On pictures

This blog has substantially fewer pictures than you get on your typical white-person-in-a-tropical-country type blog. Part of that is its nature – those are often one-shot affairs partly designed as a place to put pictures, whereas this is intended as a permanent place for my rantings and link-sharing, now that sharing on Google Reader is gone. Another part is that I’ve done this before; this isn’t even my first trip to Malawi, let alone outside the country.

But the big reason is that I’m not sure how cool I am with certain kinds of picture. Scenery is nice, no doubt, as are funny signs and the like. Here’s a picture of the place where I was testing out data collection instruments yesterday:

I love my job

The best kind of picture, though, has people in it: fun pictures of you with friends, or, ideally if you’re a college student spending three weeks of your summer saving the world, a shot of you surrounded by a mob of happy African children. I’ve got some of the former, and even a few of the latter (in some places I’ve been, all the local kids have surrounded me yelling “Jambule!” – “Take a picture!”), but I’m not putting them here.

The reason is a matter of consent, and power dynamics. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where I take a picture of a Malawian and they have truly consented to having their face posted on the internet for everyone to see (let alone turned into an internet meme). Think about the kids, from villages out in Zomba District – have they heard of the internet? Do they know what it is? Or if I’m taking a picture of a Malawian friend, are they thinking there’s potential monetary gain it for them, or, if they’re an employee, that they have to consent because I’m their boss?

And that’s if even I try to ask – I think standard practice is just to take pictures and use them. This is generally legal, and I don’t object to it on principle, but it doesn’t sit totally right with me. Even in cases where I do think that people are okay with me sharing pictures, Facebook is probably a more appropriate forum; at least there are basic privacy controls there. This blog probably won’t get have too many photos of people on it unless I’m in a situation where I think the playing field is decently even between me and the other person, or tilted in their favor.

2 thoughts on “On pictures”

  1. Dear Jason,

    Thank you so much for this post. It’s really refreshing to read! I would encourage you to apply the same caution to FB as well – it’s more and more designed as a public forum, and so I think the same principles are good best practices, even if you do put the time in to work its convoluted privacy settings.

    Good luck in your travels!

    1. Agreed – the only photos of people I have up on Facebook from this trip are of my friend from Malawi’s Army, and somewhat more embarrassing ones of myself. And actually I think he put most of them up.

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