What’s wrong with this picture?

>Today I got a postcard in the mail, thanking me for a small donation I made a few months ago to help an orphanage in Uganda buy some needed basics (like toothbrushes and shoes). It was a nice thought, but the photo side of the postcard featured a scene that keeps bugging me. I won’t include it here to protect the innocent (the people in the photo and the organization), but I’ll paint a picture:

There are three kids in mismatched, sometimes oversized clothing. They have medium- to dark skin. They’re each clutching a new backpack that’s wrapped in plastic. On the left side of the photo, there’s a young white adult male, squatting down, handing a backpack to one of the kids with a “Here. Isn’t this amazing?” look on his face. On the right of the photo, probably a part they could have edited out, is the bottom half of another white guy, wearing sneakers and holding an expensive camera.

I’m sure this organization does some pretty great stuff. I’m sure the dudes in the photograph were doing good work. It’s just the spirit of the photograph that really got to me. The white guy just looks so … satisfied with himself. The kids look so… poor. Their shoes are too small. Their clothes are mismatched and faded.

It just has such a “Westerners to the Rescue” vibe, do you know what I mean?

I blogged about poverty when I was in Uganda. I saw it with my eyes, I smelled it, I got dusty and sat down on dirt stoops to visit a very sick baby. I felt ashamed to be there, to wear what I was wearing. I was so obviously American, and this place was so obviously not. And then we drove away.

I just wonder what the kids we left behind thought of us. I wonder about the kids in this postcard photo, too. What did they think of this dude handing out backpacks? Did they get long-term education along with the bookbags? How about food? Clean water? Are they partnering with local resources for sustainable change?

Maybe they are getting those things. Maybe all they thought was “hey this cool guys’ giving us backpacks.” Maybe the kids in the Ugandan slum thought “well, at least those Americans were nice.” My friend went back tot he slum and took the baby to the doctor the next day, got him medicine. We did what we could, but the scene was absolutely overwhelming.

I wish I had better solutions. I just hope that for all our swooping in and helping, there are some long-term programs in place to help and sustan. And I hope we Westerners can open our hearts to the wealth these kids can give back to us, with their empty hands. So much that when we leave a place, we don’t feel self-satisfied; we feel humbled and convicted. 

What about you? What do you think when you see a photo like that?

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4 comments on “What’s wrong with this picture?

  1. Alison says:

    >Kim, I think you'll enjoy this link (if you haven't seen it already)


    What do I think? I think – I wish people would stop giving people/children living in poverty material things, and start giving them the sorts of things they really need, like healthcare, nutrition, education, and the capacity to build a better life for themselves.

  2. Kimberly Van Brunt says:

    >I love that post, Alison! What a novel idea — ask people how they'd like to be represented before you take their picture. And this: "How had these photos failed so spectacularly to capture the intelligence, the laughter, the resilience, and the capabilities of so many incredible people?"
    Yes, yes, yes.

  3. Marci says:

    >Here, again, now. In every sense. I get it. It bugs me. I have NO solutions. But when I get to the part where I have no solutions I think, are WE suppose to have solutions? Does that make sense at all? I know that UG has given ME far more than I am able or have given it… but I do give, what i can, and how I am told to. And it will never be enough because I am just a member of a bigger body… I am just a arm to hold a baby, the mouth is preaching, the hand is giving, the feet are going, but I know very little about that, because I am the arms, and I do what the Head tells me, and together we are something beautiful, but apart it is something odd and disjointed. But, yes. I get you. I shutter at myself, when I really don't realize how others live… I have a very personal story about a dear lawyer we both know, I had NO idea how she would live, but on visiting her my Western assumptions crumbled… it is just so hard to live here. I am so thankful for what I have, but so revulsed by it to. I'll end there. Benja is still spoken of with love here. 🙂

  4. Kimberly Van Brunt says:

    >Yes Marci. I hear you. I am not the solution, because to believe myself to be so would be patronizing. Some things I think "problems" aren't so in their eyes. I want to honor their beauty, to celebrate their way of life, to uphold and learn and be humble about what I don't know. But I also want to help where help is needed. It's not an easy balance to strike.

    And yes, it's a strange feeling to be revulsed by your own belongings and lifestyle, isn't it? We're trying to organize our stupid garage, and three trips to the dump later, I am astounded by the amount of stuff out there, still. Dumbfounded. Once you have all this stuff, it's hard to shake it off.

    Thank you for your words about Benja. I wish I could share him with them more fully. Think I'll email them a photo or two…

    Hope all is well!