On a particularly rough day at college, I stumble out of my dorm dressed in classic collegiate garb: sweats, Uggs, and a hoodie—and the crazy hair underneath that hood is as good as it’s gonna get. (You’ve probably been there. Yes? No? Maybe?) I make a beeline for the campus center, because coffee, and there’s no way that 8:00am class is going down without the necessary caffeine levels.
Needless to say, this is not my proudest moment. But sometimes, moments like this are part of life.
As I reach out to pull open the campus center door, a girl with a camera materializes from basically nowhere. She clicks the shutter, a flash goes off, and my caffeine-deprived eyes make a valiant effort to continue functioning as normal. “Um…good morning?”
Photographer-girl is not finished. “Just ignore me—I’m working on a class project, no worries!”
“Uhh. Bad morning. Getting coffee.”
“Perfect! ‘Bad morning, getting coffee’ will be a fantastic headline for my class project! I’m writing about the daily life of an average student! Here, let me get a close-up of your face—”
My face is actually much more disheveled than any human face should be—and much more so than usual, if I do say so myself. But in my caffeine-deprived state, I’m not able to move fast enough to avoid the big black camera. The situation, at first a random novelty, is now more than a little invasive.
“Well,” I mumble, “this isn’t really a normal morning. See ya.”
I’m pretty sure I hear her shutter clicking as I move inside toward the coffee shop.
The following morning, there’s a new flyer up on the campus bulletin board. I don’t usually notice these things, but this one sticks out—probably because my face fills most of the paper. Horrified, I look a little closer. It’s obviously one of the pictures Photographer Girl snapped yesterday in my moment of coffee-deprived vulnerability. In the photo, my eyes are glazed over and my hair a certifiable wreck. I look more like a wandering hobo than a dean’s list college student. Even worse, the headline underneath reads:
BAD MORNING AND NO COFFEE: UNDERSTANDING STUDENT STRUGGLES.
Join us at noon for a riveting discussion on coffee-deprived students like Beth (pictured), and how YOU can bring them hope!
My mouth is hanging wide open. Someone taps my shoulder, and there she is—Photographer Girl, in the flesh.
“I am so glad I was able to capture that picture,” she gushes. “Seeing you that way really opened my eyes. Now I’m extra thankful for the espresso-maker in my dorm room!”
I am having excessive amounts of trouble formulating intelligible sentences. “Uhh, you’re going to have to take these down…you don’t understand, that’s not really me…”
“Oh, it can’t come down now. There’s been a huge response already—so many people are touched by those big, empty, coffee-deprived eyes of yours. We’re sparking real change here.”
“But that’s my face! I don’t even usually look that way! What if I don’t want—”
Photographer Girl flashes a huge smile. “Thank you so much for being such an inspiration. You are causing hundreds of people to stop and be thankful for the coffee makers in their own houses. In fact, I’m gonna go make myself a latte right now. Later!”
She leaves. I take another hard look at my pitiful-looking face on the flyer.
Yeah, definitely not rocking the sweats-and-Uggs look ever again.
Thankfully, this encounter never really happened. I made it up, laughing as I went about the ridiculousness of the entire scenario. I would venture to guess that this hasn’t happened to you, either. Probably we are all free of hounding photographers in those moments when we feel a little coffee-deprived and a lot vulnerable.
But this scenario is not completely bogus. I contextualized things differently, yes. But living in East Africa, I have observed Photographer Girl. I have been Photographer Girl.
Here’s the thing: Before you shove a camera in my face on that morning without enough coffee or suitable attire, you should know the person behind the face—step into a relational exchange that will determine whether the story you think you see is the real story, and whether the real story ought to be communicated in such a fashion.
Before you tell my story, you should know who I really am.
And before you lift your camera to take a snapshot of the baby playing in the dust, the little girl with ragged clothes, the old man with no teeth—you should know who they really are.
Vulnerability, Responsibility, and the Link Between
We all have vulnerable moments, whether we live somewhere in the suburbs of Austin Texas or somewhere in the bush of East Africa. Of course, our vulnerable moments tend to look different based on our own respective context. When I am at my most vulnerable, you will probably find me hidden away in my bedroom or talking things through with my best friend. But most people? Most people will not be privy to these moments of mine, and that’s as it should be. I allow myself to be vulnerable with my best friend or with my family because all of them know me, and vice versa. I trust them with my worst moments—the moments when I’m wearing sweats, Uggs, and a hoodie. Based on the relationship I share with each of them, I know that they will be responsible with the things that they see and know about me.
Vulnerability can be a beautiful thing, when you share it with people of responsibility—people you know will safeguard the less-beautiful parts of yourself. But separating vulnerability from responsibility can leave us feeling violated, like finding a poster of your early-morning face on a public bulletin board. The depth to which I know you and am known by you directly impacts the openness and vulnerability of our relationship, and consequently the way we document that relationship.
Do I Know You?
When I first visited Uganda in 2012, I was buried in an avalanche of new information. Taking in the new sights, culture, language, and lifestyle was absolutely fascinating, and I was fully prepared to document every bit of it thanks to my trusty Canon camera. I still look back on those pictures with plenty of fond memories (although sometimes I wish I’d stepped out from behind the lens a little more frequently). Because I was living with a family who has been in the country for quite some time now, I had the benefit of their guidance as I navigated the meeting of photography (which I enjoy) and life in a new culture (which I am learning about to this day). On several occasions, the camera would be turned off and left at my side, because these people were new acquaintances of mine and to stick a camera in their home would be inappropriate. Other times, the photo would have to be preceded by the permission of the subject. Sometimes, the camera would be left at home altogether, because trying to photograph random villagers about their business can be just as invasive as walking through an American neighborhood snapping pictures of kids in their front yard.
All of this because I did not know these people. And without a relationship and a sense of responsibility between both parties, there is precious little freedom to document the vulnerability of real life.
Tourism (Of the Poverty Variety)
It’s true that the pictures we see every time a friend returns from an overseas mission trip can tug at our heartstrings—the adorable smiling faces, the crazy living conditions, the houses so different from ours. And I know that not all of this is bad. Sometimes, it’s important to see life as it is somewhere else. It can spur us to action, and draw us into the story of other human souls. That’s amazing.
But friends, do you know their story?
As you stand poised with your finger on the shutter, ready to forever capture the image of the toddler with his face covered in grime, do you know who he is? Do you know his mom, and whether she would gasp and run to wipe his face if she saw? Do you know their names? Would you leave them with a photo of yourself at your most vulnerable?
Are you willing to shoulder the responsibility of telling their story? Would they willingly leave you with that responsibility?
My heart aches at the phrase “poverty tourism“—not coined by myself, but used here and there across the online world. We know the difference between a tourist and a resident. The tourist descends upon a town and hits the Top 5 locations listed in the brochure; the resident knows all the best holes-in-the-wall. The tourist reads the plaque at the historical maker; the resident knows the story as well as a few anecdotes. The tourist finds everything very exciting and quaint and picturesque; the resident knows that sometimes, things in this town can be less than perfect. The tourist takes pictures of almost everything; the resident doesn’t need to.
“Poverty tourism” likely means you are capturing photos of the “Top 5” things in the brochure—mud hut, check. Kid fetching water, check. Pumping water at the bore hole, check. But it probably also means that you are missing the people behind the photos, the stories they hold and the lives they live. Respect them. Respect their humanity, respect their story, respect their vulnerable moments. Attempt to identify the tourist in yourself. Seek to understand in the present, rather than show off photographic gems in the future.
The Way Forward
I will never completely know these people and this culture. I guarantee that you will not completely know them in your two, three, or four week visit. And so for all of us, expatriate and visitor alike, this presents unique opportunities:
- We can put the Other ahead of ourselves. We can listen, we can ask, we can learn.
- We can make friends, knowing that all relationships take time, and no one will immediately arrive at a place of full vulnerability.
- We can respect. Respect culture, respect boundaries, respect people.
- We can think before we click the shutter button. Every time.
- We can resolve never to use a photo of another human being to manipulate or create “fact.”
We are all of us connected by the stories that we tell. I hope that my story is told by those who know me, and those who respect my story for what it is. When I go out to take a photo (often a story in and of itself), I also desire to know the story of the person in the frame.
In all honesty, this is not always an easy concept for me. I do not have it mastered and I certainly don’t have all the answers. Sometimes it’s easier to just take the photo. Sometimes I want to show people back home. In spite of my efforts, I know I have been guilty of disregarding the subjects of a photograph in my eagerness to display the picture itself.
But every day, I am trying to learn. As I grow in this place, I am trying to listen. This is a path I will continue to walk for as long as I remain in this culture—and then I will start over again in whichever culture I land.
Before I take a picture of you in your vulnerability, I need to know who you are.
And as we go on together, you will learn my story, too.