Photo-ops with Daddy Warbucks
Some movies are art. Some movies are entertainment. (Some movies are just bad, and are not worth discussing). I went with my family to see the latest screen rendition of the musical Annie. I went willingly. My son went unwillingly. I think in the end we were all happy we went.
I am not going to "review" the film, other then to say that this movie landed solidly in the entertainment catagory of films, for me. It had lots of technical problems. From Cameron Diaz's not-so-believable acting job to poor film editing (did Jay-Z himself edit this?) In the end it made me smile, almost cry and got several classic Annie musical numbers stuck in my head. It was a fun (albeit sometimes silly) update to a classic Broadway show, that probably should stay a Broadway show.
Other than finding myself quietly humming "It's a Hard Knock Life" completely unawares, I also found the premis of this familiar story to be a bit of an eye-opener if it's thought about in the context of world missions. The "Daddy Warbucks" character in the film (William Stacks played by Jamie Foxx), is a somewhat arrogant man of privilege who uses people. In this adaptation the Annie character is a means to his getting elected mayor of New York City. It was about photo-ops. A man of privilege helps "little orphan Annie" (which she quickly corrects to "foster kid").
It's classic, really. Those who have will often use those who don't have for the sake of personal affirmation, self-worth or to better the company. Sadly, this happens in Christian mission all the time. Mongolians who worked with me while I was living in their country would often confide with me that they sometimes felt like mere photo ops. They felt like video story projects, so that we, the foreign Daddy Warbucks, could go back to our churches and make more money. Even recently, I was chatting with a friend of mine in Mongolia. She was sharing with me that she "feels used by the missionaries". Her words. Not mine.
It's not just the case in Mongolia. In fact, photography (a medium I personally love) is used by organizations all the time all over the world to raise money. A well placed shot of a kid who looks hungry will get most Americans reaching for their wallets every time. UNICEF did this quite effectively over the holidays with their recent brash of television ads. Heck, even the Humane Society of America is working video media for money with pictures of little puppies in giant chains (which I'm fairly certain are staged shots).
When I was in Mongolia, sometimes I would take photos of things that were not at all flattering of the country. Many Mongolians didn't like it when I did this. Now, I can argue that I'm looking for my art and story telling to portray reality - and that is true. I do want to capture the truth. However, I also remember a Mongolian lady yelling at me for taking a street portrait of a homeless kid. She said, "Don't take pictures of our problems". She didn't know that I had something of a relationship with the kid, and honestly just wanted his picture. But, I am the foreigner with the camera. He is the homeless kid. It is what it looks like to her. A photo-op.
It's not intentional. At least I don't think it is. I don't think we mean to come across as pale-skinned know-it-alls who need and use the people we're supposed to be serving in order to raise support and accolades. I hope not, anyway. However, I think it's important to realize that perception really is everything, and sometimes that's exactly what is perceived. What is communicated is the reality for people around us, and intention doesn't matter at that point. It is so critical that people not feel like projects. People need to feel loved and cared about for being human created in the image of God, and not loved and cared for because of the benefits they might provide. People need to feel valued because they have inherent value, and not valued because "that'll raise a ton of cash in the States" (I've literally heard someone say that) and when the "photo-ops" are finished, relationships simply go back to what they were before. It's a hard-knocks life, after all.
Any of us working with people should take great care and be deeply aware of unintentional Daddy Warbucks superiority. People have more value than a picture. People need to be empowered, not manipulated.