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Give them back their names

May 14, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Fati Issia and her seven-month-old son Moctar in a therapeutic feeding clinic in Niamey, Niger. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

I came home yesterday to find a plastic bag and a flyer hanging from my front door. After going inside the house, I unfolded the flyer to see what it was all about. The thing I noticed first on the piece of paper was a black-and-white photograph depicting three skeletal African children.

There were no names. No nationality specified. No sense of place except the hell implied by the photographer. No story except want, desperation and the probability of death.

The plastic bag was left on our doorknob for unwanted shoes. The organization that had left it was collecting these shoes to send to African orphans. But why use such a horrendous photograph? And why not tell the stories — or at least give the names and countries — of the children depicted?

In my opinion, when you use a picture simply to shock people into action through guilt, you’re violating the human rights of the person you’re portraying. By leaving out the details, you’ve taken away their name, place and story. You’ve reduced their humanity. You’ve taken their dignity.

And, just like I think that we make a choice with every word we write about the people we serve at Mercy Corps, I also believe that we must choose dignity in every photograph we make and use.

What if someone took a photo of you at your worst — at a low moment, wearing your shabbiest clothes, looking the poorest you possibly could — and then posted it to Facebook? There are dozens of Facebook pages that do just that to solicit action for a variety of causes, except with people from some of the world’s most desperate places. People who have no way of raising their voices in protest or otherwise defending themselves.

I wonder how most of these pictures were taken. Were the shooters just driving along, looking for the worst-looking situation they could find, then getting out of their cars just long enough to snap a few frames? It seems like theft.

And unfortunately, in Haiti, that was happening a lot. During my brief time there, I heard dozens of stories that went like this: “There was this man who came and said he was going to help us. He took our pictures and then just left. You’re not going to do that, are you?”

For every exploitative picture taken, there is a human cost. There is a loss of trust. There is a loss of dignity.

And, to me, there is the loss of a chance to tell a story. For example, the photograph I’ve posted on the left comes from a deeply poor place at a desperate time. My friend Thatcher Cook took the picture during the height of the Niger food crisis almost four years ago. The woman portrayed here — 25-year-old Fati Issia — is holding her seven-month-old son Moctar, who was moderately malnourished at the time.

They were a mother and child caught in an unimaginable situation, but we didn’t just take their pictures and run. We sat down with them to talk. I listened and transcribed. And then we shared their story.

Earlier today, my colleague Paul Souders sent around an article about how — in aid work — we should all seek a different photographic perspective on poverty, one that communicates the reality of how things are in places like rural African villages. A perspective that tells the whole story: a story that includes life-giving details like places and names.

In relief and development work, there’s a widely-held and respected precept: Do No Harm. Why should we strive for anything less in the way we represent the people we seek to help?