Eleven years ago I had the opportunity to lead a mission trip to Belhar, near Cape Town. Our team worked with a Methodist Church, helping them with the part of the construction on their new building. We took a lot of pictures. Everyone had a camera, most with digital memory sticks that we downloaded onto the team laptop each evening, so that people could take more photos the next day. I had a Motorola Razr phone that could take photos but instead used my digital camera like everyone else, so that we could share our photos with each other. No one on the team had a smart phone. None of our phones were internet capable and wifi wasn’t widely available. I think only two of us on the team had cell phones while we traveled.
In the years since, the way we take photos and share them has changed radically. There’s no need for memory sticks, no need to make more room on them due to limited memory space. Smart phones and wifi are available in most places and cell phone signals are much more available. We don’t just take photos to remember the places and people we meet. We take photos and immediately share them on social media, often with commentary and hashtags.
Last week I read an article on NPR about a woman who posted a photo of herself with a child while she was on a trip to Kenya. She’d commented on her Instagram post that the happiest moment in the child’s life was meeting the woman. Her other comments were widely criticized on social media.
The NPR article articulates several key questions to consider for those of us who take our smart phones with us on mission trips, as we share our photos and thoughts often quickly and without reflection. What stories do the photos tell of the people we meet? Why are we sharing these photos? Are we basking in the gratitude of those who have received us? Did we ask permission of the people in our photos? Will we remain in contact with them after our trip? Have the adults given consent for children to be included in photos? In the U.S. people under the age of 18 are not considered of age to give informed consent – this consideration should be extended beyond our borders, to respect those who are too young to think through the implications of their decision.
When I look back over the photos from the work and our group excursions around Cape Town, I am filled with joy. Some of the people we met in Belhar are no longer with us, and I hold their memory dear. I’m glad we took those photos. As I plan mission trips today, I will continue to take my digital camera, as a discipline in self-control and self-reflection. Not posting photos to social media right away helps me to stay present in the moment with the people who have graciously welcomed me to their community and their church. Waiting to share photos makes time for prayerful reflection. Waiting to share photos reminds me to ask permission, and reminds me to learn people’s names.
Consider how you and your short-term mission team will handle photos during your mission trip. Have the discussion about sharing to social media during your planning meetings, well before you leave on the trip. Be prayerful as you prepare, and be prayerful before you snap a selfie on the worksite.