why the faceless photos?

kid collageA friend messaged me yesterday in reference to this photo I posted:

“I find the photo collage artistic but disturbing. The lack of faces could be a privacy thing, I think, but it also removes them from seeming human.

It presents this picture of this mass of faceless children that seems like it takes away any kind of personalization in a way that implies a western-savior complex… 

It sort of just seems to be showcasing your work as a way of making other people feel good about themselves for praying for these faceless people in a way that I have never seen from you before.”

Shocked. Hurt. Disappointed. That’s how I felt when I read her words. I’m used to people accusing me of things that just aren’t true, but I thought she knew my heart, hence the disappointment.

I love these kids with everything in me. My heart’s longing is for each of them to know how beautiful, loved, and absolutely amazing they are. The idea that I’m de-humanizing them? Incomprehensible to me. The exact complete opposite of what I would ever want to do.

I replied: “Let me think about what you said before I respond. For now, I’ll just say that the HPC child protection policy states that we cannot show faces of kids online. I’m a little surprised and hurt by your accusations, but I know my own heart and can’t worry about every person who wants to question my motives.”

I told her I would ask Alli, my friend and HPC Director, for a quote about the why behind this policy. Alli, bless her heart, sat down to give me 2-3 sentences, and 1800 words spilled out.

I asked her if I could share them here, and she generously said yes.

(Also, my friend apologized and said she was trying to understand these issues from an academic perspective–she’s studying human rights in grad school–and didn’t mean to accuse/attack/hurt me. She was just trying to start a dialogue. All is forgiven. Please don’t say anything unkind about her in the comments, thanks.)

The Hard Places Community’s official stance on photographs/videos of our clients
by Alli Mellon, Founding Director:

To our friends, family, and supporters,

I, like many of you, have traveled the world and taken countless photos of beautiful children in hopes of remembering the way they touched my heart, remembering to pray for them, and in hopes of bringing home a little piece of that child’s story to show you. You would sit for hours, patiently, while I went through every photo and told you the horror behind each child’s living situation, their broken homes, their hungry bellies.

I faithfully made slideshows and, later, videos of the most helpless children, hoping that you would be stirred to help them. I wrote newsletters showing the children’s faces close up so that you could see the rotting-out teeth, the starvation carved around their eyes, the way that their faces lit up with just a kind word or a hug from me, a random stranger.

I showed you their pictures, but the faces of these children stayed in poverty. They stayed in India. They stayed in Africa. They stayed in inner-city America, and the images forever frozen in our minds of a happy, dirty child grew up. They grew older. These small, easily managed, cuddly, stinky babies grew into tall, desperate, hurting adults, and instead of praying for ways to help these broken people, you gave money to send me on another mission trip. You gave out of the compassion in your heart. You gave out of your love for Jesus. You gave out of your love for me. You sent me, again, because you believed that I could make a difference in the lives of those people.

But I was on to another country. I was on to another mission. And the faces frozen in those photographs waited…and waited… and waited….because they believed that the people who took the pictures would come back and give them a better life. They believed that the people who took those pictures would remember them.

Some people call the cycle I’ve described above part of the “great western-savior complex,” referring to western people going in to “fix” the problems of struggling nations or people of color without understanding their history, needs, or the region’s current state of affairs. I must admit that in my younger years of missions, I did not understand the history or needs or much at all about people of color or struggling nations.

I simply knew there was a fire shut up in my heart that was burning to get out. It was a fire of hope, of love, of life, and God never gave it to me to keep for myself. He gave it to me to take to the broken, where I stretched out my unworthy, trembling hand and did my best to give it away.

Did I go onto the mission field with all the right motives, all the right moves, all the right ideas about how to give this hope, love and life away? Certainly not. I know that now. I, like the images in those pictures I showed you, have grown up. A lot. I’ve opened my eyes and learned from people around me who are smarter, older, and who’ve spent a lifetime on the mission field, loving people well.

I can say with honesty, though, that my early mistakes were forged from a loving heart. A heart that longed to see the captives set free and the dirty cleansed and the cracked, bare, bleeding feet of the orphan taped back together again.

That was early-missionary-Alli. I had a lot to learn. I have been humbled. I have been taught. I have had my eyes opened wide. But I’m not there yet. Maybe now I’m middle-missionary-Alli. I’ve learned a few things, but have oh-so-much-further to go in my true understanding of how to love better. How to love best.

So, in sharing that with you and admitting that I am still in the learning process, I’d like to share with you something I learned through the images of children sold for sex by their own families. Except they are not just images. They are not just photographs. They are people that I’ve known now for seven years and watched grow into lanky pre-teens and young adults. I met them when they were three-year-olds. Five-year-olds. Fifteen-year-olds. They are boys and girls. Preschoolers and high schoolers. Orphans and street kids and those in big families.

Since my first mission trip at age 16, I’ve known that each child has a name and each child has a story. I was shown this by the early leaders who took me, an insecure teenager who did not know my own name or story, into the hard places. They never taught it out loud, but by watching the way these leaders loved people and spoke to them as if they were people of importance, it sunk deep into me and became a part of who I am. I value names, I value stories and have emphasized it to every team I’ve ever led, every team I’ve ever trained.

What I didn’t know, what I didn’t realize, is that each child’s story is his own. Each child’s story is hers to tell, if she wants to tell it. If she can trust you not to blast it all over Facebook, Instagram and the internet. If he can trust you to carry his story with dignity, not shame. If he can put it in your hands and know that you would only peel your fingers back, gently revealing his pain, to someone whose compassion for him is the same as yours, to someone who would never laugh at him or spit judgments at him like “gay” and “he had a choice.”

These children have trusted me with their biggest secrets, their darkest shame. They have trusted the Hard Places Community with them, too, because Alli and the Hard Places Community are one and the same. There is no me over here and work over there on a separate Facebook page. We are united in all that we do. When people see me, they see HPC. If you are part of HPC, they do the same with you.

And guess what? These children, the ones we like to photograph and post for all to see, a whole lot of them are on Facebook these days too. A whole lot of them scroll down and see my pictures, and see your pictures, and read our posts.

How would I feel if I were the smiling, dirty, stained image that I happened across on social media? How would I feel if the whole world could read of my rape, my torture, my pain and see it etched in the lines around my eyes and the smile I forced for another camera? How would I feel if I were the one who was stripped bare for camera after camera after camera and the pedophile behind it, only to find yet more images of myself on the Facebook page of a person I deemed “safe”?

I’ve learned about dignity. I’ve learned that dignity is so vulnerably placed in the hands of those we live with and amongst, and that it can be snatched away at any moment. I’ve learned that dignity is something the world at large thinks broken people don’t have. Don’t need. Don’t crave. I’ve learned that dignity can be restored with respect, words of truth, and seeing others through eyes of equality.

But I’ve also learned that dignity can be stolen through the eye of a camera or iPhone lens and destroyed in social media. In the Hard Places Community, we strive to restore dignity to those who are broken. We desire to see people as more than frozen images on a page who were captured and held hostage for our personal gain, our support raising needs, or our glory because we are heroes out to save the world. We strive to restore dignity to those who are broken because that’s what Jesus did for us on the cross. We knew how it felt to be ashamed, and we know how it feels to have our chins lifted up til we look straight into the eyes of Jesus Christ and see His love for us shining there.

We want to see people as individuals, uniquely carved by the hand of God, and be found worthy to carry their stories to those with ears of compassion and hearts to act, not just feel.

That’s why the Hard Places Community does not post pictures of the faces of sexually exploited children on our website or our Facebook pages. That’s why we try to protect the stories of each child when we tell them by changing the names and locations so that you could never pinpoint who that child is. We don’t want to steal any more from them. Sometimes we post pictures of our friends who have not been exploited but who are at risk, but it’s always with those friends’ permission and they are often the first to “like” our post.

Some of you may not understand this, and feel like we are robbing you of the right to see the work you support. Some of you just might not like it and grow weary of pictures of hands and feet and crafts and soccer balls. We grow weary of those kinds of pictures, too, and I’ve often fantasized about posting a picture of our kids facedown in worship or the smile on S’s face when we put a new shirt on his soiled body or the courage in R’s eyes when he testified against the pedophile who raped him nightly for five years… but instead, I invite you to come and meet them. Come and play soccer with them. Come and teach them that there is a world bigger than the dark one they’ve known, and that our God is so big, Our God is so mighty He’d send you all the way across the ocean just to love them and sing to them and dance with them.

I still have a lot to learn, and with God’s help am getting a little better at loving step by step, bit by bit. Let us boldly take the knowledge and wisdom He’s given us for this day, and use it until He magnifies it and makes it bigger and clearer and brings our world even more into focus with His glorious plans for us.

To Him be all glory,

p.s. I’m so thankful for Alli’s beautiful words and her heart behind them. And I have MANY (like you would not believe how many–ha! yes you would!) more words to add of my own. Will work on that and get it out soon. Any questions? Please ask!

5 thoughts on “why the faceless photos?

  1. Dana

    So grateful to read this – very moving. I agree with Glen, this should be published and distributed with hopes of reaching many more people.

  2. Pingback: no simple answers – Marla Taviano

  3. Glen

    This should be published and distributed to anyone who is going or has gone on a mission trip. It makes me re-think pictures and things I’ve posted after trip.
    Thank you!

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