The camera-toting NGO field worker: Cliché or communicator?

By Mike Bruce 23 August 2016

Digital cameras have become as essential to the modern aid worker’s field kit as hand sanitizer and Imodium. Plan International's Mike Bruce explains why a certain camera can also act as a tool to break down barriers between an outsider and community members.  Photo by: Mike Bruce

At first, the group of children looked at the small square of glossy white paper like I had made a mistake. It is not entirely unusual, after all, for visitors and staff from NGOs to come to their village in northern Bangladesh brandishing cameras and politely asking to take their pictures. The visitors, so the pattern goes, then turn the camera around and show the picture on the small screen to the kids assembled.

So this blank piece of polaroid paper I handed them was met with skeptical glances and uncertainty about how to respond…but only for a moment.

Slowly, shapes — then faces — emerged on the small 2-by-3-inch paper. Within minutes, dozens of children, mothers, and young adults appeared, shaking, fanning, and blowing gently on their own small polaroid photos, trying to speed up the all-too-slow “instant” developing process. Every few seconds they would check the glossy side of the page to make sure it was still working.

Digital cameras have become as essential to the modern aid worker’s field kit as hand sanitizer and Imodium. Pictures of small clusters of smiling children, hamming it up for the camera, or dignified, stoic elders make their way back to home offices, and then onto Facebook profiles, NGO websites, and multimedia databases.

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About the author

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Mike Bruce

Mike Bruce is the Asia regional communications manager for Plan International. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, he is currently based in Bangkok and works in a variety of field environments across Asia. He has previously worked in governance, advocacy, programming, and communications for the National Democratic Institute in Pakistan, The Border Consortium in the refugee camps on the Thailand-Myanmar border region and for a number of civil society and labor rights organizations.


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