I suspect the vast majority of people reading this post have seen Dorothea Lange’s photograph entitled Migrant Mother, an image of a woman as she ponders her future during the depression. This 1936 picture has been used innumerable times to illustrate the plight of folks migrating to California in search of work.
I also suspect that very few people have ever seen Mrs. Lange’s second picture above titled: “’Victory through Christ’ Society holding its Sunday Morning Revival in a garage.” In her notes associated with this 1938 picture of the California migrant workers, Mrs. Lange writes that she heard the participants in the revival say:
“He’s such a wonderful savior, Glory to God. I’m so glad I came to home. Praise God. His love is so wonderful. He’s coming soon. I want to praise the Lord for what he is to me. He saved me one time and filled me with the Holy Ghost. Hallalulah! He will fill your heart today with overflowing. Bless His Holy name”
What makes one of these pictures more legitimate than the other in documenting the lives of these migrant workers? How do we know which picture is the right one to use in telling the story?
The Meaning Of Opposite Day
In an early episode of the Nickelodeon cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants, a grumpy Squidward wants to sell his home, but he is concerned that prospective buyers will be turned off by his annoying neighbor, SpongeBob. (SpongeBob is not so much annoying as overly friendly and exuberant.) Thinking he has a solution, Squidward tells SpongeBob that today is “Opposite Day”, where everyone is required to do the exact opposite of what they would normally do. He reasons that SpongeBob will therefore leave him alone, instead of coming to visit frequently as he normally does.
Unfortunately, his plan backfires. Throughout the day SpongeBob continually gets confused about how to interpret other people’s behavior, and what he’s supposed to do in response. In the end, SpongeBob wrecks Squidward’s chances of selling his house by offending his real estate agent. In response, Squidward tells SpongeBob that he “hates” him, but because it’s Opposite Day SpongeBob interprets “hate” as “love” and is delighted Squidward feels that way, a sort of delusional happy ending.
Life certainly gets confusing at times. The challenge for Christian documentary photographers is figuring out which reality to depict visually. A documentary photographer’s fundamental job is to select a portion of reality to capture in an image as the essence of the whole. In any given situation, we can usually find both good and bad. The question is, which best represents the reality as we see it?
In Christian documentary photography, I would submit we seek to capture the good in the context of the bad, always showing God’s promise of hope. To do so, however, we must be able to discern what is good and what is bad. We need to know what day it is.
What Day Is It?
What if today is Opposite Day?
What if being meek is good?
What if having a lot of money is bad? What if money is given to us as a temptation, designed to try to lure us away from God? Or at least to distract us? What if it’s hard for a rich man to enter heaven?
What if the challenges that cause suffering are good? What if they are like fire used to burn off the impurities from ore, to leave only gold?
What if being poor is good? What if, typically, the poor have much more faith than the rich?
What if death is good? What if it’s an end to earthly suffering, and the beginning of eternal life?
What if people in need are not a burden or to be pitied, but instead reflect an opportunity for the rich to show how much they care for others?
What if the least on earth will be the greatest in heaven?
What if praise from the crowds is meaningless?
What if it is better to serve, than to be served?
What if offering charity in a manner designed to draw attention to the earthly giver is not good?
What if we are supposed to love our enemies, rather than fight them?
What if earthly intelligence really isn’t all that wise?
What if today is Opposite Day?
What Should We Photograph?
If today really is Opposite Day, that has a profound effect on what we should seek to photograph.
It’s probably easiest to start with what we should not do in photographs. For starters, we should not aggrandize the rich and famous. I’m not suggesting we must exclude celebrities from all Christian documentary photography, but rather that we avoid portraying them as people to be envied. While Christians are not called to hide a light under a bushel, we also are not to seek earthly rewards for earthly giving. The spotlight should be aimed up, not down. Praise should go only to God.
Certainly there is no reason to focus on earthly possessions, other than perhaps to highlight the temptations they create. Indeed, we should avoid implicitly praising any earthly things.
On the positive side, Opposite Day means we should look at those who are poor or otherwise facing great challenges in a completely different light. Those in need may lack stuff, and require a helping hand, but in many ways they should be appreciated and respected. Indeed, people from less developed regions may have quite a bit they can teach the developed world about faith and joy. Poor doesn’t mean sad, and suffering doesn’t mean bitter. As photographers, we should look for opportunities to show the faith on which people depend and from which they draw joy.
Bottom line: When we see people in challenging circumstances, should our goal be to convey sympathy? Probably not, at least not by itself. That would miss the point. Instead we should search for the deeper meaning and purpose—the good that comes from the suffering. This does not mean photographing with a cold heart, uncaring about the plight of our fellow man. The Lord calls upon us to care for all of His children. But the Lord also calls upon us to recognize that He is good, and that he has some purpose in all that He does, and that He is Lord over everything. His purpose may not jump out, and indeed it may be quite well hidden. But no one said Christian documentary photography is easy.
In a future post, I will squarely tackle the problem of evil. That challenging concept deserves a direct response. However, next time you are documenting someone’s trials and tribulations, please consider, “what if today is Opposite Day? How should I look at the world differently? What normal ways of viewing the world should I turn on their heads?”
This approach can be confusing in that it asks you to reject earthly priorities. This also will lead you to swim against the current. Neither mainstream media nor traditional documentary photography looks at the world this way. They would both much rather focus on the need alone, and sell handkerchiefs to wipe away the tears. If you believe in Opposite Day and photograph these situations accordingly, some people will think you are daft, uncaring or hopelessly delusional. But Christian documentary photography is about more than just capturing a fallen world in its present state: it is about hope and joy. And that’s what makes it so worth pursuing.