Let's be mindful of why we're visual peacemakers and envision the level we can achieve.
The momentous challenge for us as visual peacemakers is to communicate fresh perspectives where harmful stereotypes exist.
Stereotypes lead to social distance which leads to "othering" which leads to negative attitudes and behavior. These can manifest as a passive apathy toward the "other," slandering, or outright hatred and violence.
Where do stereotypes come from? Don't be surprised. Stereotypes don't arrive out of no where. Events happen. People do things to create them. There's often--not always--some truth to stereotypes. It's what we do with them that matters.
Some generalizations that can lead to stereotypes: The French love food. Italians are romantic. Monks are near nirvana. Germans are good designers. Americans are pioneering. Indians are the best computer programmers. The British are witty. Chinese are math geniuses.
These statements are all positive. But when you meet a French person, don't suppose he or she cooks exquisite cuisine. They might enjoy cold hotdogs doused in mayonnaise, sprinkled with crumbled potato chips. To further the point, one of my favorite Indian poets, Vikram Seth, isn't a code master.
Some harmful stereotypes: All politicians are crooks. The rich are greedy. The homeless are lazy. Spiritual leaders use religion to control people. Mexicans steal. Jews control everything and are involved in multiples conspiracies. Palestinians hate Americans and would bomb the U.S. if they could. Christians are homosexual-hating hypocrites. Muslims seek to take over the world and detest all Western culture. Baggy-pants-wearing African Americans are aggressive and dangerous. Immigrants act like parasites in "our" society. The list goes on. Ouch!
Much "awareness raising" media rightfully cover tragic stories. Unfortunately, many of them indirectly reinforce the above stereotypes and oversimply the complexities behind them. The images and stories put a magnifying glass up to negativity and can't practically tell the full story. What results is a sort of indirect slander. The stereotype gets reinforced and the masses who don't fit it get wrongly categorized.
Why does IGVP exist then? More "awareness raising?" No, not necessarily. Unless we're raising awareness about the need for Visual Peace, which is what the Charter aims to do. We are to be peacemakers and break down stereotypes by displaying the beauty and dignity of various cultures around the world. This includes millions of sub-cultures as well.
We know that stereotypes ultimately cause division. They deteriorate our potential for peace, shalom, salaam! Though case examples can be found to support each stereotype, the application of the stereotype in sweeping strokes becomes dangerous. This is where the need for Visual Peacemakers comes into play.
IGVP members are here to tell a different story. One of hope, of common humanity, of the uniqueness of those individuals who surprise a stereotype by contradicting it.
Show me the baggy-pants-wearing African-American who volunteers at a shelter serving homeless caucasians. Show me the "filthy" rich person who gives one-third of their income to charity. Show me the Muslim leader seeking peace with local communities in Europe. Show me the Palestinian who says with gusto, "I know there are many Israelis who don't hate me, and who want the best for me. And I desire the same for them."
Showing the beauty and dignity of people and culture is a strong step in the right direction--and it always will be. Displaying stories of hope and resolve bring us closer together as humans. But we can also focus more sharply on breaking down some of stereotypes--both the negative and the positive!
What are some stereotypes in your own culture? How can you challenge them journalistically and photographically? How are you positioned to be a visual peacemaker?
Guild member, Matt Powell, said to me once, "A paradigm shift is needed." He was referring to himself as a photographer. I too have been immensely challenged by our new category: visual peacemaking. Over the coming years it is my aim to model this (God help me!). And it is our hope and commitment to draw attention to your work as you create content that excels in highlighting our shared "humanness" and in bringing new perspectives where harmful stereotypes exist.
You can do this... We can do this...
photo: Mario Mattei
By way of example, this portrait is of Pastor Michel Kouliga Nikiema of Burkina Faso in Africa. He has spent the last many years mobilizing and leading a love movement that serves people with HIV Aids, both physically and psychologically. "You are NOT dirty. You are NOT cursed by God," he tells them. Kouliga serves Christians, Animists, and Muslims without making distinctions. People of African heritage have been on the recieving end of much racism, injustice, and stereotyping. So have Christians. Kouliga's life challenges the stereotypes. When I look at this photograph of him, I remember my time with him and get chills. The purity and magnitude of his faith and motives will forever inspire me.