My Developed Eyes

I’ve done videos in four developing countries: churches overcoming apartheid in South Africa, immigration from Mexico, poor coffee producers in the Dominican Republic, and currently a woman’s group doing education in Honduras. This trend (as well as some articles I’ve read) have led me to think about who am I, a middle class person from the United States, and how does this affect my work?

In Granta magazine, Binyavanga Wainaina, from Kenya, describes satirically “How to Write about Africa.” “Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. (…) Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.”

This demonstrates pretty clearly a case of what happens when developed world eyes look at underdeveloped places, in what some are calling “development pornography.” In many cases, it is exploitation to gain money (supposedly for a good cause). AlertNet, a service of Reuters, put out this article, Aid workers lament rise of ‘development pornography’, explaining how a picture of an emaciated famine victim often only serves to “perpetuate a colonial idea of incapable Africans waiting passively for help from their white saviours.”

I, as a middle class white male from the U.S., see a situation differently than the Honduran teenager with AIDS, living in a two room house, that I interviewed last week. How can I tell her story, instead of my interpretation of her story?

A couple things I have done have worked towards alleviating this.

First, as with Convite, I lived with one of the families featured in the video. This helped me become part of their story, so that I could understand it better. Granted, I was still an outsider, but I attempted to see from their point of view.

Second, I have tried to have people talking for themselves as much as possible. Any government official or scholar may be able to give some overall statistics, but they can not tell the true story of a person who immigrates to feed their family, as in Fuerza.

Third, I have learned to have someone from close to the same situation actually be the one to interview. This arose mainly as a problem of language barriers, but I’ve learned this extends to class barriers as well. It helps people to give a more real interview of their life. I’ve had a middle class interviewer laugh at a lower class interviewee during the interview because of their less refined language. I can’t use anything from this interview.

Fourth, in the DR, I worked with a student who was interested in making documentaries. I had experience from making other documentaries, and could share that. He had the cultural insight I lacked. He now can make other documentaries, without my help.

Will I ever be able to show the world through someone else’s eyes? No. But I do think I can do my best to reduce my developed eyes in my work

Posted in D.R. 2007, Fuerza, old blog, Random Ramblings, Socially Aware Media

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