Constance is the real deal. I met her through my internet BFF, J.R. Goudeau. I am very impressed with Contance’s blend of professionalism (she runs a philanthropical nonprofit) and grassroots, friendship-based advocacy (she is an ESL tutor, Burmese food enthusiast, and a great friend to Hill County Hill Tribers). I love what she writes here today, exploring both the tensions of writing about the poor when the poor are our friends, and the delicate realities of fundraising. I live in both of those worlds, and I needed to hear what Constance has to say.
“You say you care about the poor. Then tell me, what are their names?” Gustavo Gutiérrez
In my experience, living in community with the poor, having them as friends and sisters and brothers, I am better able to know how, when and even if to tell their stories. It’s not complete or perfect. Most of the times my desire is just to add noise to the conversation (but it’s my noise!) when instead I should have their rights and not just what I want people to know and feel about the poor in mind. If I am conflicted or struggle, I don’t post it. As bloggers, as fundraisers, as photographers, the impetus for our stories is twofold: they reflect how we view the world and they connect people to us and to our story’s subjects. There needs to be a clear definition between the two — these are my opinions and these are the poor.
I try to tell the stories that edify, that celebrate, that cherish and share photos that do the same. My life is open to them and theirs to me. These stories help balance out the difficult truths, the times I wrestle with the ugliness of discrimination, injustice or violence. In my opinion, these realities must be written about with utmost care, sensitivity and humility – and without identifying details.
There are a few things that, if included in stories about the poor, make me cringe: income, disease status and sexual history. You would never never reveal your sister’s HIV status, your boss’s salary or your husband’s sexual past without explicit permission and purpose. Not on the Internet anyway. Especially with increased connectivity, putting a disease or a number on a face can exist forever. If the people you claim to love and serve are part of your life, you anticipate that embarrassment for them, you plan to continue to be in their lives and don’t want that label to appear when your other friends meet them or when they Google their name.
One thing I’ve found helpful is that I’m friends with my economically poor friends on Facebook and Instagram (cell phones are everywhere, people). Some are former sex workers; some are refugees, all dear friends. It helps me to consider carefully what I post or write about and (hopefully) keeps me from grandstanding on issues that have to do with their home countries or carelessly adjudicating issues they might be sensitive to. It keeps me accountable to them, holding them equal to my peers and my family. If anything, I try to weigh the privacy of the poor a little more because they are from cultures I cannot understand, because (if they are foreign) their language skills are not mine and I often misinterpret and because usually I have no idea what I’m talking about. Their stories are heavier, their burdens more difficult to carry, and me chatting about it casually, even with good intentions, will not help. If there are ideas I want to wrestle with personally, there is no reason to put faces and names on issues. I have to remind myself that the poor are not to be used as object lessons.
On the other hand, as fundraisers for programs that serve the poor, storytelling is a much more delicate task to navigate. You simply cannot know every person whose story you are telling, or even have a solid grasp on the larger narrative of poverty and its causes. I’m not sure how to do it 100% right, but I can sense when something has gone wrong. It seems to me that any international development program these days is as successful as their graphic designer. Beautiful websites and videos often tell very skewed, very traditional stories of white Westerners going to help people in the developing world, often set to soaring music. Some represent good work, great people and mutual service communities. Others represent people with expensive video equipment and no idea what they’re talking about.
We should challenge these campaigns and investigate, particularly before donating or signing on to advocate for an issue. When we fundraise or promote, we should do so with utmost respect. Get model releases for photographs. Ask nicely for an interview and you will most likely get it. But just because someone is a client of an NGO, that does not mean that they want or deserve to have their stories re-told or sold. It’s a fine line, but as a funder of nonprofits and a cynic, I am able to spot and instantly discredit a stock photo, a hollow story about a starving child or a promise to save a woman from sex trafficking for $5 a day. Can we just all please agree that there is no saving being done? That no one is being rescued by anything except God’s grace? Often organizations and campaigns promise to have the solutions, and they feel they have to compete for the dollars – I understand that — but the poor sometimes get lost or disrespected in the process. No clear answer there, but just a lot of fretting on my part about how to do it right.
Lonnie Martin remarked on NPR while discussing the Emancipation Proclamation that it’s important to remember that “African Americans were agents in their own liberty.” In my head at the time I translated this point (sorry, Lonnie) to say the poor are agents in their own liberty, in their own lives, but they might not know it. Agency is something that I, as an American and an oldest child, take for granted. Amartya Sen would say that the inability to affect one’s situation is the distinguishing feature of poverty. I expect and demand the ability, freedom and even the right to act in and on my world. I tell the story of my life, often to no one in particular, on my blog, but I get to tell it. My goal of work with the poor and my accounts about them is for them to have agency in their own lives – for them to tell their own stories if and when they’re ready.
The difference between us bloggers/humanitarian photographers/fundraisers and war photographers is that we are not impartial observers in the fight – far from it. As Christians, God has called us to fight. We are the agents and we are giving agency to all God’s children, our brothers and sisters. There are times when action is so much more important than words, when friendship is more important than storytelling or even raising money. It’s not a panacea to say that personal relationships lead to respectful, non-conflicted stories, but I think the best thing I can hope to say in blogs, fundraising campaigns and Facebook postings is that these are my friends. These are the ways they’ve blessed, confounded and taught me. And I hope I’ve had some effect on them.
These are the stories of my life: not just esoteric or short-lived exercises in compassion, but the stories of the poor are my stories.
For more posts in the series, click on the “War Photographers” category near the top of the post.