Sometimes, photography objectifies those we want to help

Over the summer, the proliferation of photography overtakes newsfeeds, Instagrams and Twitter accounts everywhere. When people travel during the time we don't have school, the need to photograph and affirm the trip becomes imperative to those safari-goers and castle-haunters.

Specifically, when students travel abroad, they look to help others in countries that need help. It's a noble goal that many fulfill every single year and every single summer. It's so important to help those in need around the globe and make sure that everyone has that same access to live life free from malaria or dirty water.

Unfortunately, there's something sinister in these trips. People go abroad to help and end up taking semi-colonial attitudes with them. It's as though these places and these people don't exist unless we're there to help them and take pictures to affirm that we've been there and aid was given to those who needed it.

Along with the real help administered by these students, there are pictures that stream back from where students go.

These pictures show small children clamoring all over the collegiate volunteer, smiling and looking right at the camera. Whenever I see these pictures, I always wonder: Why are these pictures coming back? Why do these images make it through?

There might be some that say that these pictures do not pose any harm at all. In reality, these pictures serve to otherize and set apart those that college students go abroad to help. These pictures serve to objectify these children and make them seem scrappy and just barely hanging onto their childhoods. If that's their situation, why do we take pictures with these children?

These pictures may be taken without the consent of these children and certainly without the consent of their parents. It's objectifying the many adolescents that we should be helping when we go overseas.

What makes these children so special to take a picture of and capture forever? It seems to me that picture-taking is far more invasive than we would all like to think. These children, although they do not know it, serve to reinforce our ideas about going abroad to help those in need.

It creates a singular image that we come to expect. It homogenizes those that live abroad and makes them into a singular cute and fuzzy image.

It's a warm and familiar cloak that people can come back with and change their profile picture or update an album with the proof that they've helped so many young people.

I would prefer those images that represent the reality of helping those in need a country that actually needs help.

These pictures just reinforce the privilege that college kids are able to leave their summer residences here in the U.S. and go abroad to help — and then be airlifted out after six or eight weeks.

What the world needs today is less photographic proof that something good is happening and more actual good being done.


Reach the columnist at or follow him on Twitter @peternorthfelt

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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