The Day Tourists Took Pictures Of My African Child

We were on our way back from the most glorious 3 day safari in Amboseli (highly recommend it!), and we had stopped at a small curio shop to use the bathrooms before continuing on our long journey back to Mombasa.

Just as we were about to leave, a tour van filled with middle eastern tourists arrived. They alighted the vehicle with their khaki pants, fanny packs, and cliché safari hats along with their large DLSR cameras strapped around their necks. All of the sudden they notice my Mercy. They all gravitated towards her with big smiles on their faces and talking in their interesting accents telling her how cute and beautiful she is. Not to boast, but my girls do tend to get a lot of attention for their looks probably because they are both beautiful and very different. I tend to let people state their praises and I respond with a gentle, “Thank you.” (Because seriously, what else are you supposed to say to people who admire your kids’ looks?)

Then they whip out their big, fancy cameras, probably full of shots of the elusive Big 5, and start snapping photos of my daughter. One by one, they go stand beside her and take pictures with her.

Everything inside of me cringed.

Mercy seemed OK with it. She wasn’t upset but she definitely wasn’t loving it. I will always make sure my kid feels safe and protected.

I walk over to Kelvin and our driver and say, “Is this ok? How do you guys feel about this?” They just laugh and say it’s all good.

The mommy in me started getting a little territorial about my kid’s face being all stored up in their big fancy cameras. Where was this picture going to go? On the internet? In a photo album? Or just stay on their memory disk and eventually deleted? I don’t know. But I didn’t like (and still don’t like) the thought of my child’s face out there for everyone/anyone/no one to see.

I eventually was over all the picture taking and gently asked Mercy to come to me so we can go.

There is a lot of criticism for foreigners taking photos of African children. I have always tried to be conscious of this but it wasn’t until this particular event that I got a whole new perspective. I was put in their shoes and I really didn’t like it.

It’s a hard balance to figure out which pictures to take and where or how they should be posted, if at all. Social media has made things complicated but at the same time wonderful and beautiful.

As someone who lives in Africa and has family and friends on the other side of the world, social media is so important to staying in touch with my loved ones back home. I have debated on many occasions giving it up but because so many of our dearest people live so far away, it’s often the only way we can keep up with each other.

But I do live in Africa and the majority of my friends are African. I can’t shy away from taking pictures with my friends. Often if I take a picture with an ‘African child’, it’s usually the child of a really good friend of mine. And quite often I am the only one who knows that fact so from the outside it might just look like a photo of another white girl with the African children.

Because we run a non-profit organization, we have to take photos. It is hard to gain donors if they don’t actually see where their money is going. It’s just not effective. We have been criticized in the past for taking photos, particularly of soccer kids, for our own gain. It stung a little bit. However, once these people, who were questioning us, saw how generously we give back to the community through our soccer tournaments, their mouths were silenced.

The other day I was at the field taking photos of our tournament and some guy walked in and made some off handed comment that of course the white girl is taking photos. That stung a bit too. I wanted to stop him and explain why I am taking photos and who will see them and how they will benefit the community but I knew that he would then just laugh at the while girl rambling at him about taking photos.

Because of all this, I have come up with a few personal guidelines when it comes to taking photos here in Kenya:

  • We make sure people are aware of why we are taking photos especially at our soccer tournaments. Kelvin made a whole speech of it actually at the end of our tournament. We also make sure that we follow through with what we say we will do with the photos and that the community will benefit. If we say this will help us get kids into to school, we make sure we pay kids’ school fees.
  • We tell people in the beginning that if they want to be a part of our programs, they need to expect to have their photos taken because these programs don’t run without donors and donors rarely give without seeing where their money is going.
  • In saying that, we also make sure that the photos represent ACCURATELY what is going on. I can take a photo of a young girl with a sad face and say that ‘women are oppressed in this community’ when in reality this girl might just be sitting watching a game unaware her photo is being taken so she doesn’t put on a smile.
  • We only post photos that we know the people featured in the photo would be proud to have it displayed. I don’t want anyone going, ‘Oh man why did they have to post THAT picture of me?’
  • We also try give photos to the people in them. If I take a flattering photo of you playing soccer, I will do my best to send it to you for your own use. I know I love when people do that to me!
  • I personally try not to post snarky photos. I do have a witty sense humour that not everyone gets. I try not to let it come out in photos especially if it might offend someone. Like for instance, the other day there was a white guy in a speedo sun tanning in our compound….I could have taken a picture and posted something witty about this guy getting burnt to a crisp in his tight panties…but I refrained and just giggled to myself. I don’t think I would want someone to do the same to me.
  • Then this might be the most important rule for me: always make sure I am posting and taking a picture of something that is true and meaningful and honouring to all the people in the photo.

Here are two photos of me and Kenyan girls. From first glance, they are both great photos. But knowing the story behind them changes how I use them.

The above photo is one of my all-time favourite photos of me because it very accurately represents my relationship with these girls. This photo captured one of the thousands of moments I have had over time with these girls. I know their names, their stories, their lives. They are dear friends to me that I still keep in contact with. I would be doing the same thing even if there was no camera taking my photo.

The second photo doesn’t have the same story. I had been running into this girl at the field so we started talking and hanging out a bit when we saw each other. However, just before I took this photo, she pleaded with me to help her pay school fees. I had to explain to her our organization’s policy in giving out money for school and, unfortunately, she didn’t qualify. I only took this photo to lighten the mood after our conversation. This is the ONLY photo of me from our recent tournament and I SO wanted to use it, but I didn’t quite feel comfortable considering our conversation. Hopefully, I can meet her again and start building a relationship that goes beyond school sponsorship.

I will admit that I don’t always get it right and I am sure I have offended people. For that, I’m sorry and I am purposing to do better.

Being able to take photos is a gift! I love all the treasured memories I have on my phone or computer or in hard copies. Let’s keep making sure we do it honourably, responsibly, and with meaning.

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