by Emily Bade
“Jambula! Jambula! Mzungu, jambula!”
Small Malawian children run up to me, yelling the word for picture in Chichewa, the primary language of Malawi. I have been here for two weeks, and the only words that I know in Chichewa are “Good morning, how are you?”, “I am doing well”, and “Mzungu” (which means “white person” and “picture”).
But language is not entirely necessary for the process that takes place. The children have seen my shoulder mounted DSLR, and being a 5’10” white woman, I am already sticking out like a sore thumb. They say “Jambula!” and stand in front of me. I take their picture, and we all look at it. Whoops, hollers, and laughs fill the air as the children look at their portraits. They each take several turns, experimenting with different faces and poses. One child has a paper that says “A Doctor” on it. He tells me in halting English that he learned how to write it in school, and that it is his goal to become a doctor. Several times he sits down and holds it up in front of me. Everyone waits their turn, but they are all anxious to make sure that they get to see themselves on camera. This is a process that I participated in multiple times during the three weeks that I spent in the Dowa District of Malawi this summer.
Photographing children was not at all the objective of my trip. I had traveled with the Sociology Department of BYU to film a short documentary about non-profit work in central Malawi. However, when there was some down time, these photos provided a lot of entertainment for everyone who was present.
We spent most of our time out in a very remote area of Dowa, and on the weekends we would go to the capital, Lilongwe, for the luxuries of restaurants, grocery stores, showers, and wifi. The people in Lilongwe were very different. They had been exposed to the Western media’s representation of what life in Africa looks like. They had seen their own image being used for exploitation in the West. They had seen whole groups of white film crews there to film how these poor Africans lived, without any understanding or appreciation of the culture or the lives being lived there. The people in the city were openly opposed to me and my camera. They had experienced the tokenization and exploitation of Africans in Western media, and they were right to be upset with me.
The people that I was actually filming for the project were asked about it first by our translator, Immaculate, or Imma, who would explain the project and then ask people permission for us to use their image in the documentary. They were able to ask questions and give informed consent. However, Imma was not with us on the weekends. She wasn’t there to walk with us and explain to the passersby that I was not like the other film crews. I was not there for exploitation. I was there to show the positive effects that non-profit work wass having in the region. I was aware of the exploitation problem and was actively trying to fight against it. However, due to the significant language barrier between us, I could not explain any of this to them. So, they yelled. And they threw rocks at my camera, and they swore. They told me that I was not welcome to film them, or anywhere in Lilongwe, and that I needed to leave Malawi and never return. And they had every right to do all of these things.
However, these children had not seen the exploitation. They did not know that white people go to Malawi just to take pictures of poor people. They did not know that they were constantly being stereotyped and narrowed down to one thing in the Western world. They did not know the trust that they were placing with me by allowing me to photograph them. I did not even have a chance to ask their names, because that was beyond my abilities in Chichewa. Because of my experiences, I feel extremely uneasy to have these images in my possession. These portraits of children whose names I do not know, and will never have the opportunity to know.
What does it mean, that I, a white person, who is exceedingly privileged based on global standards, have a whole folder of images of nameless Malawian children on my hard drive? That concept alone could be, and is, extremely problematic. Are there political implications and ideologies associated with these photos?
There is a duality here. Yes, there are political implications, and yes, for centuries people from the West have exploited Africans for profit. But there is also real human connection. These children and I spent more time laughing at the pictures themselves than we spent actually taking pictures. Most of these children had never seen an image of themselves, and that opportunity was only possible through the presence of this potentially problematic camera. And eventually, we grew tired of pictures, and we set the camera down, and I was completely owned in a game of soccer.