D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Tag: poverty blogging

How To Be A War Photographer

Today is part 2 of Darren Prince's post on mutuality and accidental distances (You can read part 1 here). Today, I asked Darren to bring it--and he did. This is the post I wish I had read years ago, one I wish all bloggers, writers, photographers--heck, anybody trying to talk about their lives with integrity--would read and absorb.

In the next couple of weeks I will be talking about how my writing habits have changed dramatically, and what that means. It is challenging, exciting, and energizing to write in the small, mustard-seed ways. It is the hardest, and most rewarding thing there is to step back and allow space for reflection--which allows the small signs of the kingdom to bloom and sprout and be shared. 

Thank you, Darren, for writing out a very practical guide for all of us. 

How to be a War Photographer

Now then, how about we pull up to 30,000 feet and indulge in a little metacognition together? By which I mean, let’s talk about what we’re talking about when we tell the stories of our neighborhoods. Got it?

I’m not much of a blogger and don’t have anything by way of an internet following. But I’ve lived in two major cities, befriended dozens of people (rich and poor alike), and communicated vision, purpose and just plain “updates” via good-old-fashioned newsletters for over fifteen years now. I’ve seen a thing or two and have learned to sniff out those moments, sometimes while the ink-toner is still drying, when I’m about to cross the line from creative to creepy.

The last thing I ever wanted to do was be “that guy” who posts a “Top 7 Ways You Can XYZ!” on the internet, but hey, at the special request of our host, I’ll empty my pockets for you. Besides, if I had kept it I’d probably drink with it anyway.

1. Grow Up Already

Look, the metaphor gets overused, but somehow we still forget it. Jesus himself incarnated as a baby into a particular family, in a particular culture, at a particular time in history. He then weaned, waddled, teethed and toddled his way through childhood into awkward adolescence. Finally, he gets around to kicking off his public ministry at the vigorous age of thirty.

Maybe he needed time to learn language, figure out how to address his elders, or practice culturally relevant storytelling in an agrarian society. (My bet is that he spent time learning to laugh at himself). All I’m saying is he showed up, grew up, and then did his thing. And he didn’t even write about it. He left the writing to others.

I think a lot of the damage is done when we’re new and we don’t know any better. We can’t help seeing things from our own frame of reference; but in our enthusiasm to dispatch updates back to the home office, how can we be sure we aren’t merely reinforcing the same tired stereotypes?

The solution? Give yourself time. You’ll see things differently in six weeks, six months, six years. You’ll chuckle to yourself when you realize in hindsight what that awkward moment was all about at the party four months ago. You’ll wince to realize that the connection you thought you were making was actually just another deep disconnect.

And you know what? That’s okay. Growing up from zero was good enough for Jesus. It should be good enough for us. Just don’t publicize it all. You know, like those parents who post to Facebook every poo-poo little Johnny makes? Don’t be like that with your inner cross-cultural child. Let her grow up with some dignity intact.

Keep a (private) journal instead. Write letters to mom, or call a friend. Find a community (a local one, even if you’ve found a virtual one) to journey with you through the hard stuff. Invite them laugh and lament with you.

And for crying out loud keep your vomiting off the interwebs for a little while. The medium matters. Google is real and your quirky little anecdotes about your neighbors are searchable, indefinitely archived for future civilizations to scratch their heads at and wonder.

I have a friend who says don’t post or send anything you wouldn’t be willing to hang on the refrigerator for your neighbors to see. Do it for the dignity of your future best friends.

2. Re-Shape Your Readers’ Expectations

The point of my previous ode to mutuality was this: if genuine friendship invites us to step into the war-photo, we begin to care even more about how the lighting looks. When we’re personally invested in the story of what God is doing in our neighborhood, we want to make sure that story gets told well.

This means writing without exaggeration or added drama. We can leave stories which exploit for page views (or donations?) to other media outlets. (Must. Resist. Linking example offenders here.)

And besides, it’s boring. Story distortion goes all the way back to Eden where the Serpent conveniently misquotes the Maker. Half-truths and mistaken attributions are old-school enemy tactics; Kingdom storytelling can do better.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for unflinching photo-realism here. But the truly great stories you want to tell about your friends or your community - the happy stories and the hard ones alike - if they’re truly worth telling, they won’t need anything added or embellished.

In a world where somehow we’ve allowed fog machines, stage lighting, and even zip lines to super-size our worship services, it’s time we taught our readers the pleasure of a simple story told well. I wrote an entire newsletter once about missing a bus (and the miraculous conversation about Jesus which followed). Another update featured our family practice of inviting friends over for Saturday morning pancakes. Not exactly shovel and pith-helmet material here folks.

Some of us are torn between our desire to communicate with integrity and a readership - sometimes, a donor base (?!) - which is eager for results or infatuated with the brightest, shiniest new thing. But life in a mustard-seed kingdom starts small and grows slow. People who choose to accompany you for that journey need your help recalibrating their expectations. “If you’re looking for earth shattering headline news, look elsewhere. Or come back in twelve years and let me show you around.”

Yes it’s fashionable, even expected, for non-profits to have a slick plan and a fail-proof strategy; I’ve got nothing against that. But on slow news days it’s so much easier to write a tragic story in which we get to play the white-knight-to-the-rescue.

In reality, sometimes the best we’ve got to report for this month is, “Here’s how we’re muddling along.”

My solution? Remind people that you’re still in a posture of listening and adapting. The world needs more “Here are a few things I’m learning, but I might be wrong” posts from those of us laboring for the common good. Writing with humility reminds our readers that there are humans involved, even humans who make mistakes out of a desire to help. Writing with mutuality in mind prevents “the poor” from being objectified as problems in need of a solution.

As you describe your own journey, warts and all, your discoveries become your readers’ discoveries. Their view of your context reaches upwards, stretching to fit yours as they watch your “growing up” right in front of their eyes.

3. Run It By Somebody First

To summarize what I’ve said so far: Give yourself time to “grow up” and see things differently before you start writing about it. But if you have to write, do it with integrity–a kind of faithfulness to the whole story–including your part in it!

But before you release that colorful piece of reflective writing into the wild, first consider running it by a trusted friend. Invite them to be a check against your tendency to embellish the facts or add sizzle to something in a way which might exploit or diminish.

I’d love to believe we could all be trusted to do this for ourselves, but sometimes we just need another set of eyes. Our stubborn writing habits and lazy inconsistencies are experts at hiding out in our blind-spots. Nothing clears the cob-webs like the honesty of a secondary read-through. Followed by a straight-talk chaser. Find this person and you’ve discovered gold.

Better yet, share a draft of what you’ve written with the very person you’re writing about. Beyond just asking for vague permission, ask them if what you’re sharing is okay with them. Do they remember the story differently? What would they change? Do they find it honoring or diminishing?

I realize this suggestion tests the full mettle of what might be a blossoming mutual friendship. But each time I’ve done this the responses have been everything from flattered to deep appreciation and joy. There’s a sacred moment to be savored when we realize - no, when we accept - that our story is important enough to be shared with others. I watch in awe as this realization creeps across the faces of my friends. We are both left wide-eyed at the wonder of it all.

When I asked my friend Joe if he would like to preview an early draft of yesterday’s post about him, he wryly responded:

"Darren, are you telling stories about me again? Well, don’t let the pen get more mightier then the sword! Hah. Well, send me some of the dirt as they say. And I will shovel it out."

Then when I sent him a close approximation of what you read yesterday, he emailed back his approval with two quick lines:

"It sounds about right as I recall. Thanks for the memories :)"

Here again, in the sacred space of our friendship, we’ve formed an alliance around the sharing of the story we hold in common. The story of his transition off the streets into permanent housing, and of my “growing up” on the streets under his mentoring and kindness. Our story of mutual transformation; the one in which God grants us both the unexpected gift of a life-long friendship.

DP 2012Darren is a former Californian living in London, married to Pam and raising three increasingly British-sounding children. Since 1997 he’s been part of InnerCHANGE, a Christian order pursuing merciful action, transformative contemplation and prophetic justice in urban centers and slums around the world.

He enjoys single-origin coffees, reading for pleasure, walk-and-talks with friends, and geeky tech podcasts. Sometimes you’ll find him picking up toys before a family dance throw-down in the living room.

Darren has contributed to “Sub-merge: Living Deep in a Shallow World” by InnerCHANGE founder John Hayes, as well as “Living Mission: The Vision and Voices of the New Friars.” Though he would much rather do this stuff than talk about it, maybe one day soon he’ll start a new blog, where he will most likely not write about himself in third person. You can follow him @darrenprince

Don't you think Darren should have a blog? I do!

As a reminder, the War Photographer series seeks to ask and somewhat answer questions of representation. How we go about sharing stories that aren’t our own–specifically the hard stories? How do we put a spotlight on some of the forgotten stories of our age while still giving dignity and respect to the subjects?

For more in the series, please click here.

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


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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