My photography dilemma when building a local school in Kenya
Arriving at work should not normally be accompanied with taking an abundance of pictures of your surroundings, or worse still your customers, particularly on your first day. I however found myself in this position on a recent trip to Kenya. Now I admit, that my days spent working at a local primary school, were not normal working days, or certainly not what I was used to. As a teacher by trade, I was not teaching, but instead taking a group of my own students from a school in Dubai to carry out much needed conservation work in a school.
Completing a project such as this has always been an ambition of mine, and now I have done it, it has only fuelled my passion to carry out similar activities in the future. Whilst I was there, I had my camera and Go Pro firmly in hand excited to document my experiences.
It was not until a few weeks after my return that the ethical side of my photo collection hit a nerve, and as I write this, I am still not even sure if these thoughts are justified. Like many in my position, my camera roll is full of pictures of happy Kenyan children, mostly enjoying the company of western visitors, the attention they are shown, and the amazement at the portfolio of smartphones, cameras and video camera that are waved in their direction. No wonder they are happy- if a child is supposed to be happy in a sweet shop in normal surroundings, imagine one in an electronics store when they have often never before set foot in one. Again, however, I found myself wondering whether I was indeed right to even be taking these photos, let alone keep them saved on my devices. As a teacher, I know that I would be ‘ticked off’ by senior management if I were to walk around school taking pictures on my phone of students. Worse still, if an unknown labourer was working in a school and walked around talking selfies with students he would undoubtedly be escorted off the premises with a likely call to the authorities.
Now add to the facts that some of these pictures I had taken, I then chose to upload them to my social media sites, not only putting pictures of the said students in the public domain, but also without their permission. Ethically I question whether this is correct. Essentially, one could argue I have used these children to get in a photo and used them as a tourist attraction saying ‘look at me, what a great job I am doing helping African children’. Inevitably, people’s first reaction is that of pathos, in that we assume that stereotypically, African children are living in terrible conditions and starving. Of the photos I uploaded, I made sure that none of the students who were on the trip from my own school were visible, as I know that goes against my schools social media policy. However, no initial consideration for the Kenyan students.
Could I have just kept quiet about my trip and just posted a picture of a Zebra and a nice Kenyan landscape? Possibly.
However, as much as I have outlined the moral implications above, there certainly is a counter argument that would say taking your camera on such a project would be essential and indeed beneficial in the long term to the community. Firstly, as I mentioned the Kenyan students loved the attention. Any break time from lessons the young students would get they would come and hang around any visitor they could find. They revelled in playing and interacting with them and their fascination at being given sunglasses to wear or seeing themselves on a smartphone screen, could perhaps only be rivalled by a young Marty McFly arriving 30 years in the future in a DeLorean. Many of these students were lucky if they had matching sandals and an untorn uniform, and there was simply no denying that a device in their direction provided them with joy and happiness that may well be of limited supply in their lives.
If we were to assume therefore that taking their pictures is acceptable, then what about sharing them on social media? I fully admit that even though I had no access to wifi or data while I was there, I was taking some pictures with social media in mind. In one instance a young boy came up to me, put a dust mask on like the one I also had on, and got on my back while I was mixing cement. Carrying on, as this seemed to delight the boy I had that thought that most of us have regularly thought in this day and age: ‘this would make a great photo’, and sure enough, I stopped, passed over my phone to someone and posed for the photo. This photo eventually appeared on my social media. Devil’s advocate could say that that child has been used for that perfect social media shot, and the cute factor helped up the ‘like’ count. One of my own students even wrote in her diary of the trip that ‘once they had taken some Instagram worthy pictures, they got down to work’. Again, suggesting that perhaps our priorities in the project were a little wrong and ironic that all we can think about is getting the correct filter on our pictures, when the locals are more concerned about drinking a glass of water that has had the luxury of filtration.
However, it is important not to take away from the work and efforts shown by the students that I took to that school in Kenya. As children who attend a school in Dubai and are well accustomed with the luxuries in life, they showed maximum compassion and a huge amount of determination and graft to make and lay bricks to help build the administration block for the school. In addition, personally, I know I have raised awareness amongst my own friends about Kenya and the struggles it faces. Friends who want to go and do similar work and other teachers who want to lead their own conservation trips have asked me about my trip on the back of my postings. So if by me inspiring even one person in this sense, then taking and positing the pictures has been worth it.
The schools and communities really do rely on the help of outside institutes. The organisation we went with, Camps International, assist groups in visiting these remote villages in the world to provide help, but there is not an endless supply of people or school trips to provide the work force to assist. The admin block we worked on for example had not been worked on for two weeks previously, as no groups had visited that area. Camps International even encourage teachers and students to write, blog and post about the projects to raise awareness.
For what it’s worth, my photos remain on my social media sites, as for now at least I believe that they would do more good than harm there. I do feel however, that when I return to a similar area to work on projects in the future, perhaps more empathy in my photography would not go a miss. Obviously, for a severely underprivileged child, any joy that can be given should be shared with them be that with a camera, playing games or simply letting them practice their English on you. It should be their happiness that should be the priority, along with the work being done for them, and less about finding that perfect Instagram shot.