Luther College Chips

Ethics of photography on study abroad and mission trips

Ben Selcke

Ben Selcke

Ben Selcke

Ben Selcke, Sports Editor

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Studying abroad, mission trips, and humanitarian efforts are all valuable experiences that many students participate in each year. They allow us to learn and develop. However, they also give us an unexpected excuse to exploit.

It happens often during trips abroad. Someone visits a new country and feels compelled to take pictures of everything they see. This sometimes includes children. When they return from the trip, they post the pictures they took, some of which might include the children they interacted with on the visit. It is these pictures that are posted over social media that are problematic.    

There are ethical questions that we should be asking ourselves about these pictures. First, these are children, and before taking that picture, did you ask for permission from the parent? What about permission from the children themselves? In the United States, if a stranger with a camera suddenly started to take pictures of your children, you would have reason to be concerned and angry at the stranger. Shouldn’t these same rules apply elsewhere in the world, too?

It is almost unthinkable that I or anyone could go to a school I was volunteering at tomorrow in Decorah and take pictures of children without their parents’ permission and post them online. However, this is what happens frequently on service trips and study abroad trips.

Thinking more critically about the issue, who do these pictures benefit? Does that child you took a picture with or of gain anything from its existence? What do you gain from the picture?

Maybe people will think better of you since you dedicated your summer helping someone in need. Maybe you seem a little more interesting since you traveled somewhere new, and maybe you want to get your social media accounts more “likes.” My point is that people use children as a prop to serve their own needs.

These pictures from trips to developing nations, which depict mostly people of color, contrast pictures from trips to Western Europe. In these pictures you have cities, buildings, and visits to museums. What are not typically included in these pictures are, for example, French school children playing at a park. I suspect if you did you might be reported to the local authorities. If you do for some reason have pictures of children at a park in France, I also suspect you asked permission from the parents of the children to take their picture in the first place.

Now I cannot say definitively that someone did not get permission from the parent of the kids whose house a mission trip was helping to rebuild, but correct me if I am wrong — they probably did not ask in advance.   

By all means, document a trip with pictures. Just remember to ensure the pictures you take do not exploit children as a prop.   

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