Children are People not Props
As if there weren’t enough things in the world to be depressed about, I logged into Instagram yesterday morning and was visually assaulted by the image of celebrity tough guy, Gerard Butler, offering a young, black child some form of nourishment from what appears to be a dog bowl.
In the photo, he is crouching down, extending the red, plastic receptacle with an eager hand. He is smiling, but doing so in a way that one might smile at a wounded animal, his face conveying pity and trepidation. Gerard is the subject of the photo, the centre of the narrative, and the child merely a prop in his scene of saviorism. It is an image that I imagine is meant to inspire awe at Butler’s sacrifice and generosity, but it left me feeling nauseous.
Gerard doesn’t even feel it necessary to mention where in the world he is, which debunks the idea that he is “raising awareness”. All we, the audience, know is that he’s somewhere “giving back” by volunteering with UK charity, Mary’s Meals.
Having worked in the Third Sector for over a decade, I have no doubt that Mary’s Meals does great things. Many charities do. However, the issue I have is why charities like Mary’s Meals continue to propagate harmful stereotypes about the countries where they work and insist on perpetuating the “white savior” narrative by shlepping celebrities like Butler over to the locations where they operate for consistently demeaning photo ops.
It wasn’t too long ago that I was running a volunteer organisation. We worked in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India, and amongst our numerous policies around safeguarding and responsible volunteering was a rule about not taking photos of service users or of children in general. Why? Because children should always be classed as vulnerable people. They lack agency and even if they consent to their photo being taken, they likely have no idea that one photo might be seen by millions of people.
Children also have no control over how the photographer uses their image. They would be unlikely to conceive that the stranger who insisted on hugging them might spin the photo in a way that centres their own experience and their whiteness, disregarding the intent for which the photo was taken and how permission was gained. Furthermore, this practice of plastering the faces of random children all over one’s social media is a uniquely gross Western phenomenon. I have yet to witness any tourists to the UK rolling up to a preschool for a photoshoot. Imagine the outrage if they did.
Children are not props and they are not tourist attractions. It’s high time we treated this type of exploitation with the disdain it deserves. At present, Butler’s post has nearly half-a-million likes and the comments section is littered with praise for his “selflessness.” One massive exception to this cacophony of praise is the Ugandan organisation, @nowhitesaviours, who have politely highlighted that there are better ways to “raise awareness” and I couldn’t agree more. No White Saviours are consistently holding this type of behaviour to account and educating the masses on how to represent Uganda, and Africa in general, in a more realistic, positive way. Why aren’t we listening?
Why would someone like Gerard Butler think it is not only acceptable but honorable to post images of vulnerable children on his Instagram? Why does an organisation like Mary’s Meals insist on using photos of children to gain support for its work? Why do we, the general public, respond positively to this type of solicitation of our feels and our funds? There has to be a better way.
The toxic trend amongst charities and volunteer organisations to position white people as heroes in their fundraising and advertising materials must stop. We, the general public, need to take a stand against it and refuse to funnel money into campaigns that exploit children. A charity can tell me that it’s feeding hungry children without shoving a camera into the face of a malnourished child. Gerard Butler can inform us on social media that he is working with a charity and how we can help without thrusting a dog bowl at the first child he comes across while his mate snaps a pic. We can and we should demand better.
The next time you see a photo like Butler’s, or a charity campaign on TV asking you for donations using the medium of suffering child, take a moment before you “like” the photo or sign up to contribute to that organisation. Consider the intent of that imagery. Consider how those images were obtained. Consider reaching out and telling that person or that organisation why you disagree with their approach and then give your likes and your money to people and organisations that are more conscientious and responsible.
I’m not saying we should “cancel” Gerard Butler or charities that rely on tragic images of children to obtain funds, but we should start acting with our wallets and our fandom so that people start listening and doing better.