Photos I Don't Want to Share
Updated: Apr 11, 2019
We take photos of everything. From photos of our friends to photos of our food, nothing is safe from the camera’s eye. As the accessibility to cameras has increased in the recent decades, so, too, has our responsibility to consider the consequences of the photos we post or share. From losing a job over leaked nude photos to perpetuating the myth of white saviorism, photography is not only a tool that can be used to lift up people, to educate, to inspire- it can also be used to tear down, to promote stereotypes, and to foster hatred. How many times have you scrolled through social media or the news when a photo caught your eye- in an instant it conveyed a message, and you know for a fact it’s not true. Or you don’t agree. Or you were there yourself, and you know it wasn’t like that. How much responsibility will we take for the truth, or lies, in our photographs?
One of my professors in university once commented on the irony of a photograph. He said (paraphrasing from my own memory) -
The irony of a photograph is that it is seen as the truth or a true depiction of events. But how true can it be? A moment was captured in 1/60th of a second, 1/100th of a second, or even less. Your evidence of ‘truth’ depicts a sliver of the world as it was from the viewpoint of the photographer for just an instant- for less than a second.
Isn’t it amazing to think of photography that way? Of course, a photograph can still tell us the truth. It can give us facts, such as the color of someone’s hair or a record of who was present at an event.
However, there is still so much a photograph cannot tell you. And in this world of share and reshare, copy and paste, how can you ensure that your story, your words, will always accompany your photographs?
There are photographs out there that promote extremely negative stereotypes- stereotypes that marginalize people, that foster distrust, that exploit the privacy of children and families. As a photographer and a traveler, I firmly believe that it is my responsibility to uphold the dignity of my subjects. It is my responsibility to assess the stereotypes and socio-political climate of where I am planning to share my photographs, as well as the context of where they were taken and the desires of the subject.
Why is this so important?
Let me answer that question by sharing a story. In 2017, I spent a month living in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. A landlocked country with only three million people, I can say with confidence that most Americans know virtually nothing about Mongolia. They may have seen a documentary about traditional eagle hunters, but that’s probably it. Not surprisingly, multiple Americans I spoke with before I left were not even aware Mongolia was its own country, but thought that it was part of China.
During this trip, I attempted to take a group of European and American student volunteers to a rural area to experience the life of more traditional, nomadic peoples. However, my plans were halted by my Mongolian co-worker, who refused to endorse the trip. He essentially said that he did not want our volunteers to see such raw, undeveloped parts of the country. Frustrated, I turned to my host, Gerelmaa, who graciously allowed me to stay in her home for a month. She understood my point of view, but she also understood his. What she told me opened my eyes to a side that I had never really considered before.
Gerelmaa is a international businesswoman who owns a medical equipment import company. She is fluent in Japanese, and can read in multiple languages in four different alphabets. Her Facebook photos periodically show her shaking hands with people from the Japanese government or the likes of the Ambassador of Qatar. Having never met her before I arrived in Mongolia, I was shocked when she picked me up from the airport in her Lexus, and I later saw her wearing Louboutins. This is a serious, successful, 21st century woman. However, she told me that on her frequent trips to Japan, she constantly has to explain and defend herself as a Mongolian. People would ask her crazy, insulting questions, such as “Do you live in a house or a hut? Do you have internet?” or the worst one of all- “Do you know how to use a toilet?”
Can you imagine being a successful businessperson, fluent in multiple languages, self-made to the point that you can afford a Lexus and Louboutins, and someone asks you if you know how to use a toilet? It’s insulting. And yet, if someone has only seen a handful of photos of Mongolian nomads, what do you expect them to know?
If you have only seen photos of dirty, ragged-clothing children in Africa, how will you know how beautiful, diverse, interesting, and educated the people are?
If you have only seen photos of war-torn Eastern Europe, how will you know how fast the countries bounced back and how determined their people are to live happy, fulfilling lives?
If you have only seen photos of foreigners holding sick-looking brown babies, will it occur to you that there are thousands of local people striving day in and day out to take care of their populations?
If you have only seen photos of Iranian women in hijabs looking down, will it occur to you that millions of Muslim women choose to wear the hijab every day, and do so with confidence and grace?
And so, there are photos that I don’t want to share.
I don’t want to share a photo of me holding two Tanzanian babies at an orphanage. A friend of mine worked at that orphanage for over a year. She knew the kids well, and she helped a Tanzanian team that happened to be short-staffed. I simply visited her at work, and when a baby was crying, I picked him up. When another baby cried, I pick him up too. I won’t claim to know them, I won’t claim to know their names. I don’t even remember who took the photo. That is my own private memory, albeit now it is shared with you. But those children are not ornaments for a cute Instagram photo, and I can definitely not claim to have helped them at all. I am white, but I am not a white savior. That is a photo I don’t want to share.
I don’t want to share the photo of a young, bleeding Nicaraguan student named Oscar. I was in Managua watching a group of students play kickball at recess. I stood by quietly with my camera as other Americans in my group played with the students. Sometimes the kids would come by and make faces, wanting their photo taken. Sometimes I would just take photos of the group- their faces too small to be easily recognizable. Oscar was happily playing kickball until he fell, his face and body sliding on the bumpy dirt. He emerged holding back tears, blood running down his neck. He sat in an empty chair next to me and one of his Nicaraguan teachers smeared an antiseptic ointment over the cuts. In an effort to put a smile on his face, I handed him my camera and asked him if he wanted to take some photos. He smiled and took it from me as I carefully placed the strap around his neck. After about fifteen seconds he decided that he did not want to be the photographer, but the subject. I obliged and took his photo as he grinned meekly. Oscar gave me permission to take his photo, but did he give me permission to share it wherever I wanted to? And what about his parents? I would guess he was about 10 years old at the time. This is another photo I don’t want to share.
I have been traveling and taking photos since 2005. My relationship with the people I’ve met has varied greatly- sometimes I am a friend, a teacher, a volunteer, a program director, a host sister. Sometimes I am a stranger on the street, a quiet spectator behind the lens. My views on photography and what is and is not appropriate have changed and evolved, as I assume they will continue to do. Through it all, I am happy that I have come to the conclusion that some photos just aren’t meant to be shared.