I'm More Into Awareness...

Let's Make a Documentary.

Written by Gregg D. Garner

August 13, 2014


Is making someone aware of the issue the same as doing something to resolve the issue? Social media, film, awareness campaigns can get a lot of attention, but do they work?

I remember watching the “Invisible Children” documentary for the first time. It was entertaining, compelling, and challenging. It made the audience consider a world beyond their own, and gave them some heroes, to boot. A few young guys with video cameras were on an adventure of a lifetime. They were about to change the lives of a group of kids ravaged by poverty and war. They just needed a little help from those who would watch the film. What an amazing cause! Everyone was going to be aware.

That same year I was in Uganda and had multiple conversations on the topic with everyone from locals, to government officials, to soldiers from the Ugandan Army. They all shared a similar opinion and told me much of the documentary was sensationalized; though the suffering depicted in the film was concerning real children, the issue wasn’t too different from that which many of the kids in their country experience. They also noted that the documentary was just a more popular version of many other media campaigns that were made to raise money for some organization to implement their perceived solutions.

I felt embarrassed when one of the “big ideas” by the Invisible Children crew was to build a basketball gym for the children who a) were homeless, b) severely traumatized, and c) without education. Sure enough the Invisible Children boys were launched into non-profit stardom and received millions of dollars to implement their “big ideas.”

It’s unfortunate that few will see the absurdity of a few post-pubescent boys, who know nothing about development work, raising enough money to secure their careers as development workers for the next decade, while a legitimate doctor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo faces the challenging decision to sell another personal item to pay for supplies to perform a life-saving treatment on a child in need.

I’m sure that media has a positive role in development work, but it’s important that audiences and donors learn to identify when that medium is being abused by people who are publishing suffering as a form of art, and doing very little to see the needs get met, all the way to completion--a necessary long term-effort.

As one who works in the arts, who is even an eye behind a camera, I’m very aware of the tension between maintaining the dignity of suffering people, and compelling those who would view the photo/video and be moved to assist in the cause.

There was a period of about 3 years where I put my camera away. I actually sold it and used the money to help a family buy some land for planting banana trees. This is the chorus of a song I wrote to capture how I felt about it:

“I don’t want to make art of your pain. I don’t want to make beautiful, your suffering. I don’t want to capture, this horror in a frame. Today, I put my camera away.”

I’ve since started taking pictures again, but have developed a theology, and in turn a moral position concerning the task. I’ve determined it’s completely irresponsible for anyone to get footage of people who are suffering and make it available to the public for the sake of supporting themselves. Sometimes this is disguised in the form of “telling their story.” Coffee tables all over the country are hosts to this kind of product.

Here’s a basic rule we have implemented in our organization: if we’re going to make people aware of an issue and use media to do so, we have to be a part of the solution to finally alleviate the suffering captured on film. The awareness we bring to others must include an awareness of what we’re doing to bring relief.

Not everyone will agree with our approach, but personally, I can’t live with the reality that the lenses in my camera bag are worth more than the house I’m visiting, more than the income the occupant will make in their lifetime.

I could prescribe some kind of balancing test for art and ethical service, but everyone will have a different threshold for what their conscience can handle. Creating awareness is very important. Doing so responsibly is more important.

Maintaining the dignity of those whom you serve is paramount to ethical service. It may compromise your art, make you less money, and prevent you from a flash of fame. But it also may catch the attention of those few who are not influenced by sensationalism, the few who are not swayed by the trends, nor are in it for the adventure. It may catch the attention of those who want to genuinely make a difference amongst the poor and suffering. Art can’t do what just one person of that caliber can.