Photographer as white messiah: looking back at a picture I wish I hadn’t taken

Here’s an except from one of the most thoughtful blog posts I’ve read in a long time, written by Eliza Gregory

It’s very easy to come from relative affluence (which you do, in this world, if you own a camera) and try to work for the betterment of others as an outsider, and end up further marginalizing or denigrating the very people you seek to assist.

For example, I worked for the International Rescue Committee in Tanzania in 2005, and part of my job was to document the work they were doing in the refugee camps along the border with Burundi. In that area, malnutrition can sometimes be an issue.

Juan Arredondo on behalf of the International Rescue Committee

I was making pictures in the hospitals, which the IRC ran, and I met a woman seeking treatment for her malnourished child. I asked the woman if I could photograph her.

She was extremely embarrassed. It took her a few moments to muster the courage to say anything. She said I could photograph the child, but not her face. She covered herself with a scarf. A hospital worker turned to me and said, “She is ashamed because her child is malnourished.”

When I think about that incident, I feel gross. Of course she was embarrassed! I would be embarrassed! Is there any mother who wouldn’t be? Can you imagine how awful she felt? Why was I so thickheaded? How did I think she would feel? Did I think she didn’t have feelings? Did I think she would feel differently than I would in the same situation?

I humiliated a woman. I basically coerced her into being photographed because I represented an agency that was giving her assistance. And I made what was already a very painful, stressful situation for her significantly worse.

It is I who am now ashamed when I talk about this.

Eliza Gregory

Please read the rest of this deeply thoughtful blog post over at adevelopingstory.

Author — duckrabbit

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White. We specialize in digital storytelling.

Discussion (1 Comment)

  1. Kim says:

    If only everyone in the media was this thoughtful and aware of the feelings of others.

    I was talking to a community radio station today, which is by and for older people in Birkenhead. A TV news crew had been in to film them and asked questions like “how old is your oldest volunteer?” and ran with the line “at 83 you’d think Margerie would be spending time worrying about her pension and making cups of tea, but here she is volunteering at a radio station”.

    Could you get more stereotypical and patronising and unthoughtful etc etc?? (not to mention the lazy journalism)

    So yes, I like what Eliza Gregory has to say!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.