Why I Quit Moonlighting for Nonprofits, my interview on TinySpark
After an overwhelming response to my story, “The IRD Scandal and My Ethics Clause,” I was interviewed by TinySpark, a podcast whose goal is to “investigate the business of doing good.” You can listen to the interview by clicking the orange carrot below. I’ve also included a full transcript of our conversation.
Amy Costello: Welcome to Tiny Spark. I’m Amy. Emily Troutman photographs and writes about people living in poverty across the globe. She’s a freelancer, and to help pay the bills she sometimes took lucrative commissions. Up to $1,000 a day! To photograph the work of aid groups. Troutman has spent time in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Iraq, Syria, and when she’s looking through her viewfinder, snapping away, there’s one thing she’s aware of, and wary of.
Emily Troutman: There’s something fascinating about people who are really, really poor.
Amy: Critics have a term for this kind of photography. They call it poverty porn not to be confused with adult pornography like videos you’d see on tubev.sex.
Emily: Pornography around that really just refers to that idea of getting off somehow on looking at someone whose life situation is awful and being really fascinated in a, in a voyeuristic way, I think. Which I think is normal, but also a little bit uncomfortable.
Amy: Troutman certainly doesn’t want to take those kinds of pictures. Providing context to viewers is one way of elevating her shots into something meaningful. Troutman also gives something to those she photographs. Time.
Emily: I try my hardest to give dignity to the people I take pictures of, by getting to know them. When I was just in Turkey, in Gaziantep, I was photographing some Syrian refugees and part of that process for me was just sitting in their houses with them for, for days.
I just sat in their house and drank tea and played with the kids and got to know them and I think that comes through in my photos, but you never can tell. You just can’t.
I wanted to have an outlet for my own work that I control.
Amy: You started a blog called Aid.Works. When did you start that, and why?
Emily: I started Aid.Works in November of just last year. And I started the blog because I was tired of trying to sell my stories. Honestly, it was really exhausting as a freelance journalist to always be hustling a story and realizing as well that the story you have to hustle is cheapened because you hustled it.
Because the editors don’t want some long story about how I sat in a house with a bunch of Syrian refugees for a week. It’s not salable to them. And so I just decided that I wanted to have an outlet for my own work that I control.
And the other reason I started Aid.Works is because I’m interested and I’m passionate about these issues that perplex people like me, who are fundamentally interested in humanitarian issues but face so many complexities and challenges in trying to deal with the moral questions that it raises and ethical questions that it raises. Is it right for me to go spend $2,000, $3,000 to go to Turkey to take some pictures of people?
I was a part of this problem.
Amy: And most recently, you asked a lot of questions that caught my attention. You talk about some photos you took for an organization when you were in Haiti, the International Relief and Development Organization. What was it about this experience that bothered you? That made you want to write about this experience?
Emily: It didn’t really occur to me to write about the experience doing the photo shoot for IRD until IRD was suspended from receiving any additional federal contracts. IRD is one of the biggest NGOs working in the aid world. They are the major contractor for both Afghanistan and one of the major ones for the reconstruction of Iraq.
When IRD got suspended, I thought, you know, I was a part of this problem. They paid me to take a bunch of photos for them. And I was essentially part of this organization, even though it was only for a couple of days, and so I decided to just start asking myself, “What could I have done differently?”
That’s when I looked back at the photos and realized that in the photos themselves, there’s so much that’s not spoken about the relationship between donors and recipients, and of course, one of them, in Haiti in particular, is race. The people who donate are often white. The people who receive things are often black.
There’s also this question of wealth. So, to have somebody come in who is rich, white, American, makes, I don’t know, $80,000 a year, and give out stuff to an orphan, a Haitian orphan, who might never make money in her whole life is bizarre, really. It, it’s a strange, strange anthropological moment in time.
They want to increase their donations.
Amy: I’d like to look at this blog post with you now. And I’m looking at a beautiful little girl with pigtails receiving this blue bag of items from this white woman. In the picture we just see the arm of the white woman and her gold wristwatch and the face of this little girl who’s taking the bag. Read the caption that you wrote under that.
Emily: I took this photo for IRD in 2011. I struggled with how to make the recipients appear more dignified, but waiting in a line for someone rich to give you stuff is just a tough image to overcome.
Amy: And you were paid $1,000 a day as I understand it, by this organization, to take photographs of their distribution in Haiti. Were you given any parameters about photographing the donors in this case? I wonder what the donor would think of being cropped out of the image. All we see is her wrist.
Are you expected, when you’re on assignment, on commission from organizations, to take photographs of the faces of those who are giving?
Emily: I think sometimes you’re expected to take pictures of the donors, but in most cases I think organizations prefer for you to take pictures of the recipients. Because that’s what it’s about. The reason that IRD can even afford to spend $1,000 to send a photographer to a distribution is to make money. They want to increase their donations. They want to be accountable to their donors. So this is proof, essentially, that they did what they said they were going to do. They gave out stuff. So, really what they want, I think, is shots of the recipient.
It wasn’t fraudulent or illegal. It was business as usual, actually.
Amy: I want you to just read a little bit from this blog post about your experience photographing for IRD while in Haiti. Just read from your blog and tell me what you experienced.
Emily: Even at the time, I knew it was essentially a vanity thing. A feel-good distribution. It would have been easy for the IRD staff to just pass them out, grab a few pics with a point-and-shoot camera, and use my $1,000 paycheck to feed the orphans for a couple of months. But I needed to eat too. So I didn’t say anything.
It wasn’t fraudulent or illegal. It was business as usual, actually. Donors wanna see that their dollars are doing. Orphans are very photogenic. No one was gonna pay me to take pictures of them doing paperwork or sitting in traffic. For most of the freelancers I knew in Port Au Prince, non-profit gigs were a lifeline. I never wrote about the organizations I worked for and tried to keep a wall between those two parts of my life.
Accountability starts with me.
Amy: Why did you decide to start writing about the organizations you were taking pictures for? What compelled you to finally start kind of calling them out?
Emily: I felt something really change in me at the 5-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. I was just down there recently again to commemorate what had happened. And I don’t know exactly what it was, but I felt something shift. Because I was there and I was looking around and I’m thinking, “I’m still doing the same freaking story. I’m still talking to these really desperately poor people who are amazing and beautiful and kind, and what happened to all the money?” I mean, really? What happened to all the money?
And then when IRD got suspended, I started thinking back to my own experiences in Haiti and wanting to find accountability. And you know what? Accountability starts with me. Accountability has to start with me. And it’s not fair of me to expect people to get angry when non-profits don’t do what they say they’re gonna do. I need to do what I say I’m gonna do first.
So, when the IRD scandal blew up, I was looking at my Facebook. I was looking at my Twitter feed. I knew a lot of people who had worked for IRD and nobody said anything, Amy. They didn’t Tweet about it. They didn’t repost the Washington Post story. They didn’t say anything, and I thought, how are the employees of IRD not angry? And if the employees aren’t angry, then the donors are never gonna know. It’s like nobody noticed that they were found guilty, at least by the Inspector General, of wasting money.
Nobody wants to bite the hand that feeds them.
Amy: And we’re talking about serious amounts of money, and as I understand, the investigation is ongoing. And so, to what do you attribute the silence you saw among your friends and colleagues around the accusations that have been waged against IRD?
Emily: Well, nobody wants to say anything about it because nobody wants to bite the hand that feeds them and, you know, that’s the problem, is that these organizations make a lot of money for a lot of people, and it’s not like we’re living the high life. I mean, me, I have a cheap used car. I am not necessarily a rich person, but there’s a lot of people in this aid organism who benefit from it. And they don’t want to blow it up because they don’t want to lose that.
They need it for a lot of reasons. Reasons that are actually good. Like, I wanted the money from IRD because I wanted to keep doing the reporting I was doing in Haiti. So, I had a good reason for being part of the system, but at the end of the day, I had to decide whether or not that was more important than telling the truth, and ultimately I decided to tell the truth.
This article will end that part of my career.
Amy: Are you concerned that it’s going to impact your ability to continue to get lucrative assignments from non-profits who want you to profile the work that they’re doing out in the field?
Emily: Oh, yeah. I know it will end that work. I mean, there’s no way that I would get a contract now to do that work. No way. Even just having this blog makes it very difficult for me to get people to answer my emails. So, for sure, this article and, and some of the others that I’ve written recently will end that part of my career.
Amy: You’ve kind of drawn your line in the sand, and decided, as you put it, that you’re going to tell the truth now. So where do you go from here?
Emily: I think for me, nothing changes. Because what I was doing before was writing stories about issues that I was passionate about and then, you know, living the rest of my life, and that’s what I’m gonna keep doing. The only thing I won’t be doing is trying to make money in that process, and that’s okay for me. That works for my life. I know a lot of people don’t have the financial freedom to do that, but for me, that’s the only thing that’s gonna change, is that I’m not, in a sense, beholden by anyone anymore.
The people I write about are more important than I am.
Amy: So you feel, in fact, more liberated rather than more confined.
Emily: I definitely feel more liberated by passing on the aid money. Passing on whatever other money might come my way because that money is a contract to tell a certain sort of a story and the fact is that that story doesn’t help as many people as it should. So, I decided that Haiti and the people that I write about are more important than I am.
Amy: I wanna talk to you about another post you wrote upon your return to Haiti last year. You had been gone for 18 months and in your blog you describe looking down, kind of, I think you were perched on a hill, and you’re looking down over a town square and it had been renovated by charitable organizations and you describe these winding cement paths and new park benches and how local artisans had been hired to lay down colorful mosaics and then you write this.
You say, “From the looks of things, the bad old days of post-earthquake Haiti are over. And I wondered, ‘Why does this happy view make me feel so sad?’” I wanted you to go ahead and read from this blog post about your response looking down at this new park in Haiti.
Emily: For many, the park is all that remains of the billions of aid dollars dedicated to Haiti after the quake. I saw the park as a concession prize. An overly cheerful placeholder for real change. Unfortunately, the facts support my dismal view. For awhile, organizations held on to the hope that they would build actual houses for Haitians and they raised tons of money by promoting their plans. But after a few years, most proved untenable.
By 2014, almost every organization working in Haiti has stopped talking about houses. Charities now use the terms “housing alternatives” or “improved shelter.” It’s a small linguistic change that belies the bigger sentiment: We give up. At times, I wish the aid community had just done nothing at all, because that would have been a more honest response.
There was so much waste. The problem was that we couldn’t fix it.
Amy: And yet, I’m sure there are many people who have been involved in the reconstruction of Haiti who would listen to your words and say, we did a lot more than you’re giving us credit for. You’re painting a pretty bleak picture of the reconstruction effort. What would you say to them?
Emily: I think it’s true that there’s definitely some organizations that did well. I think it’s the exception. It’s not the rule, and in my experience, a lot of the people who left Haiti left really, really discouraged. Because everywhere you could see it. You could see the waste. And the problem was that we couldn’t fix it.
When so many organizations came in, for example, after the earthquake, what happened immediately is that the price of everything went up. So, all of a sudden, the whole government ran out of license plates. You couldn’t rent a car in Haiti. You couldn’t get an apartment. Haitians were evicted from their apartments, middle class Haitians, so that aid organizations could move in.
The price of everything went up. So right away, right in that instant, we gave so much money to Haiti that our money stopped working as well. It’s a paradox, you know, and I think most people who were in Haiti after the earthquake can see that even though the intention was good, the outcome wasn’t.
Humanitarianism was never about organizations.
Amy: And I just find it interesting that you are generally despondent about the state of international aid today, yet you remain engaged in it. You continue to profile the lives of the people most impacted by these humanitarian crises.
Emily: Well, humanitarianism was never about organizations. I mean, international aid isn’t about nonprofits. It’s about being charitable. It’s about being humane. That doesn’t have anything to do with the business of aid. I’ve separated them because I never stopped caring. I mean, I still really think that we need solutions to some of these global problems. Like children dying. People without water. I’m just not sure that the organizational approach, as it’s constructed today, is ever gonna work.
Amy: Writer and photographer Emily Troutman, also founder and editor of the blog, Aid.Works. Thank you so much for your time today.
Emily: Thanks, Amy.
You can read and listen to more stories from TinySpark on their website, http://www.tinyspark.org/.