Baylor students and staff discuss ethics of mission trip photography

Dr. Clark Baker discusses ethical photography with students at the Bobo Spiritual Life Center on Tuesday. Corrie Coleman | Reporter Photo credit: Corrie Coleman

By Corrie Coleman | Reporter

On Tuesday evening in the Bobo Spiritual Life Center, Baylor Missions hosted a discussion about ethical photography on mission trips. The event challenged students to take photos with respect for other people and cultures. Bob Oei, coordinator of worship technology and communications at Baylor, and Dr. Clark Baker, professor of journalism, spoke about visual storytelling and later answered questions from students.

Oei said he believes photography and videography are powerful tools that can trigger change if used effectively.

“Visual storytelling is a thing that can impact people for good or for bad depending on how you use it,” Oei said. “It’s important to wield this tool responsibly.”

Baker agreed, explaining that the job of a photographer is to portray the subject accurately.

“You’re the voice of the subject. Often, the only voice … and so that’s a great deal of responsibility. That’s an illustration of how seriously you should take it, how deliberate you should be in telling stories,” Baker said. “Photographs can be misleading. It’s your responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen, that the story you tell, at least to the best of your ability, is a truthful representation.”

Baker urged student photographers to engage with the people in their photos instead of simply taking a photo and walking away.

“You can’t be surreptitious and really tell a story. You have to engage with a subject. You have to do your research. You have to know who these people are,” Baker said.

Baker hopes that students can approach photography with humility, remaining open to new views and beliefs.

“There are all these things I think I know. But am I willing to unlearn something? Am I willing to be open to things that may really go against what I initially thought?” Baker said.

Oei explained that many photos from mission trips or nonprofits are emotionally manipulative, playing on the viewers’ guilt or shame in order to get donations. Oei encouraged students to instead portray their subject with respect. When taking photos of children, this can mean lowering the camera to their level instead of taking the photo from above.

“You can affect the viewer by how you frame the shot,” Oei said. “Something as simple as getting down on the ground can give a subject dignity and empower them.”

Oei challenged students to examine their own motivations for taking photos on mission trips.

“We all get that little endorphin rush when your photo takes off and gets likes,” Oei said. “But have that question in your head of, ‘What is this for? Is this for me? Do I want everyone to see how great and cool I am? Or am I actually telling the story?”