Arguably, too many Americans go on short term mission trips overseas. I don’t mean those to be fighting words. I’m merely expressing the other side of a discussion about the value of sending so many folks to help those in developing countries. If I were to do a Christian documentary photography story on that subject, I would want to be open to the idea there are limits to the need for such trips. Analyzing and communicating both sides in a balanced way is essential.
Unfortunately, a balanced assessment does not always emerge in documentary photography. In the world of political advertising veneer, we’ve all seen plenty of examples of complex topics treated shallowly. In my opinion, we need more sophisticated storytelling that communicates the pros with the cons, the good with the bad, in a nuanced way. That last part is equally important. A photo with only black and white, and no shades of gray, would usually be inaccurate and boring to boot.
When putting together a Christian documentary photo essay, the photographer obviously should be guided by the purposes she expects the essay to fulfill. Is the story simply for fund-raising, or does it have some deeper purpose? Do you want to impact your audience beyond merely asking them to send the check? For the majority of stories worth telling where the purpose goes beyond just fund-raising, a case can be made for deeper and more evenhanded storytelling based on the complexities of the topics, the desires of the audience, and most of all the Word of God.
The Stories That Matter Are Complex
What Stories Matter?
Of course that’s a subjective question, but I submit the stores that matter are the ones that help us walk with Christ. They inform us on the topics we need to understand, and they cause us to focus on what is important and Godly. They are not just fundraisers for the sake of the money.
I would offer a few examples of important subjects for Christian documentary photo essays:
- The social gospel. As previously explained, the social gospel compels a Christian to help the helpless, fight injustice, feed the hungry, and protect the environment God gave us by telling their stories.
- The social critic. Christians have an obligation to unmask false gods like materialism and drug addiction. We are obliged to call out whatever is distracting people from the one true God, and revealing sin in this fallen world for what it is.
- Extolling virtues. To praise God and to offer reasons for hope, we are called to bear witness to what God is doing through our brothers and sisters. This provides, among other things, light and insight into the world to come.
- The beauty of faith. Telling stories of the impact faith has on real people can border on evangelism, but if done with a light touch, instead can be a study in how faith heals the soul.
What Makes Them Complex?
We study the Bible our whole lives, without ever fully comprehending all it has to offer. There are levels to it we never fully plumb. The Lord often seems to gives us understanding gradually.
The stories that matter all seem to involve people, and how we interact with each other. Those interactions are never straightforward. They involve competing interests, and present problems that require give and take by all to solve. Further, we can be confused by sin, initially misperceiving the world around us. We can get wrapped up in tradition, and we can read some elements of our Faith as dogma that we never question, even when they aren’t expressly called for in the Bible. All of that makes for appropriate examination through photography.
An Example—Short Term Foreign Missions
Over the last 20 or 30 years, there has been an explosion in Americans going on short term mission trips to the developing world. Not only do we adults go, but we increasingly send our teenage children in the hopes they will find the Lord in such places. The question is, do the trips really serve any purpose?
Evan Sparks, in a provocative article for The Wall Street Journal entitled, The “Great Commission” or Glorified Sightseeing?, offers specific evidence to refute the basic justifications for such trips. For example, in terms of the actual aid given to those the missions are supposed to help, Mr. Sparks offers convincing evidence the aid would be far more effective if instead we sent money to professional missionaries who would hire local labor to do the work. Such an arrangement would not only produce more buildings built and wells dug, it would give jobs to local laborers and stimulate the economy more.
On the spiritual side, Mr. Sparks offers survey evidence that those who attend the trips really don’t feel any sustained spiritual benefit. Survey data on the spiritual uplifting felt by those who receive the aid shows no real benefit. Indeed, Mr. Sparks notes that much of the developing world now has surpassed Westerners in their commitments to Christianity, so who is teaching who?
Mr. Sparks, who apparently has been on many mission trips himself, then offers a variety of suggestions for ways we can improve our desired results by slightly changing the program emphasis, for example, to sustained relationships between churches in the developed world and churches in the developing world.
It’s a fairly short article, and Mr. Sparks does not purport to definitively decide any issues. Rather, the article simply forces the reader to think more carefully about the purpose these trips serve, and best practices in organizing them. In my opinion, we need provocateurs like Mr. Sparks to jar us out of traditional thinking, when perhaps that thinking has outlived its usefulness. And that’s what Christian documentary photography can do.
In the photo that begins this essay, photographer Paul Corbit Brown focuses on the ability of individual volunteers to come from all around the world and partner with each other and with local workers to offer significant help. This cross-cultural teaming produces some interesting dynamics not found when a monolithic church group from the US goes en mass. He explores that facet in detail through a photo essay following aid workers as they dig out Haiti after a storm in 2009. For the essay, visit Shoveling Out Haiti, in issue 6 of NEED Magazine, 2009.
Audiences Want the Full Story
I am well aware of the sound bite. I am familiar with the psychological research that says we can only remember small fragments. I appreciate that we live in a very fast paced society where people only have moments to look at snippets. I believe it all, and it dictates the design of mass media.
Christian documentary photography is not for mass media. The beauty of the digital age is the long tail, the liberation from everyone needing to like the same top 30 songs and watch the same 3 networks for their evening news. We live in a time of segmented markets, and the segment interested in Christian documentary photography may be limited.
I suggest in the aspirational principles and the post on postmodern art that as we craft stories using Christian documentary photography, for audiences we aim at those who are likely to do something with the information. Those people might be from many different parts of the body of Christ, and include policy makers and those who want to help. If the issue is hunger, the targeted audience is all those who potentially can help feed their neighbors. And while that potentially is a broad group indeed, in this fallen world not everyone is so inclined. We need to communicate with those who have at least a glimmer of desire already.
The Lord Is Not Served By Telling Only One Side Of The Story.
The Lord Is Not Afraid Of The Truth
The Lord doesn’t need us to cover for Him. Indeed, He likes the truth. God commands us to “Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts” (Zech. 8:16). It’s really not much more complicated than that.
The Lord Doesn’t Need A Lawyer
We live in an adversarial world. I am an attorney in Washington DC, and I see the roles many of us play. We have:
- Plaintiffs vs. defendants
- Democratic vs. Republicans
- Environmental lobbyists vs. business lobbyists
So many advocates today tell stories from only one point of view. We have to resist that. We’re all people, and whether we realize it or not, we all have a tremendous commonality of interests. Stuff that hurts you more often than not will hurt me too, and frequently what helps me will benefit you. We simply must stop picking only one side of a story to tell when we advocate change.
The Lord has an answer for each problem, and we need to work together to discern what that is. Christian documentary photography, that offers accurate, sophisticated depictions of the good with the bad, can help us all discern the truth, and the best path forward. A good advocate can show both sides of an issue and explain how, on balance, there is a right course of action. We all need to pursue that kind of advocacy.
The Lord Doesn’t Ask Us To Sugarcoat The Truth
It’s just my opinion, but I think sometimes we as Christians struggle to balance two Biblical concepts: Faith and critical thinking. And our communication sometimes reflects that struggle.
On the one hand, we are taught to have Faith, which can sometimes slip into blind acceptance of what are in reality worldly concepts. We should have Faith in God, but not mistakenly have Faith in our understanding of His commands.
In a related vein, we are to encourage each other, and build each other up, which sometimes means we avoid disagreement or debate. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). I have been to church meetings where that passage makes it very difficult for people to clearly say what they mean.
We also are charged to see the good, and focus on it, praising God in the process. “[W]hatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Phil. 4:8). But I do not think that means turning a blind eye to the evil that exists in this fallen world.
Faith and caring and a focus on the good are all important principles by which to live. At the same time, we are called to think critically. Some might be surprised to learn the Bible strongly supports critical thinking. “A simple man believes anything, but a prudent man gives thought to his steps.” (Pr 14:15). We are to, “Test everything. Hold on to the good.” (1 Thes 5:21). For a more in-depth discussion regarding how the Bible supports critical thinking, see The Bible and Critical Thinking.
Beyond those direct discussions of critical thinking, we are all called to defend our faith with worldly facts. The First Epistle of Peter declares that Christians must always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you … with gentleness and respect” (3:15). The study of evidence to support the Christian faith is referred to as apologetics. To learn more, see, for example, www.Apologetics.com, which seeks to “Challenge believers to think, and thinkers to believe.” Clearly we are not to shy away from evidence and logic.
We need to be able to unflinchingly see evil, acknowledge the fallen nature of the world and reconcile it to our faith. Our stories may not leave out key facts we perceived to be inconvenient, but rather must reconcile everything we see. Personally, I am committed to do that. I studied the evidence for years before committing to Christ. In fact, as my first website, I wrote a rather elaborate summary of all of the apologetic arguments pro and con with regard to the existence of God. It was only after thoroughly considering hundreds of pages of arguments that I felt I could without reservation believe in Christ. That’s still faith, deliberately sought.
Consistent with that approach, I will always try to communicate each story, respecting all of relevant facets the story naturally presents. I may not always get it right, because sin will surely cloud my eyes, but I will do my best to discern the truth.
The Lord is Interested in the Credibility of His witnesses
Christ calls us to witness, and implicit in that is the need for effective witness. To be effective, the witness needs credibility. One of the most successful missionaries of all time, the Apostle Paul, constantly protected his trustworthiness. Several factors added to Paul’s credibility, some within his control and some not:
- Paul made sure he never profited from the teaching he did, either by asking for compensation, or by teaching principles that would somehow feather his own nest. Indeed, Paul worked as a tent maker to support himself while teaching.
- Paul encountered much pain as a result of teaching. He was stoned on more than one occasion, put in jail a couple times, and did without food regularly.
- While he admits to a weakness, Paul earnestly tried to live the Christian life he taught to others.
- Paul worked hard as a teacher. He traveled great distances, and worked long hours.
- In Paul, Christ revealed Himself to a person who had been very antagonistic to Christians. Paul was certainly not a Christian by tradition. It took a lot to change his mind, indeed the very presence of Christ.
- Paul had a strong, analytic mind, and did not back away from a fair debate.
Likewise, anyone who pursues Christian documentary photography should work hard to maintain their own credibility. Losing that credibility by portraying an issue in a biased way—failing to acknowledge the other side—does not serve the Lord’s purpose, for it means fewer people will listen.
Please make no mistake: I am committed to ruthless editing, even if I myself don’t always accomplish it. Like any writer, I need an editor who can review my work with a clear eye and cast out what adds to little value. As Blaise Pascal said in 1657 (very loosely translated from French), I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time. For most of us, being concise is hard work. Storytelling is an art, and less is always more. But let’s make sure we are telling the true story, with credibility.
Ask yourself, what do you want to come of your story? If you just want someone to send a check, a gesture that results in more money for a cause, then maybe you can convince people to write checks based on a few photos showing people in need. But if your goal is higher than that, and you want to help people develop an understanding, and you want people to act off that proper understanding, and you want the wisdom of the crowd to figure out sustaining solutions, you have more work to do than a few pictures depicting need. Perhaps most importantly, to help your audience in their walk with Christ, you need to convey a genuine understanding well beyond the fact there are people in need.