The Imagery of the Poor

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to guest blog over at love is what you do where J. L. Goudeau is taking the month of October to focus on the poor and how we interact with them. It was an honor to be in the company of so many that have some very important things to say. Please go and spend some time in that space because the conversations are so important. To read my post go here.

The things that are being shared there have been things that roll around in me and seeing that I’m not alone is pushing me to share some things that might be hard for us to look at, but I’m realizing that I shouldn’t really be worried about what you think of me if it’s important enough to say. For that reason I’m cross posting today. The post below was originally shared on our family blog at rollingsinhaiti.wordpress.com

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When I say “the poor” what images come to mind? What things flash through your brain? What feelings do they stir up in you? How accurately do they portray the lives of what we’ve come to know as “the poor”?

I think it’s safe to say that most of us probably think of the TV commercials we’ve seen. You know the ones… some large organization is raising money for sponsorship programs that will help feed and educate a child for as little as $30/month. Big, sad eyes. Dirty little bodies barely clothed. Children looking forlorn outside of their ramshakle homes. Their clothes are tattered, they have no shoes. Babies have ribs showing through their papery skin and flies buzzing around their eyes.

Sometimes the images are different. Maybe it’s a homeless person pushing a grocery cart with their life’s possessions in it. They’re dirty because they sleep on the street and their hair is scragly and beards are bushy. Maybe you see people standing in line for a meal at a shelter. Maybe you see someone sitting next to a major intersection with a cardboard sign and a cup asking for spare change.

The point is, we’ve come to associate certain imagery with “the poor”. And, if we’re honest we all know the reasons why. At the core of it those are the images that grab our attention and tug at our heart strings, moving us to a response of some kind.

When I was in college there were a few Christmas breaks where I would take a day to volunteer with several friends helping the Salvation Army hand out their Christmas food hampers. We had a central location where the hampers were all prepared and people would come in with their claim form and pick up their hampers. Part of the day was spent finding the matching boxes to the number on the claim form, and part of it was spent helping carry the boxes out to waiting vehicles if people had one.

That was over 10 years ago and I still remember one client that came in. She was a beautiful lady wearing normal clothes. If I passed her on the street I would have made assumptions about her economical state. We found her hamper of food and toys for her kids and I helped her carry them out to a nice black pick-up truck. She was sweet and kind and thankful. I’ll admit, when we got to the truck I made assumptions and judgements and then something happened. As I helped her put things in her truck she paused, and the tears started to roll down her face. As she started to wipe them away in embarrassment she said, “I’m sorry. This is just so hard. My husband has been out of work and we’ve lost pretty much everything except the truck. I never thought it would come to this. I’ve always supported organizations like this and never thought I would be needing them myself.”

In that moment I learned a valuable lesson.

I learned that while there are certain states of poverty that are easy to pin point simply by looking at them, there are others that you would never be able to pick out. Poverty doesn’t look a certain way, and we do the poor a serious disservice by trying to make it look that way by the images that we share. We distance ourselves from the truth of poverty, which is that there are individual people behind the pictures and images. People that have stories. People that have feelings.

Living here for the length that I have has given me plenty of opportunities not only to see how visitors tote around their cameras, but also to see more of what goes on the in the aide and development sector when it comes to sharing imagery of the poor. I think we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Somewhere along the way we’ve (our culture) developed this mentality that we have a right to take pictures and videos of people in their most difficult state and to share them around, and we can justify it by telling ourselves and others that we’re trying to tell the story or raise awareness so that people will take notice and support the efforts. Like I said, the baby with the fly in the eye does tug at heart strings. The fact that it does, more so than someone rejoicing over life change tells me that there is something terribly wrong with our culture. If we only stop and take notice of the worst case scenario then we need a reality check because we’ve gotten so self focused that we can’t take the time to really look at a situation and only want to pay attention to what makes us feel guilty.

As an organization it would be so easy for us to snap dozens of pictures of naked kids and destitute families, then plaster them all over our promotional materials because we know it would probably help us raise more money faster for the work that Clean Water for Haiti is doing. But, we won’t ever do that.

Chris and I won’t ever do it and we won’t allow anyone within our organization to do it. Don’t believe me? I’ve fought former board members on this and won.

We won’t let visitors take pictures when we feel it’s inappropriate. I’m less concerned with you being upset that I’m telling you to put your camera away than I am about respecting the old man who is waving his hand in front of his face as a gesture to let you know that he doesn’t want his picture taken.

It won’t happen because we’re people. And we’re parents.

We believe that a large part of what we do here at Clean Water for Haiti is to help restore dignity by remembering that people, at the core, want the same things that we want. They want their dignity. They want to see their children healthy. They want to have people see them for more than just their living situation.

I don’t know if I’m wired a bit different, but this is always something that has been hard for me. I have always struggled with the idea of running around with a camera and snapping photos. I can do it with landscapes, city/community scenes etc, but when it comes to people my heart jumps in and my hands stay still. I struggle with it, and I’m so grateful that I do.

See, I’m a mom.

And, as a mother I would be mortified and angry if some random person came by my house and started snapping pictures of my kids running around the yard. I would be livid if I knew that they were going to take those pictures home to “share” with everyone they knew, telling them about what my family was lacking and how much I needed their help. Do they know my name? Have they asked my permission to take pictures of my half clothed children? Why wouldn’t they give me the time to bathe my kids and put them in their nicer clothes rather than their every day stuff? Why can’t I even comb their hair? And really, why are they even parading around with a camera in the first place? We all know how inappropriate it would be to walk around a neighborhood in North America snapping pictures of children and people living in a disadvantaged state, so why don’t the same rules apply when we travel to places like Haiti? Take a look at the imagery you see for North American non-profits working in North America. Do you see the same kind of imagery in that promo stuff as you do for organizations that are working in impoverished countries like Haiti? Why is that? Is it maybe because in North America it’s socially unacceptable to portray people in their time of need that way? Why do we think it’s okay to do the opposite for the poor living abroad?

No, you won’t ever see pictures of naked babies sitting in mud puddles in any of our promo materials.

What you will see is people smiling and happy because we believe that the work we do provides a way of helping people move towards life change. We know that when we pull up with the delivery truck people are excited to be getting their filter that day because it may mean their kids won’t be as sick and that there may be more income coming into the home. That’s what we want to show you. That what we do is moving towards something better, not focusing on the worst of it. It’s seeing past people’s circumstances and seeing them. Seeing that they are people first, and “the poor” second.

We realize that this position may mean that we don’t tap into certain funding avenues. But you know what? We’re okay with that. We know that the work we do is saving and changing lives every day, and we believe that it’s a privilege for people to support what we’re doing, to be a part of it. If people need to see imagery that takes advantage of the poor before they’re willing to support us then they aren’t the kind of donors we want. We want people that believe people have dignity no matter their economic state, and who are excited to help us promote that and encourage it, not destroy it.

I want to challenge you with something. Most of us support some kind of organization in a charitable way. What first got your attention? Where there images that you saw, whether photographs or video? Why did you want to support a particular organization? Was it because of the imagery you saw, even while they were telling you about their work, or was it simply because of the work they were doing? When you think of the organization now, what images flash through your mind? After reading this post, how do you feel about that?

I realize that these are hard things to look at and dissect, but it’s so important. Especially for those of us who call ourselves Christians, Christ followers. Jesus went to the least of these. He treated them with dignity. He reminded them that they were people. He reminded them that they had the power to make good choices. He reminded them that when no one else looked at them as being worth something their heavenly Father did. We have that same responsibility. And it should be exercised in every way that we interact with the poor, from how we speak of them to how we represent them to others. It means we have to level ourselves with them and remember that at the core we are all people that have the same needs and desires. We have to humanize poverty, something that we’ve subconsciously moved away from.

Hard stuff.

~Leslie

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