watching a documentary today, even though it was quite well-made, relatively, made me think about how much we really do want to see others' pain. i've had very well-intentioned friends say they want to go to india (especially) with me because "it would be good for [them]". i can't even definitively say that that's not why i've studied, worked and traveled where i have. i would hope that it's been for more noble reasons than this, but who can really tell?

seeing the other in a state of misery always holds a sick fascination for us. car wrecks. natural disasters. grisly crimes. fat celebrities. look at the free papers littering the weekday cars of the london underground for proof if thats what you want. and documentaries, in their own highbrow, "concerned" way, perpetuate this. we watch documentaries to basically inform ourselves; not, mind you, so that it might inform our actions, improve the world, etc. (though many films have a definite political agenda, i would argue that this is secondary), but to inform ourselves of the other and thus derive entertainment from this. because basically, that's what it is. entertainment at the expense of others.

now i'm at least as guilty of this as most. during my "work" in bolivia (i'm also guilty of using too many air-quotes and parentheticals), i have to admit, i was basically useless. in fact, at my most helpful, i was actually there to document what was happening--the state of the garbage pits being done, the success of the campaign against chagas, etc. literally, my job was to listen and take pictures. to see how the other half live, and (at best) to witness it to the world. but during most of my time there, i would say roughly 5/6, i wasn't directly useful to my employers (and this i use in the loosest sense of the word), i was there as an outsider, gaining more personally (in the form of a boosted resume) than i could possibly give. and why did i go? what does it mean if i say "because i was curious"?

curiosity often drives us to the furthest reaches of the world. we go to see, to take pictures, to "get off the beaten path" (har har), and to "connect" with the "locals". but we certainly go for ourselves. i recently went to bosnia & hercegovina and croatia for a couple weeks' vacation. ostensibly, to get away from it all (sounds familiar? it should). find a few mountains or beaches where i could sit or walk undisturbed and be quiet for a while. which i did. i was very quiet. but i also went, and i knew/know this, because i was curious. i went, to put it most bluntly, to see what a country that was recently at war with itself looked like. i'm not proud of that. in many ways i feel that seeing something, experiencing something firsthand (and i know that's in many ways disingenuous, but let's at least say "as firsthand as reasonably possible") is important for personal growth and, at the very least, a context of what we see on the news. it challenges us and inspires us. but we're also growing personally because we're viewing the misery of others? sounds callous, because it really is.

and what of advocacy? msf is an organization that dedicates itself to "raising awareness of the plight of the people [they] help". of the two awareness campaigns that i've witnessed firsthand (chagas in la paz and cholera in oslo), that means they put on photographic exhibitions. which, in the case of both of these, brings the image to the forefront of the mind, but also in an "artistically brutal" manner. it's meant to evoke sympathy, support and eventually involvement, yes, but it also seeks to entertain the middle classes strolling past the exhibition centers on their sunday promenades. to give them a taste, in black and white (artistic photos are inevitably black and white at these events, while portraits of the children who drew the drawings are in color), of the "other", and let us visualize their suffering. at least 95% of those who pass through do nothing afterwards (and i'm one, i'm sorry to say), other than going out for an ice cream to cheer themselves up. sure, you can't expect everyone to be moved to their pocketbooks at every one of these events, but what does this predictable, apparently acceptable majority tell us? either that msf is doing a piss-poor job of advocacy (and i would not say that), or that the distance between the subject and the viewer is, and probably always has been too great.

we go to the slums, take pictures, keep the camera either always in front of us (like a plastic and glass shield, or better, a filter) or keep it always out of sight, embarrassed both to show our wealth, to display so openly our not-belonging, and to realize that we fear these people, as if their poverty is communicable (it is, but not in such casual circumstances: it effortlessly passes from mother to child), and, more precisely, we fear their jealousy, their wrath, their latent power. because in going to "bear witness" to misery, we always must assume ourselves separate and superior, assume that we must bring their experiences up to our level. in doing so, we also assume that that is their wish, to be like us, live like us, to be us. and that frightens us, because we're so devoted to our binary systems, our zero-sum games, that we fear their improvement. and we, in the development community, fear working ourselves out of a job.

[note: sorry, at the end, for just randomly throwing in thoughts. it's a lot less incoherent in my head. i think]