I have been meaning to confess to my mistake for awhile, however it was reading this article about the ‘Afghan Girl’ that prompted me to prioritise my apology.
Let me take you back to late 2011.
I had been living in Cambodia for a couple of months. My Cambodian co-workers told me about a public school on the outskirts of Siem Reap where they voluntarily taught English to the students a few afternoons a week.
My interest was sparked; I needed to take a photo to promote Rotaract (a worldwide community service organisation), for some reason or another. I honestly can’t remember what I was going to use the photo for, but it sure did seem important at the time.
I envisioned a scene of adorable kids each holding a cardboard letter, which spelt out ‘Rotaract’. As this image was promoting a charity different to the one I was working at, I needed to find a different set of children to photograph.
My co-workers said that I could take photos of the children at the public school they volunteered at. I didn’t question it, and one afternoon they drove me to the school. We stopped at a stationery shop along the way, where I purchased pencils and notebooks for their students, as an ‘exchange’ for using them in my photos.
Emphasis on the using.
We arrived at the school, and my co-workers took me to the classroom where around 50 children were waiting.
“Alright, I need children who will smile in photos,” I directed.
Knowing which children would give a toothy smile that Cambodians are famous for, my co-workers brought eight children outside. We lined them up, I placed a large, red, cardboard letter in each of their hands, and voila, my vision had become a reality.
But in reality, I fucked up.
The only permission I had received to take photos of the children were from their teachers; and they had no right to give that permission. These children and their guardians didn’t know what I was using the photos for, or if I was even trustworthy.
What happened was that I walked into a school, singled some children out, and took photos of them. They lined up for the photos because their teachers told them to, and in Cambodia, a lot of respect is given to teachers. They wouldn’t have said no, even if they felt uncomfortable doing so.
Sure, the kids were smiling and happy in the photos, but that’s because we made jokes with them and encouraged them to smile.
The fact was, I shouldn’t have taken those photos. I had no right to. Those children had the right to be at their school, at their home, or at their community without me, or any person, invading their safe space and personal boundaries. I certainly wouldn’t be allowed to walk into a school in Australia and take photos of children without the express consent of their guardians, so why did I do it in Cambodia?
It was in the early days of living there, when my values and sense of social justice hadn’t yet developed to the level it is today, but that is no excuse. My actions were inexcusable. I won’t even put any blame onto my co-workers, as they were just trying to accomodate my wishes, as is predominant in the Khmer culture. Really, I exploited their kindness.
This image then made the rounds, and was used worldwide by Rotaract clubs.
A decade later, it still appears on multiple social media platforms and websites. I have blocked out the children’s faces above, out of protection and guilt, but we all know that once something is on the internet, it is out of our hands. What people see is a cute photo of children spelling out the name of a well-known community service organisation. But in reality, I took a photo of random children, without their guardian’s permission, and without any connection to the cause I was promoting.
Did I learn from my mistake?
It took me awhile, but yes, I did. I can’t change my past actions, but it is important that I admit to my mistakes, learn from them, and encourage others to learn from them, too. These children became poster children for a cause they knew nothing about, and despite my good intentions, I exploited a power imbalance. It wasn’t okay, and thankfully, I now know better.