The "Poor African" Narrative
I’ve been asked over and over why I don’t show the faces of the artisans who make Expedition Subsahara products. For me, the reason is deeply personal, but I've decided to share.
Growing up, I always saw images of Westerners helping Africans. The causes were important, and the photos were meant to pull at the heart and be inspirational. But as a young and impressionable child, I often felt as if the images were more show-and-tell then anything else. Africans were the show and their heroic efforts were the tell. In most instances, I know that’s not what the person is trying to convey. These images that are created without a second thought of how it perpetuates the age-old stereotype that African people as people who need to be saved. I don’t think people understand the dual impact of the images they’re sharing.
When you grow up with nothing and people telling you that you’re “less than,” you begin to associate yourself as less than. It creates a perpetual cycle of people believing that they can’t break out of whatever situation in which they were born. There’s an African proverb: Until the Story of the hunt is told by the Lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Until the African story is told by people who have a voice in how they’re portrayed, Africans’ stories will be written before they’re born. They’re the dirty, hungry, poor children with flies on their faces in the commercials trying to get you to donate money for some cause. That is their narrative given to them by people who come to help, and do, but then who also affirm the same thing time after time. It takes away their voice and creates this narrative that sinks so deeply into their souls that they believe that they can’t change their trajectory. I know because I’ve been that child.
Pictures matter. Stories matter. The way a story is told is important. If you are called to do mission work, that is amazing. Just try to understand that the way you portray a person can have an unimaginable impact on that person that you’ll never see. Is it possible to help people without taking away their dignity to do so? Of course. Just be extra thoughtful. Ask yourself if the image you're sharing is one you would be proud of if the child pictured was your child. If you want to be an ally, but aren’t sure how to help, support vented organizations led by Africans who know how to tell their story in a positive and respectful way. If you feel like you have to share something, think of it as your responsibility do so in the most respectful way for that person. That’s what I do, and that’s why I don't show their faces. I believe that it is my responsibility to ensure that our images won’t perpetuate stereotypes or create a ripple that will impact our artisans, their children or their children’s children. Will I ever show their faces? Possibly, but not until I’m in Africa and I’ve done everything I can to tell the full story with the images I create.