I’ve lived in a few different countries, including the past year in South Africa. I’ve also been able to make photographs on the streets of Hong Kong, Dubai, Thailand, and Lebanon this year. I am a photographer, and I love it. But I know all too often the process of taking pictures can inhibit communication and relationships (and thus ministry).
Here are some things to think about as you enter another culture and want to take photographs.
- Pick somebody. I love it when a group has a designated photographer (who is good at it and passionate about it). This frees up everyone else to engage more fully without needing to document their engagement themselves.
- Plan the trip well. The current best practices for short-term missions trips generally excludes very short visits to several “sites.” Instead, plan your trip for depth in one or two places, enabling greater connect in them. This will allow you to…
- Define your intent. My friend Matt Kirk (who works with InterVarsity’s multimedia team, Twentyonehundred) points out that photographers’ intentions make a massive difference in the quality of both their images and their ministry. Are you merely trying to make an image that sings? Or are you trying to see people with love, to show what God is doing in a place?
- Pick your camera carefully. Don’t get a new camera just before a trip. You’ll be doubly distracted by your photography as you’re learning how to use it. Know your camera well so you don’t miss shots or fumble with controls. And consider the size and type of camera you bring. A smaller camera will allow people to be more at ease. A bigger camera announces you as a photographer, which may or may not be what you want.
- Look people in the eyes. In many cultures, this will indicate respect, an acknowledgement of the imago dei, the image of God in them. Don’t just be sizing up your next shot, but really see the people in front of you before you put them in your frame.
- (Note: With some cultures, eye contact is not encouraged. Be sure to check on this before you’re on the ground or you may cause problems despite your good intentions.)
- Ask permission. Not completely necessary in some situations, but generally, it’s a good practice even to just hold up your camera and smile with an inquisitive expression as if to say, “Can I take your picture?” This gives someone the opportunity to hold up a hand or say “no,” even if there’s a language barrier.
- Use photography to start conversations and relationships. A camera gives you an excuse to talk to people, to be places. Sometimes, it can close doors, as people withdraw from it. But more often, people understand and are honored by someone wanting to know them, understand them, and remember them.
- Portray people as you’d like to be portrayed. This should be obvious, but once you’re in a radically different context and you’re seeing what you’ve seen in magazines or newspapers, other people can become merely subjects. Be gentle. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Be unselfish as you make images. Make sure people are built up by your photography, both your subjects and those who will see your photos later.
This Isn’t a Photo Shoot
- Keep the camera in your bag. Dwell in one place for a day or a week without taking any photos. Get to know people before you get out your camera. Buy stuff from the market. Eat with people. Get to know them and build trust. All of this will make for better ministry. And better photographs.
- Go slowly. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for you and the people you’re meeting. Don’t be rushing to move along to find the next great image. You’re less likely to find it if you’re rushing.
- Watch your body language. Uncross your arms. Sit down to chat with someone. Get down on the level of a child. Stay loose and open. People will relax as they sense you are relaxed, even if you’re a foreigner, the likes of whom they’ve never seen before.
- Be quick and discrete. Visualize your photo, ask permission if appropriate, adjust your settings, and pop a frame or two.
What to (Not) Shoot
- Show joy and hardship. Or, in other words, tell the truth with your images, not just a portion thereof. Look for an accurate, honest approach showing different aspects of a place and its people. Don’t skirt past the real issues of a place, but also don’t miss the bright spots. To be truthful, you must show both to your audience.
- Watch out for cops, banks, military stuff, and government buildings. You might think it’s ridiculous to accuse you of being a spy, but it’s the opinion of the guys with uniforms and guns that counts. Just don’t.
- Shoot fewer frames. We press the shutter way too often. Focus rather on getting just one good image of a new friend or a special place.
- Hang around after taking a picture. If you press the shutter button and then walk away, you’re often communicating, “I’ve got what I came for, thank you very much.” The subject may feel taken advantage of. So rather spend more time chatting or simply watching and being pleasantly nearby before moving on.
- Get the facts. Think about what you hope to do with your images later on. Carry a notebook to get the correct spellings of people’s names and locations, to give them that respect if you show the image later on.
- Get them a copy if at all possible. It’s amazing the people who have email or Facebook on their phones, even in places way off the grid. Try to find a way to get them a copy, digital or print. It’s the least you can do for them. I have had the pleasure of giving many families the first (and likely still only) picture they have of themselves. As my friend Gary S. Chapman says, just don’t promise and then not deliver!
What other things do you think it’s important to keep in mind while doing photography cross-culturally? Or what questions do you have?