#Selfieblan (or How to Take Photos in Haiti)

I received a message from a reader recently who was frustrated and simply needed to vent. I maintain this invitation to any of my readers, especially those who work in the nonprofit sector: if you ever need to get something off of your chest and can’t do so publicly for fear of offending donors, volunteers, or board members, you can vent to me. I’m a good listener/reader. If you lived in the Jacmel area I’d invite you to come sit on my porch, have a beer, and complain about whatever it is that’s got you stressed. Because I understand. But for those without access to my porch, my inbox is open to you. And even if you say something that inspires a blog post on my part, I promise to keep your rants anonymous. I think that it is one of the greatest problems facing the nonprofit sector that the majority of people think that it is uncriticizable because they’re all “helping” people. The individuals who carry out the work who have the closest perspective to the situations at hand and the most real relationships to the beneficiaries and the greatest sense of understanding are silenced in an attempt to allow the people who are giving the money and making the decisions to live blindly disillusioned about whether they really truly are helping or not or helping in the most effective way. It’s a crime, really. But I digress.

Back to my reader who wrote me. She works with children’s programs in Haiti and in her rant she said, “If have one more person come down to take selfies with [the kids in our programs], I’m going to scream!” Later in the message she referred to these people as “selfieblan”, which honestly cracked me up and I call upon all of my readers to make that hashtag go viral immediately. This subject has gotten a lot of mileage lately with articles like The Onion’s, 6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture, and the Tumblr account, Humanitarians of Tinder. Some of my fellow Haiti expat bloggers have also shared personal experiences such as Jillian’s Missionary Confessions, When in Haiti Bring Your Camera, but Also Bring Your Respect. (<– Seriously, click on those if you haven’t seen them yet.) So I don’t need to repeat anything that’s already been said, but I do want to add my voice to the common cry that implores volunteers and donors who visit programs in cultures not of their own, “Quit offending local people with your photos!” It’s not that difficult. It is understood that you need to take photos to tell the story of your trip and hopefully to promote growth of the projects you’re visiting, but there’s a better way to do it with dignity for everyone involved. Especially now with the pervasiveness of social media in our lives now we need to be extra sensitive to the images that we’re sharing of others that will be out there for the world to see. So here are a few of my simple Green Mango suggestions of things to remember when you’re on a volunteer trip with your camera or smartphone in your hand.

Remember, it’s not about you.

Although modern voluntourism has become much more about the experience of the person on the trip than the benefits for the local people they are tripping to, the truth is that all of your Facebook friends already know what you look like. By simple virtue of having taken the photo, you’ve proven that you were there. You do not need to be the center of attention. Use your photos to show off the beauty of the place and the people that you are visiting. Use them to share things about this world that your Facebook friends might not already realize.

People are not Props!

Do not use local people in your photos just to make yourself look like a better White Savior. Jesus told all of the little children to come to him so that he could show them how God loves them, not so he could take a selfie with them.

from kevinwgarret on flickr

from kevinwgarret on flickr

Use photos to represent relationships.

If you won’t be able to tell anyone the names of the people in the photos with you later, then you probably don’t need to be taking their photo. If you’ve made good friends on your trips and want to remember the times you’ve enjoyed with them, then take pictures with those people. The little boy that you gave a sucker to in the street, probably not. The old woman that asked for some money to feed her kids, probably not. The cooks that made your meal every day and laughed with you when their piklies was so spicy that it made your eyes water, sure.

Ask Permission!

The fact that I even have to say this makes me ashamed of humanity. Don’t ever take someone’s picture if they don’t want you to. If you want to take pictures of vendors in the market, buy something from them first for crying out loud, then ASK if you can take their picture. If someone just walked into your place of work and started taking photos of you without any explanation, I doubt you’d be too happy either. Just ask. And if they say no, move on with your life.

Haiti 1744

A photo from my early days in Haiti. I have no idea who these half naked boys are and never saw them again.

Put yourself in their shoes.

Or in their parent’s shoes. How would you feel if a stranger came up and stuck a camera in your face? How would you feel if you knew that strangers were taking photos of your children and would be posting those photos to the internet as if they were best friends with your kids? Do you want your photo taken when you’re not feeling your best, are sad, or sick? Or just when you haven’t bathed for the day, had your coffee, are still in your pajamas? What if you had a flat tire and someone stopped to help you but before they leave they ask to take a picture to share with all of their friends? You’d know that person was just looking for a pat on the back and wasn’t really interested in helping another human who just needed help.

Make it come back to the subject.

If you’ve asked permission and they’ve agreed to let you take their picture, they’re probably doing so with the expectation that you’re going to take that photo and use it to promote programs and raise funds that will benefit them in some way. I learned to be even more specific with individual’s who ask to take photos at our organization, like at our school. If you want to take photos of our school and the kids there, then you’d sure better be sending some money back to us sometime in the future. You had better take those photos and tell everyone who sees them exactly how they can donate to us. Don’t use our programs and our participants to simply share with people about all of the need that you’ve seen. Be actively searching for ways to help satisfy those needs that you’ve seen through those photos. Otherwise the subjects just end up feeling used and exploited.

Hire a local photographer.

The first time I see a volontourist or mission team do this, I will give them the Do Gooder of the Year Award. There are people here who make a living as photographers and are able to get a lot more interesting photos than you because of their existing place within the culture. Hire one of them to join you for the week and take photos of all of your activities. You’ll be providing another local person with a job, you’ll be getting better photographs, you’ll be free to focus on the work that you’re doing and the people that you’re getting to know, and you’ll end up in more photos yourself without looking like a vapid narcissist. It’s a win-win for everybody!

There you have it. Happy picture taking! If you have any funny examples or stories of you breaking these rules, post them in the comments below.


  1. I could not agree more And I have a funny story for you. Our last trip to Haiti we visited Jacmel for the first time and our family went cliff jumping/diving at Bassin Bleu, where I as the good mom dutifully video taped, husband, sons and guide diving from the highest point. Then naturally when the strangers went I did not tape them- of course! But when one of the fellows did a HUGE bellyflop to which everyone felt his pain that is before we, along with his companions, burst out laughing, but then the disappointment from ALL that I did not video tape them too?! They had a camera, they did not ask me to, I never even thought! I had already offered to take a photo of the two couples with their camera, just as a common curtesy among people. But I definitely felt badly that I did not tape them diving- oops- who knew, next time I will ask :0)

    This is a one off and not relevant to the most important message of being respectful but that day it was “not cool” on my part!

    And just a side note, I diligently tried to find a local photographer for family photos, I even messaged Zanmi Lakay, hoping to give work to a student or someone but I did not get a reply and sadly we did not get a good family photo :0( I could determine from your messages that you were in the US or I certainly would have sent you a message.

    We also brought a polaroid this time and took family photos for people, they get the pics that spit out and not us :0)- this was a hit! I should mention we have known many of the people for years so I don’t know if it would be as accepted by strangers but I might guess they would like it too… we all like family photo’s, right. I also noticed that with the degree of people who already have photo’s on phones if there was a way to print their pics for them, they would love it!

    Just a few thoughts for what might be a better way for people to take pictures that actually is pleasant for others not ourselves.

    Thanks for always telling it like it is, I sincerely enjoy your writing and I have always thought you should make a go of the vineyard idea :0)… (it was from an old post but I loved the business ingenuity of all the ideas!)


  2. Hi there. I agree completely with what you say.
    The good news is that we have several expert photographers over 18 years of age at Art Creation Foundation For Children and many of out amazing volunteer groups hire one or more to chronicle their visits!!! Plus, several U.S. based professional photographers have hired one young man in particular to work side by side as an assistant. Good for everyone. See our FB page for an article about him photographing all over Jacmel with a new friend , young man from Ile a Vache as well. Best to all. Judy Hoffman, founder of ACFFC

  3. I love this! So glad his message is getting out. I am a “visitor” to Haiti but this is still very heavy on my heart. I am very careful to tell my missions teams this simple principle. “Don’t take pictures of everything. Always ask permission. Make sure your photos reveal the beauty and community of Haiti. When others see your photos their hearts should be moved and stirred to visit. Not because they saw the rubble in the streets left over from the earthquake and want to be the “savior”…but because they saw a beautiful group of people who they now want to meet! Because the land is gorgeous and inviting. Take photos how you’d want photos taken of you, your family, home, city, etc. You’d want to look your best! They’re no different then us and deserve that same chance. I want people to see the REAL Haiti – not the one covered in earthquake debris but the one with incredible mountains, the most hospitable people, the cutest kids, beautiful colors and homes, amazing music, church’s on every corner, talented people, a beautiful language, etc…” I want the Americans photos to display the Haiti that the news channels have trouble showing! Haiti is impeccable and the people are unlike anyone you’ll ever meet. It’s BEAUTIFUL. And our Haitian friends LOVE photos when there taken in community, family, and with respect.

    Okay, now I’m gonna go pack my bags and visit my Haitian friends and family now, I miss them even more now. 😍❤

  4. I worked as a buyer for a nonprofit retail store which was owned and operated by a religious nonprofit. All proceeds from sales returned to Haiti, I am also a photographer. Some of my best pictures were taken in Haiti, I always asked if I was going to take a picture of a person, but most of my photographs are of the beauty that is Haiti. With the recent viral photograph of the dead toddler on the beach, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to take pictures in places and situations like this. Of course I’ve seen horrendous things in Haiti, and have never been tempted to lift my camera. But I’ve seen a splendid old woman going to market with a ring of live chickens tied to the brim of her huge sun hat, and wished I could take that one. Without photographers after the earthquake the world would have not been so mobilized to help. It’s a fine line, I never want to take advantage of anyone, I know I could never have taken that picture of that dead child. Taking photographs of my artists told the story of the hard work it takes to bring this beauty to market. The pictures I brought back showed a side of Haiti not on the evening news, people respond to positive images, I can’t tell you how many times I was told how much it changed a viewers attitude about Haiti. As I said, it’s a fine line to walk, each situation and photographer is different. I’m glad for your article, to make people think before they shoot. I love Haiti with all my heart. I can’t wait to come back.

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