If you’ve been on a mission trip, you’ve probably (especially in this era of technology) taken some sort of camera with you onto the mission field. I want to say upfront that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Obviously, I would be the last person on earth to tell you to leave your camera behind; in fact I was told not to take my DSLR to Haiti “just to be safe”, and took a dinky point-and-shoot instead–and still to this day I regret it.
What I want to talk about is not so much taking a camera onto the mission field, but rather the negative impression you’re potentially leaving when you do so. I’ve started referring to the this epidemic as ‘missionary tourism’.
Before I even made it to Africa, I saw a post from a director of one of the orphanages urging people to ‘leave their stuff and cameras at home and actually meet real needs’…ironically enough I rarely saw this person without a camera while I was there, but I digress…..
Anyone who knows me knows I usually have some sort of camera with me at all times. Photography and photojournalism (telling a story with a lens) makes up a huge portion of my life. It only makes sense that I would carry around a camera. It’s like a writer carrying around pen and paper–inspiration can strike at any moment, from any situation. And if we’ve learned anything from the boy scouts, it’s to “always be prepared”. I basically view my camera as a third arm (and by extension, eye). So naturally, this post really upset me, and I took it personal, as if my camera somehow demeaned my passion and heart for missions and orphan care. I had seen the unmitigated joy that radiated from my Haitian friend’s faces when anyone pulled out a camera. And when I handed them a polaroid–you would have honestly thought I had just given them keys to a new car. It made them so happy–and in turn, filled my heart with gladness.
So how could someone (kind of rudely) imply that bringing a camera onto the mission field was somehow ‘wrong’ (or, at the very least, not ‘right’)? All I wanted to do was bring a smile to these kids’ faces, and bring them home with me to show America what is really happening overseas in these countries. All I wanted was to tell their stories and inspire action and compassion back home.
But then I received some insight, which I can only account to the Holy Spirit, as to why this has the potential to do harm.
I had to imagine myself in these people’s positions….I had to imagine myself as the one living in horrible conditions. I had to imagine if someone came to my home and just started photographing me without knowing me, or knowing my name, or knowing my story. And I realized how “tourist-y” and “gawk-y” that would seem. Like going to the zoo to take pictures of animals in their cages. And if we’re not careful and intentional about where, when, and why we are snapping away, we subject ourselves to becoming a ‘missionary tourist’: something I don’t ever want to be.
The terms, “mission trip” and “vacation” are not interchangeable. I think subconsciously we file these two completely separate experiences into one drawer in our minds because they both have something in common: they both require us to travel to a new place. Much of the initial process of a mission trip can feel ‘vacation-y”, and on most mission trips, there’s usually even a sightseeing day.
It’s easy to confuse the two; to confuse the etiquette of mission trips vs. vacations. But I’ve found it’s so important, for the sake of our witness, mission, and ministry, to not confuse the two, and do everything in our power to prevent locals from misinterpreting our intention. When we’re in the field, we are not (or rather, should not) be experiencing things from the fourth wall…in other words, uninvolved, off to the side, and viewing things as they happen, without being part of the action. The call of mission work is not to be a bystander, or onlooker. Missions evokes a need and call to action.
Here’s what I’ve learned on the field so far. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t pretend like I’ve got it all figured out or that I’m an expert on camera and mission trip etiquette. This is what I’ve been taught, and what I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way).
8 Ways to Prevent “Missionary Tourism”
1. Leave the camera in the bag for a while.
This applies specifically to when you get to your destination. No matter what type of work you’re doing, whether it’s orphan care, home building, or straight evangelizing….there will always be time for photographs later. Use this time to make a good impression with the local people you’re going to be working with. They are most likely very eager to meet you (especially in orphanages and schools!) and your undivided attention goes a long way and makes them feel truly loved. So keep the camera in the bag for a while. I understand that sometimes the kids can be soooo cute, or the scenery absolutely breathtaking. I promise, they’re not going anywhere, and neither is your camera!
2. Learn people’s names (to the best of your ability) before you photograph them.
I can’t stress this enough. First off, knowing someone’s name is the pillar of building a relationship with them. How can you call someone a “friend” if you don’t even know their name? Knowing a person’s name before you start taking their picture is one way to show that you are legitimately interested in them as a human being, not just something to gawk at and snap pictures.
3. Learn people’s stories before you photograph them.
Another way of making sure people understand your intentions is to honestly and genuinely ask them their story. Ask them where they’re from. Ask what they do. What they like. If you don’t know what they believe in spiritually, ask. And return the gesture…in other words, have a conversation! Talk to the people around you. People are utterly fascinating….sometimes you might have to dig a little, but when you look back at a photo you’ve taken, you’ll be able to recall their name and story.
4. Write things down if you have to. It’ll be worth it.
I have pictures from both Africa and Haiti with people that I can’t remember anything about. It’s embarrassing, and it makes my images feel cheap. Consider keeping a notepad and pen in your bag to jot down things you might forget. Most cameras (especially DSLRs) display an image name (on a Nikon they read something like DSC_0001). Write this down and make notes next to it. “DSC_0001…..Joy. teacher at ____ orphanage. Four kids. Ect.”
I don’t suggest doing this while you’re actually talking to them. You’re not a reporter. But maybe before bed, as you’re scrolling through your pictures at night, jot down some notes.
(The only amendment to this rule would be if they have a crazy, very un-American name that you either won’t remember, or can’t spell. Then I would ask for it then)
5. Form relationships with those in charge, and submit to their authority.
Most directors or leaders of your team will know if you’re going into a situation where pictures are just not a good idea, or even against the policy. This is especially true with sensitive cases or instances where you’re working with victims. If the director or leader has said absolutely no to cameras, that’s your answer. It is not our job to argue with the authorities set before us on trips of this nature, and if you get that upset about it, I urge you to really consider your motives.
6. If applicable, ask permission to share the photos you’ve taken.
Some people and/or organizations have policies on sharing photographs of their staff or children online that might seem strange to us Americans. Make sure you know these policies and again, submit to that authority. If you are just busting at the seams to share these photos, try inviting people to your home after your trip or having a small get together to share your images. Even when you’re in a situation where there is no rule or policy against sharing your photos, it’s always a good idea (and a common courtesy) to ask permission. Obviously, you can’t really ask a toddler if it’s ok to post their photo to facebook. But if you’re photographing adults, whether it’s new colleagues you’re working with, or stranger you’ve just met, give them the courtesy of giving you permission. Also note that not everyone will know what ‘facebook’ is. A simpler alternative would be to ask, “Would it be ok to share this photo with my friends?”
6. Use your best judgment when posting photographs online.
This shouldn’t need a lot of explaining, but should you return home to find you’ve photographed something you probably shouldn’t have, don’t post it. This also applies (these days) to images of children that may seem harmless, but in the wrong hands, could be dangerous. Use good judgement when posting pictures.
7. Try to avoid using a flash.
I’m just throwing this out there–flashes are obnoxious. Whenever possible, avoid them. Plus, it just adds to the ‘tourist’ feel. Learn to operate your camera’s settings so you don’t have to use the flash. If done properly, you’ll end up with better images anyway, and you won’t have blinded anyone.
8. Remember why you’re there.
Unless your mission trip is humanitarian photography, remember why you’re on your trip. Your first priority is not taking pictures (as much as it pains me to say it). You shouldn’t be going on a mission trip for a new facebook profile picture, or to say you’ve been to a different country. You should be going on a trip out of an outpour of passion and desire to first and foremost love people. Your number one priority on the field is to bring the Gospel to those around you both through your words, and (usually more powerfully), through your actions.