We live in a culture where every latte, sunset, or family gathering is fair game for a photo-op and social media post. But we have to be aware of how our love for photography and social media can play out when we are serving in mission.
Reflect on the following guidelines to ensure that your photography, social media use, and communications affirm the dignity of all people on your next short-term mission trip.
1. Give yourself boundaries.
When we enter another community, we need to set boundaries to help us remember that we are guests. The stories we hear and the scenes we see aren’t ours to share with the rest of the world by default. We have to respect the dignity and privacy of the people we encounter. That means we should operate deliberately and willingly by a different set of rules in our photography and social media than we use at home.
2. Respect your hosts.
Ask about your hosts’ preferences and policies for social media and photography. Some hosts may ask you to refrain from all social media use while others may request that you don’t post or photograph certain events. In particular, hosts in closed countries or areas experiencing hostility toward Christians may request that you don’t post or photograph anything at all. Submit to whatever guidelines and policies they provide.
3. Don’t criticize.
Do not criticize the government of the host country, especially any policies or person by name, or their response to any tensions or tragedies. Criticizing governments of other institutions can unnecessarily draw attention and add extra scrutiny to the work that we are involved in or the partner organizations that we are serving with.
4. Avoid spectacle mode.
When entering low-income communities, if not careful, our use of photography and social media can be exploitive. We can unintentionally act as tourists, capturing and consuming the materially poor’s images and stories as if they were a show to be observed. This dynamic dishonors the image of God in low-income people, and can contribute to feelings of shame and powerlessness that they might already feel.
5. Be present.
Even if your host allows social media, consider taking a break during your trip. Be fully present with those around you, and be aware of the Holy Spirit’s movement. You will learn more, engage more deeply, and bless the people you visit more fully if you set aside the urge to document your experience for an online audience. You can share about your trip when you return. While on the field, simply be.
6. Honor certain spaces.
Don’t post or photograph during worship services or when in people’s homes. Put all devices away during those times, ensuring that you don’t distract yourself or others from entering into worship and fellowship together. Further, pulling out a phone or camera in church might be seen as rude or sacrilegious. Similarly, when in people’s homes, focus all your attention on engaging with them.
7. Do unto others.
Before photographing or posting, ask yourself how you would feel if your roles were reversed: How would you feel if people drove down the street photographing your daughter or niece without your permission? What if they then posted the images on Instagram? How would you feel if your son or nephew randomly appeared on a church’s Facebook cover image? Pause before shooting or posting, considering whether you are “doing unto others” well. Ask permission before posting pictures of or with people, and be extremely cautious of posting pictures of or with children. Also, be considerate of other team members and avoid posting unflattering pictures just to get a laugh.
8. Avoid the savior syndrome.
Does what you are posting imply that you are saving people who are poor? Does it paint you as the hero and them as the helpless victim? Be especially careful of cliché phrases like “the least of these” or “bringing light and hope” in your posts. Use any social media updates to highlight the dignity of the community and what God is already doing over the long haul, rather than elevating your own role and impact.
9. Tell the whole story.
Do the pictures or posts you are crafting tell the whole story about the community? Are they highlighting the beautiful and redemptive things God is doing in a community, or only the heavy and painful brokenness of poverty? Don’t reduce low-income people or communities to a caricature of desperation, but also don’t ignore the reality of poverty. Avoid statements like, “They have absolutely nothing,” or, “They are so happy all the time.” You wouldn’t like your life and identity reduced to a single slice of your wide spectrum of experiences. Don’t do it to others!
10. Delay your posts.
Mentally running your posts through these filters requires diligence and hard work. It takes effort to retrain our brains to consider others’ realities in our social media use, especially when in low-income communities. If you are unsure about a draft post, walk away from it for a half an hour and then look at it again. Or, consider showing your draft to other team members to see if it strikes them as appropriate and dignity affirming. Ultimately, if in doubt, don’t post.
11. Share what you learn.
There is a place for sharing what you experience when serving in mission. When crafted with the above guidelines in mind, social media and photography can be a powerful way to advocate for the work and community you visited— especially after you return home. You have an opportunity to share with your friends what you learned during your trip, encouraging and challenging your peers to engage in the work God is doing in the world.
Adapted and expanded from Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert (Moody Publishers).