For the past few weeks I have been asking myself should I stay or should I go? An opportunity came up for us to go to do some Philippines disaster relief work and to capture photos and video footage of the relief work currently being done. I was actually unsure of how I even wanted to write this post or whether to post it, but I decided that for me, it has always been best that I am open, honest, and vulnerable when I want to counter my (sometimes crippling) fears. I have always dreamed about having a career as a photographer for humanitarian aid, but there are many questions I continue to wrestle with.
I am no doctor or nurse. I am merely a photographer. My knowledge is limited and so are my skills. I have ZERO experience with actual disaster relief. I may go there and find out that I’m completely useless, or worse, I’m becoming a hindrance to those who are working there long term. Like with any traditional job, nobody finds it worthwhile to train someone who is only going to be there temporarily. I realize that short term mission trips are designed to be more for us than the people we are going to help. The money might be better used if it were sent to aid the people who do have the skills and are committed to the community there longterm.
Photography can be a powerful tool and can be used for public awareness or for the exploitation of public sympathy. I think many photographers struggle with this when going to a developing country. I am always reminded of the pulitzer prize winning image of the dying sudanese child with a lurking vulture. I only recently discovered that the photographer had committed suicide a decade ago saying that he had seen too much in this world. I can’t imagine putting myself in his shoes. You think only soldiers have war trauma, so do those photographers who constantly have witness death and photograph it. Still, there is so much backlash that he should have saved the child or done something differently. I’m saddened that people continue to criticize from the sidelines. I wonder myself, if I had been there, would I even know what to do? In reality, not many of us are trained for this. It’s easy to criticize when these things happen far away from us, and it excuses us from having any responsibility.
I am not immune to these types of criticisms.
In a recent conversation with a friend, we were trying to figure out why it seems like the Philippines are already being forgotten, while Japan was in the media much longer. There probably are a number of reasons. Is it the miscalculation of the death toll? Is it because Japan can pick themselves up relatively quickly, and we can see the tangible effects of the rebuilding process and where our money is going? Or is it because Japan is a first world country and we can readily relate to them, while it seems all too familiar to see the Philippines in crisis?
Is it because we are constantly drawing lines between “us” and “them” that we can no longer relate on a human level?
I will admit that I have seen the ugliness of it in myself. I have done this after moving to LA and closed myself off from making many friends. I have trained myself to look for differences, instead of finding similarities to build bridges, and I’ve only recently started reversing this process. This is just one example, but there are days I have passed by the homeless and thought, “Why should I help? These people will always have the same ol’ problems, and nothing’s going to change.” It’s that quiet voice in my head that tells me to avoid eye contact and keep walking. It’s sad that I believe that I am different and that those differences separate me. If I just stopped to have a conversation, I might even find out how alike we really are. Not entirely related, but have you guys seen this homeless veteran transformation? I also want to meet this guy Leo!
What story do I tell?
I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I want my main mission to be capturing the individual and their “humanness”. I love Brandon Stanton’s photo series “Humans of New York.” I love how despite how different the people may appear from you, whether they are rich, poor, black, white, drag queens, homeless, etc, he’s able to tell their stories so that you can relate on a human level. That’s exactly what I want to do.
I know in the past people may have seen me as loud and outgoing, but maybe it’s a different season for me. I used to be the first one on the dance floor, but I’ve noticed now I’m more of a wallflower. I am also reluctant to talk to strangers. Even if I have a gift of telling stories through photography, I might be too afraid to ask for a photo. First, there’s a fear of rejection. Also, what if there is a language barrier? I think English is widely spoken, but it probably depends on the area.
It might not be the appropriate time to ask “What are your dreams?” and “What is the happiest moment of your life?” questions when they are in survival mode. Maybe it’s wrong to be going there to search for hope. I heard that to empathize with those dealing with trauma means you internalize it and experience trauma yourself.
It’s only one month away! Now, we just need to figure out all the logistics, which is a worry of its own. I’m pretty terrified but am praying that He is my strength where I am weak. I could definitely use more prayers (if you’re the praying type). :)
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ooh. i like that top image. it sums up the meaning of travel perfectly.
even though we already talked about these things over the phone, i think it’s good you’re fleshing the issues out, wrestling with them, asking others for their counsel….
may God give you peace about your decision.
Actually.. I finally decided to publish this.. and it took me a while to write this.. but now I’m really excited. Well.. still worried about if I will deliver, but mostly excited! I heard the fisherman took a huge hit and need fishing supplies to continue work.. but I don’t know ANYTHING about fishing. In fact, fish scare me. Trying to do some research on what exactly they need.. they might do things differently ya know. So we would literally helping them fish rather than giving them fish.. How crazy is that?!!!! Can you tell I’m excited? :P
I think your fears are based on rational things, but I think that if you have the opportunity to go — and this cause is obviously on your heart — then you should go. I think that because you are addressing these issues, you’ll be more aware when you’re over there and able to adapt and adjust as needed. And I think that’s the major thing I always forget when I try to assess a situation or make a decision: I can always adjust to whatever the circumstances are. My actions don’t have to be set in stone before they even happen.
You’re right — the Philippines Disaster is fading from the forefront of people’s minds and this post has brought it back to my awareness again — and reminding me that things still aren’t all okay. When you stop hearing about it, you figure things must be better or okay and this is a reminder. So, all I am saying is that… these are stories that need to be told and it sounds like you’re the person to tell them. It may be scary and way outside of your comfort zone, but if not you, then who?
Thanks for being an inspiration.
Thanks for being supportive. We decided we’re going, we just need to get our tickets. Fingers crossed for good deals!
I just wish there was a way to adapt before so I would be more ready, but I guess can only know these things by being there. There are some amazing story tellers that have already been, and there will probably be more to come, so sometimes I wonder if they are just better suited for the job. I just have to remind myself we all have different stories to tell.
Oh! Go and do it. Because you’ll never know the answer to your questions if you don’t go. You will never know what you’re capable of if you don’t try.
I don’t think it’s exploitation at all if your intentions are to create awareness.
And speaking as a Filipino, don’t worry about not being able to find hope. You will always find hope. Just look at the children, and talk to them. You’ll know what I mean when you do.
Oh I wish I could go with you!
We’ve pretty much decided that we are going to go. Just need to figure out what we’ll be doing on the ground.
I wish you could go too! :) Do you speak tagalog? Actually, I was looking it up in tacloban, and it says it’s mostly waray waray speaking. I was hoping it was tagalog bc there are so many more tutorials! I could use a few lessons. I just wanna make sure I can communicate, and not just expect them to speak english to me.
Argh how did I miss this comment!? I need to be more organised with my inbox. Sorry Esther!
I’m so glad that you and Jacob are going! When are you going? Yeah I would love to go with you guys :( but I’m being a little selfish at the moment and saving up for my trip to the US and Europe for next year. Yeah I speak Tagalog, and I don’t speak any other dialect, so I’ll be useless as acting translator for you guys anyway. :P But a lot of Filipinos can speak English alright, though a bit broken and stiffly, they’ll be able to understand you. Who are you going with?
No worries! I’m the same way. :)
We’re going with a team from Steps of Justice. I haven’t worked with them before, so we’ll see….