In this blog, we are delighted to share the words and reflections of Grace Gatera. Grace is a seasoned lived experienced mental health advocate, living in Kigali, Rwanda. She is a lived experience manager with the Lancet Commission for Global Mental Health and Sustainable Development, is an advisor for the Wellcome Trust Mental Health Priority Area, as well as a commissioner on the Lancet Commission on Gender-Based Violence and the Maltreatment of Young People.
Grace is dedicated to seeing a world where specialised mental health care and meaningful youth involvement are available for everyone but particularly for marginalized, under-resourced, and underrepresented populations in the world.
Grace once told our Head of Safeguarding, Training and Learning, Vicky Ferguson, that “they take pictures of our pain” when talking about International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs).
As a child, the very first awareness I had of Africans in need was that infamous Ethiopian child. You know the one, where a photographer showed a starving child, seemingly too weak to move and close by, a vulture waiting, aware that it is about to get its dinner. If I sound cruel while talking about it, I would like for you to know that I am simply describing the photo in its true nature. While this photo spurred a movement of support, the photo was so disturbing that the photographer received criticism.
Unfortunately, this kind of photograph was not unique, while better protected now, young children from impoverished backgrounds are used this way still, in a way that is helpful to fundraising efforts from organisations, which means, looking as sad, hungry, and sorrowful as possible. The more despondent the images are, the better.
Very little has changed even now, even though more and more people are pushing back at this voyeuristic imagery and who it benefits the most. Many nonprofit organisations still use African faces, especially those of young children to represent needs in their communications. While a lot have started using consent forms and data release requests, organisations still rely on these images, stories and videos to get their message across and engage donors to the ‘plight’ of the children they are supporting. I think this is problematic, even with good intentions. Here are three reasons why;
1. It reinforces racial and colonial stereotypes. Most of the pictures shared are done with the best intention and are shared to remind the target audience of what the problem is. However, there have been many critics who say that these pictures may feed into old racist and colonial mindsets. Black Africans are portrayed as helpless, unable to fend for themselves and needing some sort of saviour, to help them. In addition, they are rarely given any dignity, wanting to show them “authentically” may usually mean being dirty, in a poor setting and looking sad. In fact, working in communications within NGOs, I experienced many instances where children were choreographed to create these images. This is harmful because this is not the way photos would be taken of children in the west.
2. While it evokes sympathy and maybe funds, it also creates and upholds a power imbalance; because when helplessness is portrayed, this means that the obvious solution is “help!” In the wake of a global reckoning on anti-racism and newer better ways of working, it seems obvious that this is not the best way to create an appeal to work together. As a Rwandan, my country has instilled in me what it means to have Agaciro, which means dignity. This means that even when I know that my country is not the richest in the world, we can provide the answers to our own challenges. It also lends itself to my work within lived experience. The solution to finding answers to mental health challenges is by working together with experts by experience, not by assuming that we know what matters to them.
3. It creates distance instead of unity. Humanity has shown time and time again that when we come together for a purpose, we excel. We are at our best when we work together. To use pictures where particular human conditions like poverty and sickness are given individual faces, usually black African children, one distances these issues. Poverty and sickness become a remote African problem, to be seen through a charity lens instead of as a problem encountered by humans in general and which should be tackled in this way. Unfortunately, this ensures that the people in need within the countries targeted by these images, usually western countries, do not recognize when they encounter these challenges within their own countries and instils a lack of empathy and unity. This is not helpful at all.
What would be a quick solution to my worries laid out above? None. There are no quick and easy solutions, and many people grapple with how to change this problem. There is a belief that this type of imagery creates an emotional connection that works in fundraising, but ultimately they are doing more harm than good. INGOs need to stop patronising donors by assuming that they won’t be able to grasp the nuances and complexities of individual stories and can only be trusted to respond to single stories that perpetuate negative stereotypes.
Secondly, is that any change has to be gradual, instead of instantly. We can work on giving back dignity, instead of removing and replacing images.
Chance for Childhood is an organisation with whom I have had extensive conversations about this challenge. I was pleased to hear about their OverExposed campaign which encourages organisations to reframe the way they tell stories and approach media usage around people with vulnerabilities. I hope that the campaign creates not only a discussion on this topic but a commitment from the development sector to do better. This is a hard but necessary conversation that I am happy to be a part of. Ultimately the responsibility for creating this change is with everyone, not just those of us with lived experience; charities; funding organisations; donors; and the media all need to take action.
I encourage everyone to check out their campaign here and look at the campaign pledges listed below.
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