Morgan Phillips: Avoiding the saviour selfie

The lessons international aid charities can learn from the debate between Stacey Dooley and David Lammy

Morgan Phillips
Morgan Phillips

We know from the work done by the linguist and philosopher George Lakoff, the governance consultancy PIRC UK, the development network Bond and others that images are incredibly important drivers of how issues are framed in our minds.

We will all have preconceived ideas about issues such as poverty and their causes and solutions. These have been formed by stories and images we have encountered throughout our lives.

Our ideas are then either reinforced or challenged by each new image or story we see. That is why it is so important to be mindful of the impact our storytelling is having, especially if it is in danger of perpetuating a single story about a place or issue.

Last week, the TV star Stacey Dooley was accused by the Labour MP David Lammy of behaving like a "white saviour" after posting photos of herself on Instagram holding a Ugandan child while filming in the country for this year’s Comic Relief. Dooley and Comic Relief were also accused of reinforcing a negative stereotype about who can solve poverty in Uganda.

Quite rightly, this is a really emotive issue for international aid charities.

At the Glacier Trust, we work with two celebrity ambassadors: the actor Siân Brooke and the explorer Levison Wood. We also organise visits to our projects in Nepal for school groups and sports teams. Such initiatives help us achieve our educational objectives, raise funds and increase brand awareness.

The visits we organise generate images: it is inevitable and unavoidable. People seek to capture their experiences and want to share them online.

We don’t discourage this, but sometimes, regrettably, they look like Dooley’s recent images. The key question here is to what extent we are, as the charity, responsible for the images taken and shared. We have complete control over the images that TGT shares and full responsibility for them. But we have very limited control over images shared by others; we’re at the mercy of their judgement.

Nevertheless, we can’t just wash our hands of such photos. It is neither possible, nor desirable, to control all the images taken and shared, but it is possible to educate celebrities, supporters, volunteers and project staff about the impact of taking and sharing them. Our approach has been to work with the education network Lifeworlds Learning to develop a guide to taking photos, which we hand out to those involved in visits.

We also take time to educate people informally before and during the trip on the power of images. We haven’t been entirely successful yet, but we’re working on it.

As charities, we must guide our celebrity ambassadors. If we don’t, we’re failing to protect them and their reputations, and we’re failing to protect the reputations of our organisations. More worryingly, we risk reinforcing the counterproductive tropes that angered Lammy and others.

#SaviourSelfie anyone? Thought not. Don’t be the hero.

Morgan Phillips is co-director of the Glacier Trust

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