For much of last week I spent photographing the activities of a Vision Trip to the Mercy Ships. These are generally large donors and people interested in the Mercy Ships and what they do. This team were predominantly from the ‘Marvin Church’ of Tyler, Texas, where the Mercy Ships head office is. For some of the volunteers who live on the Africa Mercy it seems very much like a condensed trip to satisfy western curiosity about Africa and the horrendous and perverse diseases, deformities and injuries that many of our patients suffer from. Visitors come for 5 days or so, with VIP treatment, bringing all their luxuries from home, see all the projects that many of the staff don’t get to, play with some of the children, then retire back to their comfortable western homes. Well, in this case it’s pretty obvious you can. Many of them are extremely generous donors and it is simply a first hand chance to see the difference they’re already making/can make. The Mercy Ships cannot run without it’s donors.
However it got me thinking as I’ve been accused of something similar before with the leprosy projects I’ve done. Can I really justify taking a £3000 camera out to Nigeria and using it to photograph people with terrible diseases, knowing that even if I could get exhibitions and articles up and running that it still probably wouldn’t make a difference. If I really wanted to make a difference, maybe I should just get a job in the city and give up half my income to charities.
I can’t say that I’m not curious about what happens in the rest of the world, and I can’t deny that the camera has given me an excuse to see it. I’m still determined to complete the leprosy documentary, in fact I have three and a half weeks left in Africa after the Mercy Ship leaves for repairs in South Africa and I’m looking into flying to Liberia to photograph at a large leprosy colony. My initial thought with the project was that I could raise awareness through getting the photographs eventually published somehow, somewhere and that in turn might increase interest and donors to the various leprosy charities. Now I fear it might simply be a photo documentary of a disease that’s not prevalent enough to justify the money it needs to take care of it, yet too deeply engrained in the societies it’s in to be eliminated for well beyond my time. The humanitarian documentary photographer W. Eugene Smith said: “Photo is a small voice, at best, but sometimes – just sometimes – one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness. Much depends upon the viewer; in some, photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought.” In this day and age where still photographs appear to be losing their value and people are more interested in which way Lindsay Lohan swings or what Victoria Beckham’s wearing than the images of poverty and war in the world that we have all become desensitized to I wonder if this statement has expired…
Meanwhile I’m happy for the next 10 weeks knowing that my photographs are being used by an excellent marketing department of a high profile charity to pull in the donors like those that visited this last week. Here’s some photos of the Vision team in the wards handing out some toys they bought over with them.