You’re sitting on your front porch, watching your kids ride their bikes up and down the street. You wave at your neighbor mowing his lawn. All of a sudden, a van pulls up and several foreign-looking people pile out wielding cameras.
Without a word, one man stoops in front of you and takes an up-close photo of you in your sweats. The others point cameras in your windows and at your kids, while you wonder What in the world is going on?! or perhaps something less polite.
This is not the best way to take great photographs of kids.
Yet, this scenario can play out over and over when people visit the developing world. When we’re visiting another country, it can be easy to turn our brains to vacation mode and forget that we’re visiting people’s homes and not Epcot.
This doesn’t lead to friendly relations — I know photographers who have been yelled at, had things thrown at them and even been chased. They’ve been told,
“We’re not the animals you came here to photograph.”
How can we take photographs of people while treating them with dignity — not as if they’re animals in a zoo — while also portraying their need to people back home?
Here are five ways in which Compassion photographers strive to take great photos of kids — and some tips for sponsors who get the chance to visit their sponsored children. (Special thanks to Jeff Arnold for his photography expertise and photos.)
- A good photo starts with relationship.
You might get a seemingly killer photo when you surprise someone on the street and snap their picture. They look crusty, and you can use the photo to show people back home how poor people are unhappy.
- Speak their language.
You don’t have to become fluent in Swahili. But learn a few phrases to show people that you are willing to meet on their ground. Learn “Hello,” “How are you?” “Smile,” and “May I take your picture?”Their giggles at your accent will be a great way to get an authentic photo.
And if you can’t master “May I take your picture?” use the international language of pointing to your camera — they’ll know what you mean. Most kids will say “yes” and then mob your camera to look at themselves.
- Give each child dignity.
Here’s a good question to ask yourself when you’ve taken a photo of a child: Would her mom be proud of this photo? Or would she be ashamed and embarrassed?
Our ministry earnestly wants to “do to others as we would want them to do to us,” so we don’t take photos that could exploit or embarrass a child — we take photos that give a child pride and a sense of worth.
Sometimes we hear, “These kids don’t look that poor.”
Partly that’s because these children have a difference in their life. We have helped them get school uniforms and taught them hygiene and to take good care of their belongings.
But this is also because we take the issue of a child’s dignity seriously. We won’t use photos that strip children of dignity in order to raise funds. We believe that when we show a child’s humanity and not simply the depravity of a situation, people will be moved.
- Tell the truth in your photos.
Photos are powerful things. And so, it’s important that our photos tell the truth.In doing a story on famine, one of our photographers found that his interviewees didn’t look all that skinny. But he didn’t go looking for the skinniest family around to photograph because that simply wouldn’t be the whole truth.
And guess what? The truth is always better!
When you tell a genuine story through photos, the authenticity shines through and makes the photos great.
- Come out from behind the camera.
When you’re on a trip, it can be tempting to take pictures of absolutely everything — you don’t want to lose one memory! But there is great value in soaking in your surroundings, being fully present.
If you’re on a sponsor tour, think about trading off camera responsibilities with a friend so you can take some time off, just taking everything in. Taking time to observe can often lead to noticing an amazing shot.
And when you’re out from behind the camera, you will view the people around you as potential relationships and not just as subject matter for a photo — see point 1!
But is that really the truth the photo is telling?
If you stop to talk with the person, you might find that they’re simply angry at you. If you get talking and get to know them, their smile comes out, their passion, their humor, their humanity. That’s the real person.
Don’t confuse a crusty look at a stranger with authenticity.
Great photos come when you spend time getting to know someone — or in the case of children, playing with them. Spend time on their level, literally. Laugh with them. Make goofy faces. Pretty soon you’ll be getting amazing photos of children that show what they are really like.
What do you think? Have any of you had a chance to visit your sponsored child or the developing world? What tips can you offer other sponsors who are about to embark on that journey?
We originally published this post on January, 28, 2013.