Dignity vs. Humanity
Robina died two weeks after I met her. She lived in Uganda, on an island in Lake Victoria that at the time was near ground zero of the AIDS epidemic. She was one of the last living people between the ages of 17 and 60.
If I showed you a photo, you’d see a hollow-eyed, emaciated woman with a sad face and ragged clothes, sitting on a mat in a hut with a dirt floor and holes in the walls.
Her husband had died a few weeks earlier. At that time, in that place, AIDS was an automatic and swift death sentence. Robina knew, the moment he started showing symptoms of AIDS, that she was next.
Her greatest fear, she told me, wasn’t her coming death, but what was ahead for her six young children. Robina’s frail, elderly mother had agreed to care for them. But how could she possibly provide for so many?
Before I left Robina’s home, she reached up and gave me her hand. It was cool to the touch. She smiled — past her pain, past her worry — an unbelievably gracious smile for me, the pale stranger who randomly showed up at her deathbed one day.
I’ve never met royalty. But I imagine what you feel is like what I experienced that day with Robina: mixed awe and awkwardness. A sense of the presence of greatness. Knowing it’s a moment you’ll carry close for the rest of your life.
I’m telling you about Robina because there’s a movement afoot to protect people like her. Not so much from poverty or disease — but from assaults on their dignity. Assaults like the one I’ve just committed by sharing these things with you.
That’s right. There are folks in the international relief and development sector who’d say I’ve undermined Robina’s dignity by revealing details about her situation. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is like saying looking at the ocean undermines its wetness.
“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.
The all-important connection
For those of us with the resources, it’s our duty and our joy to help our brothers and sisters in need. The dignity movement not only diminishes and objectifies the “victims” — but also separates donors from the world they could help change.
For donors to act, they have to know there’s need. And by “know” I don’t just mean the facts and numbers. They must experience the human face of suffering — the stuff that goes straight to the heart, awakens their compassion and motivates action.
Deprive donors of the strong images and gritty information it takes to show the seriousness of the situation, and you’re eliminating the human connection that makes fundraising possible.
Not only will you fail to raise funds, you will fail to serve your donors. Donors want to give — they do so with open, joyful hearts, not grimly or grudgingly. Donors know that generosity to those in need helps make us fully human.
Don’t get me wrong: There are many images we should not use in fundraising because they’re too graphic, too repulsive, too off-point. But please: The people we seek to help are not children who need our protection. And donors are not clueless dolts who will develop stupid attitudes.
Tell the truth. Tell it with drama and precision. Don’t hide painful realities. That’s our duty to our mission — and to our donors. FS
Jeff Brooks is senior creative director at full-service direct response agency Merkle, with offices in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and London.