A Picture is Worth Whose 1,000 Words?

In January of 2013, I participated in my first ever mission trip. It was a week long, and took me to an orphanage on top of a mountain in Jamaica. We were surrounded by mountains and jungle, and looking out you could see the ocean in the distance, spotted with tiny specks of white boats. In the mornings, mist hovered over the mountains as the sun rose, and we got to help the nurses get the babies up, feed them, and get them ready for the day. I was in heaven. And the children! They were adorable. All week long, our team took photo after Facebook-worthy-photo with these cuties – who were used to visitors taking pictures and were intrigued by the cameras we wielded.

Half way through the week, a group of nursing students came to the orphanage as a part of their capstone project. They took temperatures, conducted physicals, gave out toothpaste and toothbrushes, and – much to our chagrin – took photos with the children. Who do they think they are? They haven’t even been here an hour, and they’re already acting like they know these children. What could they possibly need a picture with them for? Our team was annoyed by the attention they gave to the children, as if they had been with them all week, as if they knew their story.

Much later, while reflecting on this trip, I was struck with the hypocrisy in our thought process. Who were we? We didn’t know those children – we had only been there a week. What was my motivation for taking those photos? For posting them on social media? I certainly wasn’t doing that for the sake of the children…so I must have been doing it for myself. As much as I’d like to self-righteously chastise people who take photos that inadvertently exploit others in order to benefit their own self-image, I have been one of them, and deserve the chastisement just as much.

Mission trips can be life-changing experiences. You leave the comfort and routine of your life for a while to enter into a new culture, a new way of eating and dressing and going about your day. Chances are, things will shock you, and photos will be taken to show those at home who could never imagine the sights you are seeing. Maybe you’re at an orphanage where the children will request you to take a photo with them. Maybe after serving for a week or two, you’ll form a bond with someone, and want a picture with them to commemorate the time you shared, and the relationship that grew out of it. Social media has become a way of sharing these stories through photos – which at times speak volumes more than words. The issue at hand is not always the photo itself, but what kind of a story the photo is communicating, and what the motivations behind posting the photo are.

One major problem Westerners might encounter when posting photos, especially when it is clear that we’re serving amidst poverty, is the savior-complex that might develop. Grandmas and aunts and your old youth pastor will probably like your pictures, or comment on what good work you’re doing or how selfless you’re being. You may begin to imagine that if you had not gone, no one else would have; that your week of service was unlike anything anyone else has ever done, and it was a major sacrifice. You imagine that you had something amazing to offer (which assumes the people you served had nothing to offer you). Or perhaps the savior-complex existed long before the photo was posted, and was itself the motivation behind posting it. Look at the good work I’m doing.

Photos can be beautiful and life-giving, or they can be dehumanizing. They can shatter stereotypes, or they can perpetuate them. When we go on a mission trip and bring our camera or our iPhone, the power of exploiting or protecting the dignity of another human being is in our hands. Let’s take it seriously.

So, when are photos appropriate, and when are they exploitive?

Radi-Aid and Barbie Savior are two groups you may recognize for their satirical videos and Instagram posts that highlight the problems with taking pictures while volunteering abroad. They have joined forces to put out a guide for ethical photography practices. Their 4 main principles are as follows, along with some noteworthy quotes from each principle:

  1. Promote Dignity
    • “Always keep in mind that people are not tourist attractions.”
  2. Gain Informed Consent
    • “Avoid taking pictures of people in vulnerable or degrading situations, including hospitals and other health care facilities.”
  3. Question Your Intentions
    • “Good intentions, such as raising awareness of the issues you are seeing, or raising funds for the organization you are volunteering with, is no excuse to disregard people’s privacy or dignity.”
  4. Use Your Chance – Bring Stereotypes Down
    • “Use your chance to tell your friends and stalkers on social media the stories that are yet to be told.”

As Christians, we have the responsibility to use the great hope Christ has given us to tell stories of redemption, of healing, of wholeness – stories that communicate dignity and respect – and we should not take that lightly. When we go on a mission trip, we go humbly, ready to learn, grow, and be changed – not to rescue those we serve from their situation, whatever that might be. The only one who can truly rescue us is Jesus, and we get the incredible opportunity to partner with Him in His redemptive work, but let us not confuse that with our own power.

When you go on a mission trip, you go in the name of the one who has redeemed you and set you free – let’s tell that story.


For a more comprehensive guide to ethical photography practices, check out How To Communicate the World: A Social Media Guide for Volunteers and Travelers.

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