We have all seen the photos and social media posts of first-world people surrounded by third-world children, crouching and posing in the dirt amidst their smiles. Couple it with a heart-felt caption and wa-lah! You can cross taking and posting a classic (almost expected) mission trip post off of your cross-cultural to-do list.
Unfortunately, there’s often more than meets the eye with these kind of images and most of the time they do more harm than good. Why? How?
Too often these photographs and postings fall into one of two categories:
- They are posted as a way to boost the ‘personal brand’ of the poster, but neglect and perpertuate much deeper problems.
- They are posted for their shock value, and are not honest, respectful or informed about the host country and/or culture.
Let’s explore these two ideas:
It doesn’t take too much digging to find a lot of negative feedback concerning the modern short-term missions movement in the Western world. It’s easy to see why with hundreds of thousands of dollars being poured yearly into programs that can often do more damage than good to the local populations, and benefit only or predominantly those who are going to serve, as opposed to those they are serving.
Books like ‘When Helping Hurts’ and ‘Toxic Charity’ expand on this in much greater detail, but some of the issues include:
- Teams come to complete ‘projects’ solely for the purpose of finding something for them to do (at which point we have the horrific examples of the same churches/ buildings/ schools being painted and re-painted and re-painted in a season).
- Work with children (such as in orphanages) can produce un-healthy patterns of trauma as the kids develop attachement issues due to the constant steam of love and affection that leaves as quickly as it arrives.
- Structures are built by teams who are not-professionals at many, many times the cost of what it would be to hire local contractors and pay for their supplies.
- These kind of relationships (and social media postings) can foster and increase the perception and stereotypes of Western superiority and non-Western hopelessness and dependence. Not to mention, they display very little and limited understandings of the local communities, and are instead focused on the posters perception and intentional construction of their reality. In short, they make the person posting seem interesting and selfless, when in reality these posts are damaging and selfish, and often only perpetuate the negative stereotypes and global mission trends.
Obviously, as a mission organization ourselves, we work hard to ensure against these negative outcomes (see our blog post on ‘5 things to check before planning that mission trip’ for more information) but that doesn’t mean we are immune to the dangers and temptations of wading into the world of ‘Christian tourism.’ If we are not careful, our cultural climate of amazing graphics, expensive web development and expertly curated advertising campaigns can so easily find us (as it does so many people) square in the middle of using Jesus, vulnerable communities and photo opportunities for personal profit (even if that’s just social media likes!).
The second problem deals with shock value. These are photos and posts that are designed to cause a specific reaction, such as posting images of starving children, topless indigenous women, shanty-homes with holes in their roofs, etc.
The primary issue with posting things like this, is that they can add to the issue, no matter how real, true or devastating it may be. As well as often being an invasion of privacy, these kinds of images can add to stereotypes and feed attitudes of Western superiority (tips on how to avoid this are in our guidelines).
We, therefore, have to be very careful as an organization (and all of us as individual people) to ensure our hearts, motives and methods of media and posting are honest and full of integrity.
We want our teams and individuals to be free to share what God is doing in the nations, but to do so in a way that is honoring to Him, and to the communities in which we work. The good news is, it’s possible!
With all that in mind, here are our rules and guidelines for photography and social media while on the mission field.
- Always respect the privacy and dignity of others.
When you enter a foreign community, it’s extremely important to resist simply taking and posting pictures at whim, and at face value. Recognize that you are a guest. The people, their homes, streets and stories are not always yours to share. You are there to serve, bless and be helpful.
Therefore, we all need to do everything in our power to respect the dignity and privacy of all people, keeping in mind that taking photos of people without their permission can increase or cause feelings of shame and powerlessness.
Before taking any photos, consider what it would be like to have your roles reversed: would you like a stranger (who often doesn’t even speak your language) taking photos of you or inside your house? Of your children playing in the street? Would you like your face to be on someone else’s Instagram account? As a general rule, if you didn’t ask or receive permission, don’t take it, don’t post it.
Short and simple: do everything in your power to respect the dignity and privacy of all people, acknowledging that you do not fully understand their culture and worldview.
- Always, always ask
When you arrive in your host country you should ask the local people what is, and isn’t, appropriate when it comes to photography and social media. Whatever they say, follow their rules. When in doubt, ask again. Taking photos or posting on social media should never take precedence over relationship building and cultural immersion.
Short and simple: Ask your host, and ask anyone and everyone (kids included) before you take or post their picture. It should be the last thing you do (if you do it at all), not the first, second, third, fourth, etc.
- Consider a fast
Although social media can be fun and interactive, it’s also distracting and isolating. Consider drastically decreasing your use of social media while on the mission field, and instead, be intentionally present in your host country and community, and spend time with God. Or, seriously consider doing a ‘social media fast’ while serving, putting aside all distractions and addictions and focusing on the Lord. We highly recommend it.
Short and simple: Cut out the distraction of social media and take a break.
- Ask yourself these questions:
Before you post anything to your social media accounts, it’s important to ask yourself these 10 questions:
- Why am I posting this?
- Is this post helpful to others and honorable to God?
- Does this bring dignity and respect to the people in the photo?
- Am I telling the whole truth?
- Is this going to cause conflict or confrontation?
- Could this hurt me or others?
- Do I have permission?
- Do I truly understand the situation at hand?
- What is the story I am telling?
- Whose Kingdom am I building?
As Christians, we are all responsible for sharing the Good News with the nations. However, with that comes the need to do that well and responsibly, which includes respectfully, humbly and honestly. Reality is, missions itself can be done very, very badly and our photography and social media posts can only add to the harm. We, therefore, need to call ourselves to a higher standard, running away from any hints of ‘Christian tourism’ and instead fully embracing what it means to be an Ambassador of Christ.
At this point, it’s also important to clarify something that we do here at Christ For the City International. It’s no secret that we operate Photographers Mission Trips which can at the surface scream at all the problems we have mentioned in this article; such as Christian tourism at its most obvious. But this couldn’t be further from the truth! We believe God can powerfully use human creativity as a tool to bless others and share the Gospel. Our Photographers Mission Trips focus on using photography to do both of these things in addition to telling story.
Our teams go into areas with the understanding that it’s possible that not a single photo may be taken, and that’s because we ask. It is only when we are invited that we use our cameras to capture families and stories, instantly handing quality family photographs to people who have rarely, if ever, had that opportunity before – it’s an incredible thing to witness and be a part of.
Like most things in life, social media can be used to help or to hinder the Kingdom of God.