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Relationships First in Missions Photography


I learned a very Valuable Lesson from one of my missions teams a few years back. We were in Bulgaria in an area with a large Roma population (Gypsies). We arrived at a pre-school to do a presentation. In a brightly colored room sat a half dozen toddlers on miniature chairs. The teacher apologized that the majority of the class was not there because it was wood-cutting season and the older ones (the 4 and 5 yrs olds) were out gathering wood with the parents. My team, which outnumbered the kids, were moved by the 2 and 3 year old cuteness and in unison all took out their cameras and began taking photos like the paparazzi. The children were terrified, there may have even been some tears. The adults were speaking a strange language, towering above them snapping away as if they really didn't see what was happening. I saw it immediately and put my own Camera away, bent down and started interacting with the kids on their level. The team caught on and followed suit. After some time of playing with the kids, when their fears were gone and the trust was built back up, I then brought out my camera and took some photos to their delight. Simple interaction changed the whole atmosphere.
Having fun with a new friend in Brazil before getting down to business. It may not seem like much but it opens the doors of trust. (Photo by Jenny Custock)

Friendship and a smile goes a long ways when you meet new peopleOne of my mantras is to always show the Love of Christ FIRST, even if that means putting the camera away. You can take photos of a lot of nameless people who are just interesting faces in a crowd but the moment you stop, learn their name, learn a little bit about them, the images take-on new meaning. This also opens the door for more meaningful conversation, better images and even ministry. 

Confessions of an introvert. It is easy to use your camera as a shield especially if you are an introvert. Hiding behind your equipment hoping no one sees you but then spraying them with shutter clicks as you swing your gaze over the crowd.  You tell yourself that you have a job to do and that you don't have to talk to "them" to make good images. Many photographers are preoccupied with shooting and *chimping, so much so, that they don't really see or acknowledge those in front of them. On occasion you may miss the spontaneousness of the moment but I would much rather be making photos that have names and stories attached to them than taking images that leave both the photographer and subject empty. As an introvert I have had to really push myself to go beyond the invisibility bubble many photographers place themselves in. The fly on the wall approach has its place in certain journalistic situations but this is not one of them.
     There are some cultures that do not like their photo taken. In those situations you always build the Relationship first. Over time you may be given the honor of photographing them but it is a matter of trust. And if you don't get the image the relationship is really most important. I love a quote from Photographer Greg Schneider, he says, “I love images, but images are not reality. We are called to be more passionate about people than pictures of people.”

Lauren snaps a few photos of a couple of young boys in
South Africa. Boys that we had spent time interacting with first
even though we did not speak their language.
Time: There are some exceptions but this still doesn't make you exempt from making gestures of kindness especially when the subject is looking at you. There are times when you are covering an event and you do not have the luxury of this type of relationship building. You have to shoot what is happening as it happens but a smile and acknowledgement goes a long way in letting the subject know that you see them much more than just part of the landscape. Smiles, hand gestures, raising or lowering your camera, nodding your head are but a few polite measures to ask permission to shoot or even thank them.
     When you have the luxury of time, spend it with a few people getting to know them. While up in the mountains just above Bogota, Colombia I was to shoot a Story on two children. The first day was spent playing with the children, getting to know them and gathering the back story from those that knew them. The second day we captured the interview and some images and the third day we were able to capture more intimate moments that took time to develop. Had we tried to do it all the first day the children would not have opened up. I've been in several situations where that was the case. Time and relationship really are key.

Language: Learn phrases in the host countries language. Be bold and unafraid to try what you know. While working in Argentina with a co-worker I learned another valuable lesson. Neither of us spoke Spanish fluently but knew words and phrases. I have always been good at picking up languages but had been afraid to use it because I couldn't speak full sentences. My co-worker however was fearless. She butchered everything but got exactly what she requested even when it was one word posed as a question. My next country was Honduras also Spanish speaking, so I decided then and there I was going to be fearless too. People appreciate it when you try. They will even teach you more if you are receptive. Before arriving make yourself a cheat sheet of phrases and rehearse it often and then use it, even if it is only five words!  (Hello, goodbye, please, thank you, photo?)

Well-traveled notebooks with the all important names
and stories
NamesI always carry a small notebook with me and Write down the names of the people I talk to. I tell them I want to remember them and their story and then I ask if it is okay that I write a few notes. I usually make a joke about my age and that I have to write things down to remember. They laugh and oblige. If it is a name that is completely foreign I will often have them write it down for me. If appropriate after our time is finished I tell them that I will pray for them and I will make note of that as well so that I remember to do so. I have a lot of little notebooks now but they are priceless because of the stories they contain. I will review them from time to time and pray over many of them. When possible I also transfer this information into the IPTC metadata in the form of keywords and captions so that the images are properly labeled.
     I would have to say that this has been a long process to get to this point. Speaking to new people is not natural to me, but the more I do it the more I am rewarded with more than just an image. I feel like I am now able to do the person justice by learning their name and story. I am giving them a voice and am able to honor them by shooting with their co-operation rather than just taking the image without really knowing a thing about them.
The lovely Aisha, in Uganda was a bit shy
but she had no problems telling me the story of Moses.
A story she says that taught her how to be faithful.
     There is much more that can be said about this topic from shooting people with dignity in difficult situations to the ethics and exploitation of shooting certain things. Please share your comment and stories. Let's create a meaningful dialog, I would love to know what you think... 

*chimping is looking at your images after you shot them and "Ooo, oo, oohing over them" like a chimp 
~Urban dictionary

This post first appeared on Kim Clark / Photography And Design, please read the originial post: here

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Relationships First in Missions Photography


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