In the age of social media, it’s become the norm to document how we give to people living in poverty or marginalized groups. The sadder the story or the bigger the donation, the more the image trends. I have personally watched/read countless of them, given my likes and even cried after being moved by some incredible stories.
I didn’t think much about it until recently when I read someone’s comment on a particular issue regarding how we can strip people of their dignity by sharing certain images of ourselves giving to them. I have always considered this issue from the assessment of the person sharing the image after helping (What is your motive? Are you self-serving? Are you seeking validation for your act of Charity? Are you sharing to inspire more people to give? ) Sadly, I never thought of it from the perspective of the person whose image is being shared after receiving assistance. How does that person/group feel about strangers seeing their images circulated on the internet? How does one feel when they feel obligated to be photographed to appease their ‘donor’?
Let’s not forget that some images may be unethical (i.e. pictures of children in destitute circumstances receiving aid/donations/service: children are unable to give consent about their pictures being taken and circulated online. The privacy and vulnerability of children especially those marginalized must always be considered). But what about the stories we see all over social media of someone taking a picture with a homeless person after giving them a meal or someone assisting a person living with a disability and documenting the process? I recently saw someone share a video of themselves giving meals to homeless individuals. Those images sparked this blog post as I considered many things. There was no story/ context to the video though I am sure the hot meals were appreciated in this increasingly cold weather. But how did they feel about having a camera up in their faces as they received assistance?
Many times we don’t even think about that perspective when we take and share such images. We only think about it from our own motive of sharing the images. People argue that by sharing, they are bringing more awareness to the issue(s) and influencing other people to give and this makes sense. Social media is a great tool for generating awareness. Organizations say they do it to inspire more people to give. The rationale is that when you share vulnerable and emotional stories, you can move people to act. I think we have really become desensitized if we need to see sad images in order to be moved to give. Also, are we unintentionally causing people and organizations to resort to performing vulnerability to illicit support? I guess this is why those sad but unethical (in my opinion) world vision commercials with the proverbial fly on the poor child’s face still play on our TVs. Another argument organizations may have as to why they share images of their beneficiaries posing with donors/donated merchandise or with stories highlighting how they were assisted, is to show donors as a form of accountability.
It can be a difficult area to navigate and that’s why it’s important to take the time to understand what our images are saying. It’s very crucial to reflect on what you’re sharing and to always ask for consent. However, with consent, are we really taking into consideration the systems of power in place? Does that vulnerable person feel that not consenting to having their picture/video taken will mean they may not receive the help after all? Do they feel that if they refuse to consent it may be interpreted as being ungrateful? Consenting to a picture may not necessarily mean the person is comfortable with it. How many times have you done something you didn’t want to just because of power dynamics? When you give, the reality is you are operating from a position of power and privilege.
There are many things that need to be considered in such situations but I think empathy and compassion are key. Before you share those images, ask yourself this: if the roles were reversed, would you be okay with strangers seeing you in your most vulnerable moment? Would you be okay being robbed of your right to privacy and dignity? Are our beneficiaries less deserving of privacy and dignity because they need our assistance? Even with our best intentions, the images we share can be even more disempowering to people living in poverty. Think before you share!