During a trip to Mozambique, I met a Frenchman who spent his time reveling in the Maputo nightlife with the local elite and dining out with other international travelers. On the veranda of our budget hotel (bedbugs included in the more basic rooms), I told him of my discontent over a small ruckus that had occurred earlier that day.
A neighborhood man in a low-income area had accused me of intending to use the pictures I was taking to fraudulently raise money for needy children, with the end goal of pocketing the funds for myself. Given that I had already established a rapport with the group of people I was photographing, I was very sad to have a misguided accusation sully our friendly connection. But the French reveler was unsympathetic. He felt that the man was onto something; that somehow my including photography in my engagement with monetarily limited people was exploitative.
While people from the communities I have photographed have at most reacted negatively to me a half-dozen times (including the incident described) over the course of 20 years and scores of situations, privileged individuals from the developed world seem to regularly want to question me. I think the impulse comes from a good place: a discomfort with the inequality of the world. However, I do find it ironic that the very people challenging me rarely choose to actually interact with those they rhetorically “defend.” Nor do they generally trouble themselves with specifics - such as the fact that the vast majority of the people who appear in my images have given me explicit permission to photograph them.
I do believe there is abhorrent exploitation in the world; slave wages, unsafe working conditions, forced removal of people from their land to make room for extractive industry, taxes pocketed by corrupt politicians while the tax-payers go hungry, etc. In all of these situations a clear loser and a clear beneficiary are easily identified. While my desire to meet and share an experience with those whose lives are in most ways more challenging than my own, and to later articulate what I have seen through photography, may (rightly) cause some discomfort as a result of the visible embodiment of inequality, my efforts absolutely do not result in the suffering of one party and the financial enrichment of the other - and I reject completely the label of exploitation.
So here is an image of two children sitting at the edge of an area that floods regularly from the rain and the tide. Before I took the picture, I spent some time chatting with the children’s families inside their home. After I took the picture, we wandered through the community and shared beautiful moments of laughter as I came close to losing my balance on the precarious pathways. I remember the experience well and with great fondness, and hope that all who were present do too.