D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Tag: War Photgrapher

War Photographer: Constance Dykhuizen

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.   

 

 

My Stories

 

 

"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.

with Eddie, a Jamaican farmer and beekeeper with Mind Gardens

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.

Learning to weave with Hill Country Hill Tribers

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.

 

 

Constance is the director of JP's Peace Love & Happiness Foundation, and is a friend to many refugees within her own community. You can find her blog here, or follow her on twitter

 

 

For more posts in the series, click on the "War Photographers" category near the top of the post.

Katherine Boo, Short-Term Missions, and the Earned Fact

“To me, becoming attached to a country involves pressing uncomfortable questions about justice and opportunity for the least powerful citizens. The better one knows those people, the greater compulsion to press.”

--Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers

 bookcover3d

I just finished Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a National Book Award Book of the year for 2012, and I am left astonished. This book might be a game changer for me, and for all of us caught up in wondering what it all means to be a writer/photographer/artist in an age of continued economic disparity, of violence and suffering and disease and death. Really, this might be the best book I have read on suffering, and on how to tell these stories true. It is a story about a singular slum in India, but it is also a story about the world. It isn’t pleasant, or easily understood, nor can one reduce it to stereotypes. In the best sense, it is truth.

I would recommend the book to anyone, for the writing is beautiful and the stories eye-opening. But what interests me even more is the author herself, the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Katherine Boo. Boo practices what she describes as “immersion” journalism, spending months and years living among those whom she writes about. And for as long as she can remember, she has wanted to write about the poor. She has won awards for her depictions of the poor in America for various newspapers and magazines, and in 2007 she began her residency in Annawadi, the Indian slum where she would spend the majority of her next four years. Her book reads as a novel—Boo as a character is completely absent. In her afterword, she explains how she came to be so intimately familiar with her subjects as to know their thoughts: basically, she followed them around and asked them, over and over (to their eventual annoyance) just what exactly they were thinking. And she writes how her Annawadi friends were aware that she was writing about them, and that she was going to write it all down: the good and the bad, their virtues and flaws. But they helped her, and it was for themselves that they spoke and let a foreign follow them around, year after year.

This in of itself is something we can take away from the book: the chance to let people talk for themselves. But it is rigorous work, and the time commitment is steep. Katherine Boo talks about the importance of the “earned fact”, of seeing and experiencing something enough times to report it accurately. This takes on special importance for those of us interested in writing about the marginalized. Do we have what it takes to be these kinds of writers? I can only hope so. In a culture that is increasingly hurtling towards instant results (End Poverty Now!, short-term mission trips, poverty bloggers) there is startling beauty and impact to be found in a single soul spending 4 years listening to those who have things to tell.

Now hear me when I say this: I do not think our attempts at short-term missions/poverty reduction/raising awareness are bad. I don’t. But I am ready to call them what they are, which is primarily a method for changing our lives and perspectives. As a long-term missionary recently wrote, we need to stop telling people that they can sign up for a week or two in another country and change the world. This is false advertising. What we can do is tell people that if you go and see the realities of the world for yourself, if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, your life will be changed. Your world will never be small again; your choices never isolated to the benefits to you and yours alone. And hopefully, once you have seen and heard from the other side of the gap, you will never look back at a life spent pursuing anything less than seeing the kingdom of God come here on the earth.

Katherine Boo is not a missionary, nor does she impose any sort of moral or spiritual undertones into her book. But we still have so much to learn from her. Her radical relocation and time commitment, her desire for truth at all costs, her love for her subjects, and her distaste with traditional narratives surrounding poverty. She writes:

“I quickly grew impatient with poignant snapshots of Indian squalor: the ribby children with flies in their eyes and other emblems of abjectness that one can’t help but see within five minutes of walking into a slum. For me—and, I would argue, for the parents of most impoverished children—the more important line of inquiry is one that takes longer to discern. What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are squandered? By what means might the ribby child grow up to be less poor?"

The Church especially has latched onto a less-nuanced version of the last question, and all but ignored the other two. We prefer to talk about poverty when it is manageable, when it can be solved by us—conveniently with a certain project that we can donate to and thus help “cure” the problem. But really, the other questions are where it is at. What is it about the world at large that causes these problems? How does the way we live as average Westerners contribute to the problem (one of Boo’s biggest questions stems from the “profound and juxtaposed inequality—the signature fact of so many cities”)?

These are not easy questions, so it is no wonder we don’t like to look them long in the eye. But Behind the Beautiful Forevers was a gift to me, a chance to learn more about the world and a chance to look inside my own heart. I don’t say this lightly: this book changed me. It takes the concept of “giving a voice to the voiceless” and shakes all the pious do-gooderism out of it. It confronts the double lies that we view the poor as inferior (while Boo presents them as flexible, smart, adaptable, corrupt, hopeful, and human) and that most of us simply have no real relationship with those who live in extreme poverty. How can we write, donate, pray for or minister to those that we don’t even really know?

 

 

 

 

 

 

We can’t.

 

 

 

 

 

For more information on Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Katherine Boo, you can read her interview with the Millions here, or read about some of her influences (with tips for prospective immersion journalists) here.

On Thursday, we will continue in our War Photographer series with an amazing essay from another "immersion" author that borrows a bit from Boo as well.

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