we still need to talk about the images we use
I started to think recently that we (specifically the western white humanitarian, expatriate, tourist, missionary cohort) had grown and learned some things. I thought maybe we were ready to move on from topics like what images to use or not to use, how to use them, and how to communicate with people through newsletters.
I was wrong. We still need to have this conversation. To be honest, I’m frustrated, sad, and a bit angry even, about it. Will we never learn? Will every new generation just keep doing the same things because we have failed to model and teach and change?
I recently received two newsletters that made me really uncomfortable. I also follow the Instagram account No White Saviors which I appreciate, and don’t always agree with. But they raise important topics that need to be brought into the light. Like problematic newsletters. You can check their feed for more.
What was wrong with these newsletters I got?
They had names and images of people who were not asked if they wanted their names and images sent to a bunch of strangers, in another country, who follow another religion. (You’ll just have to trust me that I know they weren’t asked.) They were doing things they would probably not want some people to know they were doing. It was a breach of privacy and potentially even put them in danger.
Stop sharing pictures without people’s permission. I know social media makes this complicated because people are sharing all the time, so it seems like it should be okay. But - people share what they choose to, to their audiences, and on their own timing, for their own purposes. Not you and a cute homeless kid of another skin color whom you fell in love with and saved by handing them fifty cents or a Coke and now will people please send you money?
On social media you can tag someone, so they know you’ve shared their image - transparency. If they are on social media, you can look at their account to determine whether or not they are okay with their images being made public. I also know legitimate friend pictures get shown, that’s different. I mean stop sharing people’s images in your newsletters, fundraising materials, prayer lists.
Or, get their permission. Explain why you want to share their image, let them read the accompanying letter or post. If that makes you nervous or uncomfortable ding ding ding! Let that be a sign unto you. If you can’t share transparently with the person, you should not share it publicly with other people. Period. This seems so obvious. That should at least one litmus test when you are choosing what photos to share and how to share them.
Blur out the faces of people you haven’t spoken with, don’t know, or if they are children, or if you have a question.
What is the image for? Is it a group shot at your holiday celebration? Or is it to highlight how cool you are that you have friends of many colors? Is it to point out the terrible things in another community? Does it elevate you? Otherize someone else? Is it for emotional manipulation?
What are your tips for images? What makes you uncomfortable? Are you able to express your discomfort when you see it from your organization, a coworker, a boss?
Western Media Only Shows Death When it Occurs in Africa, Patrick Gathara, Al-Jazeera
WFP Pulls Controversial Fundraising Photos, By Vince Chadwick, Devex
I appreciate your questions: What's the image for? And thank you for the links. I look forward to reading more. This is something we think about often. One thing we have experimented with is having a newsletter that is authentically a family update and about things we are learning and seeing in our host culture. It is only sent to people we have relationships with and who have a certain level of understanding about our context. We rarely share pictures of people and if we do it is almost always a picture that our friends have decided to take (a group shot, our kids and theirs, etc) and then shared with us. I ask if I can share it with friends and family. Our purpose is usually to show the beauty and hospitality we experience here. (Taking pictures without permission, let alone sharing them, is a fineable offense in our host country and it is a sensitive area in some people's belief systems - maybe this has helped shaped our level of caution.)
Thank you so much for bringing this up, Rachel. I'm especially disappointed by how pictures have formed our view of the continent of Africa. Despite having spent just a tiny bit of time on the continent and having made a few local friends, I struggle a lot with my perception of this (vast, diverse, not-at-all-homogenous) continent. I so wish for my own mind and for everyone that pictures abounded of joy, economic growth, beautiful food, creativity, development, happy families, etc in Africa. The images we see absolutely label a country. In the case of Africa, for the worse. Which is a sad loss.