The now infamous photo of the Invisible Children film makers tells several different stories. Though I originally questioned whether or not I’d have wanted the image released if I had an option, I now realize that the release was both inevitable and ultimately effective.
The first and most obvious story that this image tells is that these guys are posing to look cool, which in turn makes them look terrible. This is what most people who see the photo think. That’s certainly what I thought when I took the photo back in 2008, and that’s certainly how it’s being used in the media now for the most part.
But, it also does this other thing — it reinforces Jason, Bobby and Laren’s bad-ass-ness, making them look good even while it undermines their authority. It screams, look how cool we are! Check us out on the Sudan-Congo border! They are awesome dudes who are taking care of business. This appeals to the many young people who want to be bad-asses and pose like Rambo.
Ultimately though, this is a photograph about privilege: they are outsiders, playing solider, involved in a conflict that they can leave and where others are not playing.
And they know that. In fact, they know that so well that they used that photo as the banner image on their page responding to criticism – trying to re-appropriate it and snuffing out its power by making it their own.
A story told by Jason Russell: Let me start by saying that that photo was a bad idea. We were young and we got caught up in the moment. It was never meant to reflect on the organization. The photo of Bobby, Laren and I with the guns was taken in an LRA camp in DRC during the 2008 Juba Peace Talks. We were there to see Joseph Kony come to the table to sign the Final Peace Agreement. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was surrounding our camp for protection since Sudan was mediating the peace talks. We wanted to talk to them and film them and get their perspective. And because Bobby, Laren and I are friends and had been doing this for 5 years, we thought it would be funny to bring back to our friends and family a joke photo. You know, “Haha – they have bazookas in their hands but they’re actually fighting for peace.” The ironic thing about this photo is that I HATE guns. I always have. Back in 2008 I wanted this war to end, like we all did, peacefully, through peace talks. But Kony was not interested in that; he kept killing. And we still don’t want war. We don’t want him killed and we don’t want bombs dropped. We want him alive and captured and brought to justice
But, for all of the people who do feel uncomfortable with Invisible Children’s slick message and questionable overtones, there’s a photograph floating around the Internet that confirms those fears. It makes people doubt IC, despite their best efforts to re-appropriate it, to explain it away.
A friend called it “the photo that is the best visual indictment taking down the Invisible Children.” I hadn’t thought of the image as that until she said it. Many photographers hope that our images can change something, that our images can make people doubt their assumptions and reconsider easy answers.
And I realize now that at least this one has.