Forgive me for looking

I’ve always felt awkward in foreign countries—especially in places like Asia and the Middle East where there isn’t even a chance I’ll be mistaken for a local. I feel like everyone looks at me like I sometimes find myself looking at tourists in my city: go home and quit clogging up the sidewalks. So inevitably, my first day in a new country, I stand there feeling inexplicably apologetic, half hiding my camera, and trying to look like I know what I’m doing.

On the flip side, as the one tasked to document these trips for CARH, I feel a strong sense of responsibility—responsibility to capture the things around me that best represent the city I’m in.

But because we end up working with peoples and in countries experiencing such great need, I often find myself surrounded not just by the beauties of place but by its brokenness, too. The stuff that makes most of us turn away because it’s uncomfortable to look at. Those are the things I have to remind myself to turn toward.

And I feel guilty. Racking the focus between the garbage can and the crippled man lying next to it I think, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please forgive me for this. It’s the same at the beginning of every trip. I turn toward the things that make me uncomfortable and think please forgive me for looking.

But the realization hit me again, the same as it always does: in order to show a place for what it is, to paint a clear picture, you can’t just show the beauty. You have to show it all—the beauties and colors as well as the wounds and scars.

Today I was slammed squarely in the middle of beauty and brokenness. As our team explored the largest slum in the city, I thought I was prepared for what I would see. I mean, if you’ve ever seen the French Quarter during carnival season, you’d expect to be prepared for any smells you’d ever come across again. But I was wrong. The squalor, the smells, and the absolute poverty hid me like 3 well aimed bricks. I walked the first few minutes with my camera hidden in my bag thinking, I can’t. I just can’t.

Then I remembered the responsibility. Paint an honest picture. So I pulled it out and started shooting. We came to one of the churches where our host and his team feeds, teaches, and ministers to children and spent some time talking and shaking so many hands. After that, our host took us around to meet some people that lived nearby. When I finally began to get over the discomfort, something struck me: I was surrounded by smiles. The picture below is a lady who was cooking dinner for her family (husband and 2 children) outside of their home. She was thrilled to take us (as many of us as would fit which was just a handful) inside:

In the 10’ by 10’ room she smiled widely and sincerely, and we thanked her, sincerely, for welcoming us into her home.

As we came to the end of the day, I wrote down these words: “Beauty and brokenness walk together.” I don’t fully know what those words will teach me about today because haven’t learned everything that I will eventually learn from the experience I’ve had, but one thing I want to remember is that to turn a blind eye to something is to pretend it doesn’t exist. And to do that is to risk losing compassion, empathy, and a willingness to look a person in the eye and say, “I see you for exactly who you are—beauty, brokenness, and all.” And I think seeing a person with that completeness is a very important, perhaps crucial step toward making effective change.