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Volun-tourism: The Ethics of the Service Trip Photo

If a picture is worth a thousand words, we need to be careful about what it is saying.

As someone immersed in the world of youth ministry, I see photographs of people on service trips everywhere I look, which has prompted me to think more about how these pictures can have a mixed impact. For one, I am encouraged by the response of many youth group students who, upon viewing photographs of others on service trips, are led to deeper love and compassion for their brothers and sisters around the world and are often prompted to serve on future trips themselves.

However, we must be mindful of the pictures we share and the messages we may inadvertently send with them. First, we should carefully consider the necessity of including human subjects in our photographs. We want to respect people, not exploit them. We should seek to tell the stories of those we meet in a thoughtful way that does not use their plight to make ourselves appear charitable.

Rather than taking pictures of people, perhaps we could photograph locations instead. And if we decide we would like to take someone’s picture, we must ask for permission beforehand. To quote Melanie Dale, a blogger who has been on many a service trip, “Ask before you click.” However, the answer might not always assure us: someone might agree to have their photograph taken because they feel powerless to say no. This concern may be partially allayed if both people have already gotten to know one another first, but it is something we need to think about, especially if they are children. In general, we should try to avoid taking pictures of people. If nevertheless we want to photograph someone, we should consider not being in it. Removing ourselves from the picture is a powerful way to assert the trip is not about us.

Secondly, an overwhelming number of service trip photographs I have seen depict a white person surrounded by people of color. Here, we see the white savior narrative: a white person enters the picture to help alleviate the suffering of people of color. These photographs can send a dangerous message, especially if used selectively. White people are certainly not the only ones who go on service trips, and people of color are not merely helpless and at the mercy of their fictional white saviors. We also need to be careful about tokenizing race. If a white person seeks to take a picture with a person of color simply to appear inclusive, they neglect to truly recognize and appreciate them, and identifying one as the “other” can have a polarizing effect.

Above all, we must be sensitive of the people we photograph and aware of the messages we may be sending if we wish to make a positive impact during a service trip. We need to prayerfully consider if we will take and share pictures from a trip and how we can help tell the stories of those we have the privilege of meeting in a truthful way that protects their dignity and celebrates their humanity.

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