Confessions to a humanitarian: There is no local language

The Guardian has a regular blog section, in which anonymous aid workers go to church to confess their sins. That latest is entitled, "I only know 10 words of the local language". After reading, I have the feeling that the author was told in her younger years that she doesn't have "natural abilities" to learn languages. Or, the author really does hate learning languages. 

What really bothers me about this confession is the monolingual perspective and concept of language pushed. It assumes that all communities, and the community she has lived in for 16 months, is monolingual. "As I write this, I’ve been in the same community for sixteen months and I can still only speak ten words of the local language." She doesn't give away what community or country in which she is currently living and working. 

We need to stop speaking of "local language" in development. We need to start speaking of languages. The plural is important, so is the dropping of the "local". The prefix "local" is a poor assumption with a tinge of neo-colonialism. The assumptions overflow. It is based on an outsiders' view of communities. That our observation of language use is holistic, robust, and informed. That language is contained and bounded. Most important, it assumes and defines languages and languages use on behalf of its speakers and users. 

Multilingualism is a reality in many communities. Globalisation has broken the "local". For example, many written forms of languages, particularly African languages and their orthography, cannot be seen without their colonial tags. Many of the non-indigenous scripts were not created locally, but by colonial administrators, anthropologists, and European linguists using Roman or adapted Roman scripts. 

The two communities in northern Ghana I worked with for my PhD research were predominantly Dagomba. The "local" language could be identified as Dagbanli. However, there are other languages present. Qu'ranic Arabic is taught to children in a non-formal education program. English is the official language of Ghana, and the language of education from grade four onwards. Some communities member are not Dagomba, but have married into the community and speak a different "local" language. Fulbe semi-nomadic families can be found on the edges of many communities in northern Ghana, many of whom have migrated from Burkina Faso and speak Fulfulde, Hausa, and other languages. 

There is no "local language", only languages. 

A picture is worth 1000 Likes

"There us no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is truth" - Richard Avedon

A young Ghanaian girl practices taking photographs at a community exhibition. As part of my PhD research into out of school children's literacy practices, 10 children in two communities in northern Ghana were invited to participate as photographers. They produced 4,000+ photographs, which are the primary data for my research.

A young Ghanaian girl practices taking photographs at a community exhibition. As part of my PhD research into out of school children's literacy practices, 10 children in two communities in northern Ghana were invited to participate as photographers. They produced 4,000+ photographs, which are the primary data for my research.

Yesterday, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) hosted a Twitter chat on global development and photography (#DevPix). It was certainly one of the more engaging Twitter chat's I've participated in, and there are already a number of good Storify posts. 

I want to tease out some of the pertinent issues, as Twitter tends to be superficial despite the quality of the content. In particular, I want to address the six questions put forward by ODI in a little more detail. 

1. Development has largely moved beyond 'flies in their eyes' imagery - but do #DevPix still negatively shape perceptions of development?

I'm not so sure we've moved too far beyond. NGOs revert to the famine-genre of images every now and then. This question shaped the Twitter chat. It positioned #DevPix firmly in the realm of communications. And this is a problem. Development photograph is much more than a comms issue. It is about ethics, morality, identity and representation. 

The question also set a particular tone for treating photographs - largely as representative of reality. Of one reality. We have moved slightly away from famine-genre imagery, but we've gone to the opposite end of the spectrum. The "Everything Is Awesome" genre. Both are problematic in that they present the viewer with only one reality, and only one truth. Images need to be treated critically as any other produced narrative, data or object.

2. What are aid agencies doing to counter negative stereotypes in photography? 

There are some fantastic initiatives that put photography in the hands of the so-called recipients. Often this falls into the "Everyday Life" genre of participant-led photography, in which children and adults are asked to document their everyday life (In research, this concept has come to be known as photovoice). The participants-cum-photographers are then interviewed or discuss the photographs produced (photo elicitation). 

3. Does it matter who takes the photo? And on a practical level, how can NGOs make greater use of local photographers?

Yes. It is everything. To again quote Richard Avedon, "The photographer has complete control, the issue is a moral one and it is complicated". This statement holds even when the photographer is a recipient, local or community member. Even though the tool has changed hands, the resulting object created needs to be critically approached. And, what is sometimes more significant in this context is what is not photographed.

If an NGO wants to make use of "local" photographers, they first have to take a few steps back. What is the purpose of this photography? What is the ethics protocol? How are photographs going to be treated? Photography needs deep reflection on these questions to ensure that it is not just a novel add-on for report writing. 

4. What are some of the rule for commissioning/using #DevPix responsibly?

Pertinent ethical issues such as consent, privacy, ownership and risk management in photography are often overlooked or ignored. I'm always hesitant when I see the image of a child's face in a photograph, particularly a child who is vulnerable. I ask, "How was consent given? Was it informed? How was the family consulted?" Consent, in particular, needs to be an on-going dialogue and not a one-off event. 

Can children understand exactly how their image will be used by organisations for reports, presentations, fundraising and advocacy? I doubt it. Add the layer of social media and the speed at which content moves, and even NGOs are unable to predict where images end up and how they will be viewed. It is important to always think about the intended and unintended audience/s.

5. How has social media affected how people use photography to communicate global development?

Tolu Ogunlesi highlighted Twitter's "propensity for decontextualising", but this is the tip of the iceberg. The process of decontextualising starts way before Twitter, back at the beginning of design. Captioning and including text with a photograph is necessary, but doesn't alleviate this challenge. 

Perhaps even more alarming is Twitter and other social media's propensity for misrepresentation and falsehood. Images are extremely vulnerable to being misused. For example, an NGO posted a photo of girls in a classroom under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls on Facebook. The image was actually of Nigerian refugees in Chad (I only discovered this by finding the source). The NGO cropped out the boys to only show the girls. It leads the viewer to think that the girls pictured were those kidnapped by Boko Haram. They were not. 

6. What's the single greatest obstacle to using #DevPix responsibly - lack of time, budget, understanding?

Understanding. A lack of understanding of photography as a practice and of a photograph as an object. If you don't have the time, then don't do it. However, it can be very cost effective. I crowdsourced 10 digital cameras for my research, and the children only needed basic training for one hour in how to operate them.