually careful about pulling my camera out and I always try to engage in some kind of interaction before taking someone’s photo. But in retrospect, I admire that woman. Good for her for telling the strange foreigner visiting her neighborhood that she did not appreciate being objectified on the other end of the lens. If someone I didn’t know started snapping pics of me one day on my way home from work I would be ticked off too!
One of my favorite bloggers wrote a hilarious (and sadly true) blog post about what it would be like if the tables were turned and we were the ones visited and pitied by the super rich.
There have been a lot of blogs and articles in Christian missions circles written recently about the negative effects of “poverty tourism” (or slum tourism) – how we should avoid reducing our short-term service trips to an event that the affluent should experience at least once in their life in order to put everything into perspective. Yes, these trips usually do this. We go back home a little more appreciative of our country and comforts and material things. We keep the photos of the poor in their lean-to homes to remind us that we are blessed. But see how the focus is still… US?
What must the family of six living in a one-room mud house be thinking when a van full of foreign missionaries pile out with their cameras and phones snapping away… documenting intimate parts of their everyday lives…
If we approach these beautiful human beings and we first think, “I can’t wait until everyone back home sees this!” before we think “I wonder what this family’s story is…” we are in the wrong. There is certainly a time and place for photography during missions trips but this should be discussed and carefully considered before getting on the plane. Some cultures have superstitions about photography and some have deep fears for safety reasons – it is always best to check before taking a picture.
For someone who loves photography and documenting moments, this is especially hard for me! (as in the above example) In almost every situation I am thinking about what might make good photography. There are times when that is my role and my main objective. If I have been assigned as the photographer or videographer, I do my job… while still wrestling with the awareness to be respectful of those I photograph.
Photographer Jimmy Nelson who has captured beautiful photographs of tribal cultures all over the world warns against patronizing the subjects of one’s photography. He shares that in humanitarian photography we often see “foreign cultures represented as exotic and inferior – curiosities to amuse and bewilder more civilized eyes.”
I think that when our focus is restoring broken relationships (which is the eradication of poverty in it’s truest form) it will come as second nature to protect the dignity of those we serve, and all of our interactions will follow accordingly.