In high school, I volunteered in one of the poorest areas of Appalachia. If you are not familiar with the area, it’s one of the most economically challenged regions in the United States. While it used to be a flourishing coal mining hub, when the mines shut down, generations of people were forced into poverty.
But one of the amazing things about Appalachia is its incredible beauty. The mountain vistas, morning fog and sprawling wilderness make for breathtaking views. There are fantastic photo ops, and sure enough, I found myself standing on a cliff overlooking a valley, smiling for my own camera.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the women I had talked with just moments earlier, a woman who struggled to keep her children fed and the power on in her home. I don’t think she realized I saw her, but I did, and I certainly saw the look of utter disgust and contempt on her face.
I was flooded with shame. What the heck was I thinking? For a moment, I forgot about the people I was working with and my purpose there. I was supposed to be helping, and here I was, photographing myself. I put the camera down and considered how I thought of mission trips.
Mission Trips and Selfies
During the summer days filled with beach vacations and relaxing time off, many people plan a getaway of a different sort – a service trip. Churches, youth groups and service organizations travel around the country and across the globe to volunteer where help is needed. And while it’s an incredible and awesome thing to be in solidarity with the international community, bringing a selfie stick is more than a faux pas—it’s a signal you’re not really present.
Whether you’re building houses with Habitat for Humanity in Appalachia or tutoring children in Africa, you’re working with people who are at a distinct disadvantage. These are individuals who pray to have one of your bad days, because even on your worst day, you have a safe place to sleep and something to eat. When it comes to selfies, the problem is you are focusing on your experience, not theirs.
The Selfie Dilemma
Everyone wants to feel liked and admired, but it becomes a problem when you use the suffering and deprivation of others to get those likes.
Taking photos on your mission trip is fine, but make sure you do it appropriately and thoughtfully. Always ask permission before you start snapping photos. In some places, photography is not permitted and some people may be uncomfortable having their photo taken.
For instance, one of the most common “mission selfies” is a photo of a volunteer with someone from the local community. Captioned with social media-friendly blurbs, these pictures can minimize the person and their experience. They might have gone through tremendous hardship, and they’re still standing, signaling that they have incredible strength and perseverance. Talking to them and understanding who they are, rather than snapping an awkward photo, will be a lot more meaningful for the both of you and will give you the chance to appreciate their character and spirit. By really making an effort to learn about them and their history, you can preserve their dignity and sense of self.
Selfies put the focus on you and your ego, rather than on the situations others are facing. Remembering that you are doing a very small, but worthwhile, service to help overcome what systemic issues have built over the course of decades, can put things into perspective and remind you what is really at stake.
Focus on the Moment
Finally, focusing on taking great Instagram photos keeps you from fully participating in your work. Instead of wholeheartedly being present, you’re thinking of what pictures will get the most likes. Before you know it, your service term will be over, and you’ll hardly remember it. Instead, practice mindfulness and intentionally stay in the moment so you can learn from the experience.
One way to do this is to do background research before your trip. Understand the issues that caused the area’s current state, what problems the region is currently facing and what is being done to improve them. Being aware of cultural norms and political issues can help you get a more complete understanding of what is at stake and what people are up against.
Keep in mind that while conditions can be shocking to you, the people there don’t need your pity. They get up each morning and work to improve their communities and themselves. You can deepen the meaning you take away from the trip by asking questions about people’s daily lives, routines and challenges. For instance, learning how long they have to walk to get clean drinking water or seeing how few textbooks a school has can put things into perspective for you. After the trip, you can reflect on your experience and gain a greater understanding of the issues at hand.
Mission trips are incredibly impactful, both for you and the people you help. But by taking selfies and posting on social media, you detract from the meaning of your work. By focusing more on listening and humility; you’ll have a richer experience and will have made a greater impact on the community.