From Flies in the Eyes to Smiling Selfies: The difficulty of portraying children who’ve survived life’s very worst
I stood at the back of the small dusty yard, angry, confused and shaking. The tears in my eyes betraying the fact that the young girl I’d just interviewed on a World Vision trip had touched something deep inside. Something I couldn’t ignore. Something holy.
Wearing a sleeveless black top, exposing arms that were too thin for her age, 14-year-old Tete’s eyes stared down at her interlaced fingers. Though she at first appeared timid, her confident tone of voice made it quickly apparent that Tete had an internal strength about her. She may have been one of the most self-assured children our team had met on this visit to the rural outskirts of Kinshasa, the capital city of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
As we sat on the ground surrounded by curious neighbours, Tete told me about the difficulty of finding clean water in the region. She used to walk 45-minutes, three or four times every day, to the nearest water source. It was exhausting. But now that a rainwater collection system had been installed by one of World Vision’s partners in the DRC, they had enough water to see them through the dry season.
I also learned that Tete was the fifth of six children — all girls. She was in her first year of secondary school. Her favourite subject was French. She hoped to be a dressmaker someday. Though I was impressed by the pragmatism of her aspiration, it was all fairly standard stuff. Recognizing that we were running behind schedule, I flipped my notebook shut and prepared to wind down our brief conversation.
But Tete wasn’t done talking. There was something more she needed to share. Her voice quieter, less confident than before, she told me that her mother had died just ten months earlier. And for the first time since we’d met, Tete looked directly into my eyes.
We both paused for an instant, eyes locked in silence, acknowledging the heaviness of her revelation. What couldn’t have been more than a second or two felt like an hour. In that shared moment, I could sense this young girl’s profound grief. But also, her remarkable strength and the complexity of her emotions.
In that moment, my professional barrier was overwhelmed by the pure humanity of the situation. It was a staggering reminder that the tasks, multiple deadlines and many expectations of a trip like this should never take priority over the profound power of human connection.
There would be no more questions. Tete had exposed her wound and I refused to push any deeper into it. Refused to cause her any more pain.
I was to learn later that Tete’s mother had died of an easily treatable throat infection. With no local health centre and not enough money to reach Kinshasa for treatment, her mom had suffered for three months before finally succumbing to the infection. At the time, our staff hadn’t known of her illness so had been unable to help.
After thanking Tete for speaking with me, I packed away my notebook and pen as the photographer travelling with us began capturing images to go along with the story. And that’s when I found myself shaken, as I overheard him encouraging young Tete to smile for the camera.
Our photographer hadn’t heard the interview. Hadn’t learned about the deep wound Tete had just revealed or the difficulty of her situation. He had multiple responsibilities on this trip and had been off capturing hopeful images that would portray the effectiveness of our work. He was just doing his job. But after the moment Tete and I had shared, the directive to smile for the camera seemed crass. Inhumane.
And Tete was having none of it. Even if she could have smiled, after recalling her mother’s death, she refused to do so. She hadn’t been informed that, in 2019, a bright wide smile is a much better way to portray dignity than with ‘flies in the eyes’ photos.
It hasn’t always been this way. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, World Vision and other humanitarian organizations gained the well-earned reputation for picturing vulnerable children with rust-coloured hair and distended bellies, insects buzzing around their hollow faces.
At the time, it was understood that if you want people to donate to your cause, you need to show them the saddest images possible in order to tug on their heart strings. If you don’t portray the depth of deprivation, people won’t understand the urgency to respond.
And it worked — for a time.
Thankfully, those within and outside the NGO community began to realize that the images we were sharing with the world were degrading and disrespectful. Would you want to be photographed at your very lowest point of despair and then have those images printed on a glossy pamphlet or posted to a website? Of course not.
Over the course of the last two decades, most reputable humanitarian organizations have moved away from those kinds of photos, recognizing that they don’t respect the inherent dignity of the people we serve. Yet those images, though insensitive and exploitive, were powerful. To this day, World Vision and other NGOs are still fighting the reputation of being the “flies in the eyes” people. Purveyors of poverty porn.
To counter that reputation, we’ve emphasized — maybe over-emphasized — the smiling child, the happy child, the child whose every need has been met. The girl or boy on the pathway to success and a bright, victorious future.
It’s a compelling narrative. A narrative we seek to reinforce as a way of highlighting the effectiveness of our programming. But all this optimism, all this positivity denies one very important truth: human beings are multidimensional. You are. I am. And so are children like Tete.
Humanitarian work is, or at least should be, about more than providing food security, clean water and the opportunity to receive a meaningful education. At its core, the work of an NGO is about upholding the dignity of those who have suffered.
Whether it’s local offices consulting with a community on how best to address their needs, staff in the field listening respectfully to the wishes of a child and his or her family, or the way NGOs market their work to Canadians, the goal must always be a restoration of the God-given nobility of being human.
It’s a privilege, an honour, to amplify the unique and powerful stories of the people who entrust them to us. It is a sacred trust. After all, these are their stories — not ours. They are the heroes of their own journey, not us.
At that moment in the DRC, after Tete had just shared her broken heart, asking her for a smiling selfie would have betrayed the complexity of her emotion and the depth of her humanity. Just another kid with a sad story who is forced to smile stiffly while some stranger from Canada gets a photo for Instagram.
Development work is far from simple, far from easy. It’s real, it’s raw. It’s difficult. It doesn’t always end with smiles and laughter.
And sometimes it leaves you shaking at the edge of a dusty yard in the DRC hoping the long-term work of your organization will make a difference in a kid’s life, knowing she’s made a life-changing difference in yours.
World Vision Canada