How much is a picture worth?

TLiz-Haffa-copyoday’s post comes from Elizabeth Haffa, a Fellow with our partner organization Global Health Corps. During her graduate studies for an MPA at Monterey Institute of International Studies, Liz worked as a microfinance intern with the community organization Haitian American Caucus in Haiti. She spent the past year working with Action, a non-profit domestic microcenter in New York, and is now the Communications and Grants Fellow with FVS-AMADE Burundi. Liz is motivated by a new experience, challenge, or opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life, which we saw shine through in this piece as she struggled to discover her own role in making that difference.

My second day on the job at FVS-AMADE Burundi I was invited to observe a huge network meeting for the leaders of the organization’s solidarity groups. As a communications and fundraising fellow, I knew that this was a great opportunity to take pictures of our beneficiaries in action. Camera in hand, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. I wondered what the group would think of me, the only “muzungu” in the room, coming in to take pictures when I couldn’t even understand a word that was being said without a Kirundi translator.

My co-fellow could sense that I was bothered. He took the camera out of my hand and started snapping away. Without any fear, he would get close enough to take high-quality photos in a way that would have felt invasive for me as a foreigner. Although extremely grateful for the help, I worried that my discomfort had made me incapable of doing my job. The next time we visited the solidarity groups, I forced myself to take pictures, doing my best to gesture for approval. No one seemed to mind, but I still questioned whether they fully understood the implications of these pictures.

Flash forward a couple months, and I finally was able to present the new website that I had been working on for the organization. Overall, the management team was thrilled to have a new and revamped website, but one of the pictures I had added sparked a huge debate that reminded me of my own internal debate.

The photograph in question was of a boy with a large tumor on his head that the organization had paid to have surgically removed. With limited pictures of our beneficiaries, I had taken the photograph from their previous website to represent “Health” as an area of intervention that the organization does. I would have preferred something more discrete and representative of our primary health services, but it had been the best I could find. Understandably, there was concern from people who actually knew the boy, because he no longer has the tumor and the single photograph failed to honor his full story.

I just listened while the team discussed their opinions, which varied greatly. Some staff members didn’t think that we should include real pictures of our beneficiaries at all, and that it would be better to take random pictures off the internet or use icons instead of real people. Others thought that it was okay, but only if we included the entire story including the boy’s name and the after pictures. No consensus was really reached. I ended up using a very fuzzy picture of a nurse that I plan to change. This incident reminded me that I want to be sensitive to beneficiaries in all communication materials during the rest of my fellowship year, and even the career ahead of me- not always an easy task.

I will be the first to admit that when it comes to NGO’s, a picture is undoubtedly one of the best ways to evoke strong feelings which ultimately move people to give. Supporters want to know that they are supporting real people with real challenges, the more sensational the better. The term “poverty porn” has been coined to describe this all-too common phenomenon of using demoralizing pictures to garner support. And some people could argue that if a picture is used to help a worthy cause, the ends justify the means. But what about the real people whose lives have been portrayed as a stereotype by these photographs, their true stories of courage and strength lost in a single image?

Once an image is on the internet these days, we all know that confidentiality becomes nearly impossible. I hate pictures of me on a bad hair day, and can only imagine having a picture of myself associated with extreme poverty permanently plastered online for anyone to see. So, what should NGO’s do to communicate their work without exploiting the very people they are trying to serve?

Perhaps, instead of invoking pity into viewers to encourage them to reach into their wallets, we need to try to inspire them with the accomplishments of our beneficiaries. Personally, I am passionate about the work of FVS-AMADE because they empower communities towards self-sufficiency so that they are able to care for others. Despite their own financial challenges, the community members we work with care for nearly 48,000 orphans and vulnerable children! Our organization’s beneficiaries are truly heroes. As NGOs, we should harness the power of success stories such as these, and hopefully donors will respond positively to this shift in approach.

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