Images are powerful and can craft, reinforce, undo, or influence our thoughts and beliefs about others. Images have the potential to dissuade us from fear of the unknown or different and move us toward real love.
When I was asked to share what visual peacemaking means to me*, I was overwhelmed since I still consider myself a beginner in many ways. But after prayer and discussion, I realized visual peacemaking is not merely an approach or a tool in our belts. Rather, it is a process of becoming and we should always be learning. it is more about who you are than simply what you do and in that way I can share; not from a wealth of knowledge but from a common vision. A vision that strives to partner, build bridges rather than construct walls, and show the beautiful humanity and dignity in the people we encounter. We can choose to live life evading failure; only attempting what we are comfortable with or a pretty sure we can accomplish. I admit I can find myself leaning this direction because to step out is to risk. But it is always worth the journey. Photography continues to be a journey of risk for me, one that involves intentionally giving of myself and being stretched and changed.
Photography sort of happened to me. It arose from a deep desire I had to tell the stories of women that became my dear friends. I moved with my family to a small island in East Africa most people cannot find on a map. I had plans and those plans seemed to explode upon arrival. I thought I would have an adventure and help some folks along the way. We were there working to set up and teach in a vocational school and if I am honest I thought I was there to give more than be personally changed but God had a different agenda. The emotional pain of role deprivation and starting over in a place where I was now a complete idiot in the ways of daily life was very real and painful. It was humbling, but as I embraced that more and more it also allowed for a remaking and remolding in my life. I realized you cannot serve people you don't know and love. You cannot be trusted with their stories until you invest in their lives. And I so needed the people there to help me forge this new life. In the process of allowing others to help me, I realized that I was there to learn more than to teach, There was such joy in the friendships I found there because they were not formed merely because of similar culture backgrounds and shared views of life. My friendships on our island were forged through difference and a decision to move towards mutual respect and love.
For a long time I chose not to photograph my friends unless asked because I really wanted to communicate I loved them more than the image. To me visual peacemaking means spending time with people and really trying to see them. We all want to be seen and heard. And that seeing evokes in us common human emotions that deeply connect us all and compels us to share. This is why I so desperately wanted to participate in sharing their stories through photography and began to study and practice. I really believe the posture with which we engage people is more important than all the technical skills in the world. As I was wrecked with my friends' stories, I wanted to capture the mundane and the beautiful, the joy co-mingled with deep pain and suffering because it was a way to really see them and connect our lives as I searched for meaning in it all. I was not "ready" to live there and learn to love in ways that cost me personally, to start over, to be stretched in the ways required of me, but that is exactly where God wanted me. And photography became one way I found and continue to find peace even in the midst of chaos.
I think sometimes as photographers we can focus on the outcome and capturing "the" image but for me this often leads to me missing precisely the moments that are meant to bring understanding and promote peace. I think we all need to spend more time sitting on dirt floors eating rice and chapati with our hands and less time thinking about the perfect lighting and setting up tripods. Of course the final product is important and we honor our friends and those that invite us into their lives by striving towards excellence, but we cannot authentically communicate care and love if we do not invest in people. And maybe we should measure our success more in people with whom we have shared each other's sacred stories rather than just in the number of beautiful images.
I recently heard a speaker say, "The opposite of love is not hate, it is fear," and this really struck me. It reminded me of the verse in scripture that declares "perfect love expels all fear." We can fear what we do not understand and with photography I want to intentionally make choices to move from fear of the unknown or different to "perfect love". Visual peacemaking is first moving yourself in order that we may encourage others to move. But to do that we have to allow people's stories to burrow deep in our hearts. We have to have sleepless nights thinking about their challenges and pain. We have to accompany them as they celebrate and rejoice with them. We have to eat their food, hold their babies, trust them to hold ours, pray, dance, laugh, and cry together. Because that is the sacred stuff of life and that grants us permission and bestows upon us the responsibility to share our common humanity.
Blessings on your journey, Roxanne
*this post has been adapted but was originally published as a guest blog on International Guild of Visual Peacemakers.