Several years ago I was sent by the INGO where I worked to a nearby country to accompany and translate for a photographer and a reporter who were touring a post-conflict zone. They were going to take photos and write stories about the situation in the country and the work we were doing to address the impact of the situation on the most vulnerable communities. A driver and someone from a local NGO counterpart accompanied us.

There were many indigenous groups in the zone that we visited. It was my first experience at translating in a multi-lingual rather than bi-lingual setting. The journalists would ask a question in English. I’d put it into the official language of the country. A man from the indigenous group would make sure he understood what I was saying, and then he’d turn around to the group of men that had gathered to meet with us and relay the question or comment to them. They would have a long discussion, or sometimes  what seemed like an animated argument, and come to a consensus on their answer. Then he would turn around to me, give me the group’s answer, and I’d put it into English for the 2 journalists. Sometimes the two journalists would clarify to each other in their native language, which I didn’t speak.

The group that we visited in one particular community had been forced off their land by the government who declared the area they had always inhabited an ecological reserve. They believed this was a political move rather than any real government concern for the delicate ecology of their homeland. They felt the government wanted to weaken them by removing them from their land and decimating their culture and their capacity to resist. This was part of the government’s approach to dealing with ‘lack of development’ in the country.

The photographer took lots of pictures. The reporter was thrilled with the story. The local counterpart representative looked happy. He was very supportive of our visit. Certainly it was worthwhile if it meant some more funding for his local NGO. I was excited to be in communities I’d never normally get to spend time in, plus, the journalists were really fun to hang out with. A great visit for everyone involved…. right?

As we prepared to say our goodbyes to this particular community, the headman said to us. “There is one more thing before you go.

Yes? yes?” said the reporter, adrenaline surging at the fascinating stories she would write about the lives of indigenous peoples and their romantic struggle for survival. “Tell us,” said the photographer, spirits high, imagining the colorful photos he’d print of the people in native dress against the pristine natural background, the bare-breasted women with babies tied on their backs, washing in the stream.

“Don’t take our photos and our stories with you if you are not going to help us.”

We realized we might be there a bit longer, explaining ourselves.

The photographer promised heartily that he’d send copies of his photographs. The journalist, instinctively holding her hand over her heart, promised she would send a copy of any articles that were written. I translated the promises, and made my own promise to send any articles and photos to the local counterpart, who promised to get them to the community.

They didn’t look satisfied, so now it was us conferring amongst ourselves to come up with a response. We agreed that I should carefully tell the headman that we couldn’t help them directly. I should explain to them the concept of ‘advocacy’, and tell them how the work we were doing would help ‘raise awareness’ about their situation and pressure their government so that they would not be moved off their land.  I should help them understand that the local counterpart, the journalists, my organization and I were all ‘advocates’ for them.

They understood all those ideas just fine, but shrugged, not so satisfied. We felt uncomfortable. We didn’t have anything concrete to offer. And anyway, we didn’t see ourselves as ‘whites in shining armor,’ coming to save them. No no, we were beyond that, better than that. We had progressed beyond all those other organizations. We were ‘changing policies’ not ‘giving hand outs’ and through our work we would be ‘catalyzing sustainable and lasting changes‘ in people’s lives. At least that was what we wanted to believe.

But what we were really doing was taking their story to use as a way to shine a light on our story about how any funds donated to us would empower them (and other beautiful, brown and colorfully dressed people like them) to save themselves. We really did believe that we could make a difference with our newspaper articles, our photos and our advocacy. Truth was that it was still more about us and our organization than it was about them.

“People come and take our stories, and they never come back, and our situation doesn’t change,” they said. “We hope that you will be different.”

Sure, we wanted to be different, but I’m pretty sure that the story that the reporter wrote and the pictures that the photographer took  didn’t help this particular community at all. I never heard anything else about them after our visit, and I’m fairly sure they never heard anything about the 3 of us. Though I bet the next few times they saw the local counterpart, they asked.

The journalists got some fantastic photos and nice stories about the organization I worked with placed in the most popular newspaper in their home country. We all believed those stories were helping a larger cause somehow, and therefore that it was a good thing. Who knows, maybe we did make some kind of small difference in the big scheme of things.

Several months after our visit, I got a press clipping in a language I didn’t speak, which I sent off by post, not really knowing if the community would ever get it. We fulfilled our promises in deed, but that visit has always stayed with me.

“We hope that you will be different.”

We were not.


About Shotgun Shack

INGO worker hailing from the crossroads of America, and so far from home in so many ways. I blog about life and the depths and ironies of INGO work. View all posts by Shotgun Shack

11 responses to “Promises

  • Matt Richmond

    This is a really powerful story and a topic I’ve thought a lot about. It must be very tiresome for the local people to deal with this.

    • Shotgun Shack

      On top of the INGOs is the large number of anthropologists, tourists and photographers making a name and a living off beautiful postcards and calendars and books, with none of the proceeds going to the people featured in them. Those taking the photos/doing the research sometimes get really testy about this issue, and I can understand that, but yes, it must be really tiresome for the subjects of all this. If it were me, I’d probably stick my hand out to the person with the camera and say “one dollar” too.

      • Jamuna

        Oh yes! I remember being followed by a youth who was minding cattle in a village in the state of Maharashtra, India. He kept pestering me for money because I had spent a good few minutes clicking pictures of him, without asking him for permission. I wanted to live up to the romanticized teenage -city girl in a village kind of outing and hence thought it would be wonderful to click “rural sights”. I remembering that it was me who felt exploited when I was asked for money… how I can laugh at my foolishness now.
        However, in another form, last year I wrote about my granduncle and the work he was doing in a tiny village towards education and reform. He wanted a lot of help then and still does. All I did was write about him and his work later sending him a copy of my article that also had his photograph! I wanted to tell him that I wont be helping him directly, but I will act as an “advocate” in order to spread awareness about his work. I am happy I wrote about my granduncle and shared it on my blog and on facebook – I received a lot of comments and appreciation – none of which helped my granduncle progress with his work in any way. I, however, basked in the attention.

  • ansel

    Haitians often say the same things to me when I’m working in a new area on a new story. I usually say something about raising awareness, but can always see that it’s unconvincing, probably because I’m not sure if I believe it as I’m saying it… Maybe the question should be, who’s going to benefit more, you or the people in the piece? If the answer is you, maybe it’s better left unwritten. Or you need to do more to be confident the piece will have an impact, and then see if that happens… I don’t know.

    Anyway thanks.

  • martylogan

    I agree – well done. As a former journalist, and one who misses the profession, I keep thinking about a way of doing journalism without falling into this trap. I think that means that each ‘encounter’ like the one you describe must be part of a larger project designed with and for the community. This is much different than the traditional journalism I practised, and much more difficult I’m sure, but it might be a step in the right direction.

  • Devt Setter

    I once met someone who carries a polaroid type camera with her when she’s taking beneficiary and needs assessment photos, so while she is taking photos she can at least leave some behind as well. This doesn’t address all that you’ve covered here — it’s a situation where the subjects have either already received physical aid from the NGO or are very likely to — but it was something I’d never thought of doing before.

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  • Travis Warrington

    Great piece, my friend. I dealt with the same issues while in Peace Corps in The Gambia. Never gets old with the guilt trip, but the ‘changing policy’ line goes right over their heads. Your piece hits home for me, for sure.
    keep it up

  • apeaceofconflict

    A powerful piece and a great read! Thank you for this.

  • seungmin282

    A friend directed me to your blog, and I couldn’t help but read several pieces in a row. Although I am but a neophyte to the NGO scene, I just want to tell you that you and your blog are great. Thank you for sharing your insights.

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