Photojournalism and the prime directive.

It is almost impossible to come from a country like America and speak of my travels to a third world country without sounding like a total bastard. Phrases like “they have it rough there” or “the conditions were challenging, but I didn’t mind” have such a colonial ring especially when I consider that my idea of life necessity is firmly wrapped around my laptop and having internet access.

photo by Alison Wright

I’ve been thinking about what the proper behavior is for a photographer on assignment to a third world country. Is there a prime directive that photojournalists should adhere to, or should we try and help where we can and let the consequences of our actions fall where they may. I discussed the matter with Alison Wright who says the worst thing you can do is show up in a foreign land like a “great white god”.

Offering help to other cultures that you photograph must be backed by intelligence and understanding of the people. Miss Wright told me of seeing American tourists handing out tootsie rolls to children that have almost no access to dental hygiene. The tourists I’m sure felt wonderfully important as they created a frenzy around their car, but this supposed act of kindness exacerbated a fundamental health issue of the culture. A responsible act of kindness would be to hand out toothbrushes.

Miss Wright also emphasizes that before handing anything out to anyone you must understand the protocols of the culture. In Africa she said she would have to locate the head man and pass the gifts to him so he could decide how to distribute the goods to his people. A breach of this protocol has the potential of creating a problem for the recipient of your kindness.

If you visit a society to photograph without the experience or knowledge to know that your gifting efforts won’t be detrimental, don’t do anything. Arrogant assumption that you are doing the right thing based on an ethnocentric perspective could have wretched consequences for the people you’re trying to reach out to. Use the power of your photography to raise awareness of what you see, that’s the best you can do until you know better.

Many thanks to Alison Wright whose Faces of Hope Fund provides health care and education to communities in Asia. You can always feel confident that a gift of a financial donation to her fund will be a good thing to do.