Dignity vs. Humanity
“Dignity” gets an official stamp of approval in a document called the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief. This mostly laudable document says, “We shall portray an objective image of the disaster situation where the capacities and aspirations of disaster victims are highlighted, and not just their vulnerabilities and fears.”
That’s OK, right? The problem is how “recognizing dignity” is practiced. In real life, it means we mustn’t use images or verbal descriptions of:
* people holding out their hands;
* emaciated or otherwise endangered people;
* people in squalid surroundings that show their poverty; or
* people in visible grief or pain.
In other words, we should not show images of or describe people in need — people for whom we might make a positive difference if we vividly tell their story. That, the dignity movement says, strips people of their dignity.
If you’ve ever met poor and suffering people — especially those in the developing world — you know they have dignity. As with Robina, dignity often is their most notable feature: deep wells of self-sufficient personal dignity that simply overshadows their poverty, loss or pain. There’s not a thing in the world you or I or any photographer or journalist can do to diminish that dignity.
It is the height of arrogance to think their dignity needs our protection. It’s like the “White Man’s Burden” of the 19th century: the racist belief that we needed to go out there and save the hapless and benighted “natives” who lacked their own resources. It falsely sets us up as protectors of them.
But guess what: There is no us and them. There’s just us. Some of us live with life-threatening poverty or violence. Some of us live in comfort and prosperity.