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What is Ethical Storytelling? White Saviourism

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

It has been a while but we are back with another article under our, ‘What is Ethical Storytelling’ series. Today, we will be talking about white saviourism and the negative impact that this has on marginalised people.

White saviourism is defined as a white individual going into certain communities to ‘rescue’ marginalised people. As innocent as this may sound, it has unfortunately created harmful tropes in relation to people of colour being perceived as helpless. Examples of white saviourism are charity campaigns that involve famous celebrities flying to the global south to try and raise funds for a specific community. I’m sure that we have all seen a stereotypical image of a white individual holding a black baby in their arms or crying at the sight of poverty and suffering. The reiteration of these images has created a normalisation of black and brown bodies only existing within the context of poverty and suffering, to the point where anything other than these specific settings is a cause for scepticism.

White saviourism is not an ethical mishap that is only subject to white individuals (despite the name) over the years, it has become more apparent that local photographers who reside within the global south are also repeating this mistake and viewing themselves as saviours that will swoop in and capture tear-jerking images that will move people and create images that they believe will ultimately save the person who is being photographed. The reproduction of images that show marginalised communities receiving aid from a charity, maintains the damaging concept of people of colour being reliant. So, here are a few ways to break the cycle and start telling stories that capture the reality of what is around you but in a way that dignifies those being photographed.

  • First of all, always remember that neither you, nor the organisation that you are working for are saviours! You are collaborating with the community that has allowed you into their space for a common goal, which ultimately is to better their quality of life.

  • Secondly, how would you like those that you love and care about to be presented? Would you want an image of a loved one with flies on their face, being circulated in the media? There is no way to glamorise suffering but there are ways to dignify the person who is suffering, it just requires you, the photographer, to make a little extra effort by thinking of and researching different ways on how you can achieve this. Does it involve you working with the community on a project that expresses the issue and shows how funds are essential to the community’s development? Does it involve you photographing objects rather than a person, or maybe the person’s identity can be hidden?

  • Thirdly, every photo editor is different, some are open to ideas and feedback and some are not. Having an initial conversation about the type of images required and how this can be achieved in an ethical way can go a long way, it will also help you decide whether you would want to work with that organisation again.

The path to ethical storytelling is not a straight or easy one! It requires consistent and deliberate learning, unlearning and at times, speaking up when an organisation is asking you to do things that you know are wrong. Your job as a Photographer is to document the ‘truth’ (which is subjective of course…). Focus on different ways that you can capture this ‘truth’ without belittling the people whose ‘truth’ you are documenting.

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