by Del Chinchen
Bob was sent by his church to check out a project they were supporting in Africa. At the height of his welcoming ceremony by the African people, Bob was busy unloading all of his photography equipment in order to quickly snap pictures before he lost this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Bob was sent by his church to check out a project they were supporting in Africa. At the height of his welcoming ceremony by the African people, Bob was busy unloading all of his photography equipment in order to quickly snap pictures before he lost this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. While the Africans were singing, dancing and enjoying the event (so happy they were to have their visitor with them), Bob was concerned that he might be missing a great “photo-op.” Because he had the latest digital technology, Bob took many pictures (eighty-two to be exact). He clicked away from many angles, trying to get the perfect picture and the best lighting. And because Bob could delete the photos he didn’t want, he just kept snapping away.
This scenario may not be as fictitious as we might think. Well-intentioned Christian paparazzi are found wherever mission work is done. And they are not as harmless as we might think. When we tried to explain to Bob how his “photo fury” might negatively affect both the people and our mission work, he always seemed to have a good answer. The following are only four of these rebuttals.
1. “I wanted to wait before taking pictures, like you advised, but there was just too much happening and I didn’t want to miss getting the shot.” There’s a reason we should wait before taking photos. We are not at Disneyland or on a safari in a game park. These are real people, people who see us as brothers and sisters in Christ and as potential friends. Relationally oriented people allow time when cultivating friendships so as to build trust. Often, we must wait before even sharing our names, let alone taking photos.
The act of taking a person’s picture is intimate. We are taking something from that person and in a culture where friendships are more important than anything else, we are taking a piece of that friend with us. We need to consider how long we have known the people whom we are taking pictures of. Instead of immediately getting out the camera, enjoy the event. We must enjoy the moment with those who are so happy to see us. We don’t want to miss out on receiving the blessings of participating in the joyful event. We don’t want to miss out on blessing them through our participation either. There will be plenty of time for pictures later. It’s okay to miss getting those National Geographic photojournalists’ dream shots because we will have the moments etched on our hearts. We will have lived the experience with those who so warmly welcomed us. This will have a more lasting impact than a picture in a photo album.
2. “But I asked them and they said it was okay if I took their picture.” Hospitality is the number one value in most cultures of the world. They will give their last chicken egg, their favorite picture, their food and their lodging for as long as you have need. Visitors are to be honored and respected at all costs. It is impossible and completely impolite to say “no” to the request of a visitor. But does that give us the license to exploit their hospitality? When we are quick to snap pictures, we are communicating that the pictures are more important to us than the people are. Are we more interested in getting good pictures to show our friends back home? Is it so important to us that we have evidence that we have “been there, done that?” Or do we want to make friends during the short time we are there?
3. “I promised them that I would send them their picture after I got back to my home country.” A picture from a true friend is free. When we negotiate with the giving of a picture to get what we want, we are corrupting the relationship. We are turning the friendship into an enterprise. If this is the arrangement, is just sending them a picture in the mail a fair exchange? Could this be a way of easing our consciences and rationalizing our need to have these photos in our collection?
If we establish genuine relationships with the people in the photos, love will motivate us to send them the photo, not our guilt for taking advantage of them. We need to ask questions like:
• Who benefits the most from this picture-taking exercise?
• Did they say they needed pictures of themselves?
• What are we going to do with the pictures?
• Will they be seen on a personal website?
• Will they be part of a personal portfolio?
• Will it be a display of our talent in taking photos?
• What will the pictures portray of the people?
• Will the photos belittle their living standards (e.g. bathroom shots)?
4. “But my church expects me to take pictures so that I can give them a report.” We have to remember that we are not the only ones who are taking pictures of these people. There were visitors before us and there will be visitors after us who will also take pictures. The local people could get the impression that these visitors, who claim to be their friends, use them as photo-ops. This is compounded when the visitor disappears never to be seen or heard from again. Do we really want to contribute to the demise of people’s dignity, self-worth and self-esteem? Eventually, this will take its toll on the people in that culture. When we fly in and out, we don’t see the damage left behind. The local people could become skeptical of Western visitors. This leaves the long-term missionaries in an awkward position. They are guilty by association. The missionary’s efforts to forge long-term relationships for the advancement of the ministry are jeopardized by the insensitivity of people like Bob.
PROPER "PHOTO SENSITIVITY"
Now let’s consider Doug. After hearing much about the work in Africa over the years and praying for the opportunity to serve overseas, Doug has come for a visit. Although Doug is an experienced photographer with all the latest equipment, he exercises extreme discipline by keeping his camera out of sight the first week he is there. He wants to get to know the people and their hearts, to feel their joy and pain. As the relationships grow, everyone wants to remember their special time with their special guest by taking pictures. The question “Can I take your picture?” is not asked because friends expect pictures to be taken. Indeed, many even jump at the opportunity to have their photos taken with their new-found friend.
Picture taking can be done with sensitivity and meaning no matter how long or short the visit. When it’s done right, everyone benefits. The church back home can know they are partnering (in the true sense of the word) when they go to be with the people and participate in their lives (not just observe them through the lens of a camera). The church can also feel good that they have not only left the dignity and self-respect of their brothers and sisters in another part of the world intact, but that they have also demonstrated God’s love.
Del Chinchen has been a missionary in Africa for twenty-seven years. He is chairman of the Bible department at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya.
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