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Ted Talk: Don’t Misrepresent Africa

As I was selecting pictures for a September-November photo dump, I realized that I was (subconsciously or intentionally, not sure which) not including pictures of people within my community, particularly children. I do post pictures of people, but it’s been limited and in this case it was like I was specifically avoiding those types of photos. It led me to question why that was.

I think a thing that’s always worried me about this blog is that it’s probably the first thing people at home have really heard about Zambia, or, if they have, the only opportunity for a well rounded view. I had a woman repeatedly tell me how brave it was that I would go to a place so uncivilized as the vague, homogeneous Africa. So from a very early point in my service I’ve felt a lot of responsibility to present things in a way that are fair, and do people in Zambia justice.

The second part has been kind of on my radar as more and more images of short-term mission trips by various people pop up on my Facebook newsfeed. In them, there is usually a young white person, surrounded by a throng of smiling black children (who, of course, everyone assumes are orphans) and a sea of comments about how great it is to helping them, those anonymous children used as a backdrop. Which makes me think of the time a girl in college jokingly told me that she wanted to “adopt an African baby and then return it when it stops being cute.” A close PCV friend of mine summed it up really well the other day by asking “do people see pictures of our kids and think we’re taking mission trip photos?”

When photography first came to be, many cultures feared it would steal your essence, a notion that is laughed off today, but is it really so far off? You put this image of yourself out into this world, and it stops being you. “You,” the image of you, becomes whatever other people want to see, what they think “you” are. And is it fair for me to throw images of my community members out into this world without them fully understanding how much the world will warp that image?┬áTo me, people in my community have dimension and reality. When pictures are posted by me, they become flat, malleable to whatever the viewer wants to see (or, perhaps worse, what I want the viewer to see). Comfort ceases being himself and becomes “that little African boy Nick posted.” A friend’s house stops being beautiful or well-made and becomes something that wouldn’t fit American standards for a dwelling. I stop being being a random guy bumbling through life and become this disgusting white savior trope, a whitewashed lead in a story that isn’t mine. Sometimes it feels like a lose-lose.

While this TED Talk focuses more on journalism photography, I found it to ring very true for me. I think it gave me some food for thought on proceeding, and I hope it will for you too.

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