This story comes from my sister, who is in the rotations phase of Medical School. Years ago, when she was in undergrad, she was focusing on politics, design, and peace studies . . . you know, the things that naturally lend themselves to Med. School.
Kidding aside, these things truly did contribute to the kind of doctor that my sister would be. Recently, she wrote about her Photography 101 course, and shared it with me. In that course, they had projects and once per week they would present what they had completed with the class for a critique. One week, my sister presented the pictures she had taken of Latino preschoolers at a local South Bend school where a friend volunteered. She spent enough time in the classroom to get some great photographs, but she did not speak with the students very much.
When it came time to present in class, she was ready with her black-and-white pictures that she felt proud of. But, the teaching assistant challenged them. He said:
“Your images are beautiful . . . but you must be very careful about something. As a photographer, you must strive to understand someone first before having the honor to tell his or her story. If you are going to tell a person’s story, listen to them.”
Essentially, the T.A. said that the project might even be misconstrued as racist. Since it displayed the students as images without any of their story, or their words, it objectified them in a way that was left up to the viewer. Belonging to a minority group, as well as being so young, meant that these children did not have as powerful of a voice as many others in America. In my sister’s presentation, she included only brief quotes from the children, such as what they wanted to be when they grew up. She learned her lesson, and never took storytelling lightly again. Since then, she has worked with patients of all backgrounds. Interviewing elderly patients for research, she listened to stories and asked if they felt that their care was adequate. Now, she is applying to residencies in family medicine, and she holds true to the responsibility of listening. As a family doctor, her job will be to listen to patients and to consult on their behalf. She knows that misrepresenting their stories can be dangerous; in this case, for their health.
Similarly, misrepresenting stories can be dangerous for other reasons. As I was reading my sister’s essay, I thought about my experiences teaching and learning language. Teachers represent more than they know. For example, when we teach English abroad, we act as a window into our culture and English-speaking world, whether we like it or not. Our students listen to us and trust our worldviews. Thus, we tell stories on behalf of millions like us every time we make a generalization about “in America…” or “in English…” Likewise, as a student in Tanzania, I witnessed both sides of the issue. When locals neglect to listen to foreigners, it leads to the awkward moments when strangers would assume I was a tourist, a drug dealer, or even a spy. When foreigners neglect to listen to locals, it leads to misunderstanding, the fairy-tale romantic image of Africa, and oversimplified news articles about terrorism and religion. In both cases, ignoring the full story behind a person leads to dangerous distrust and stereotypes.
Having said that, when we do take it upon ourselves to share someone’s story–whether it is through photography, news articles, or blog posts–we have a sensitive responsibility. For those of us who have the means to share a story with a wide audience, we have to be careful and thoughtful. It is an honor to tell someone’s story. When we share, people trust us. Our photographs, articles, and essays become truth. Hopefully that truth may always reflect the well-rounded, multi-faceted reality.
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For an even better explanation of why storytelling matters so much, listen to this TED-talk by Chimamanda Adichie.