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Mission Videos: expectation vs reality.

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

There are thousands of mission videos and images out there.  Some help a ministry, many do nothing, a few go viral. Then there are the videos that actually hurt the reputation of an agency. Do you know the secrets to take great mission video and pictures?

I was on a trip to El Salvador to train the volunteer leaders of Shelter. Their mission is to build houses for families in need of a house in El Salvador. This was the second year they invited me down and I was once more impressed with their compassion, zeal for meaningful work, quality of construction and serious leadership skills.

While I was there I took some time away from building the house to take some video of the process (it was also a good excuse to stop breaking concrete with a pickaxe!)

Why I made the video

Whenever you make a video or share an image always begin by answering the basic question WHY.

  • Why are you making this video?

  • What do you hope it will do?

Starting with WHY often leads to another important questions: WHO will be watching this?  WHERE should I share it so those people can easily see and share? WHAT part of the story will be most interesting to them?

Start with WHY before you begin editing or posting and you will immediately notice your storytelling gets sharper and more people are interested.

So what is my WHY? I shared that video because I believe in the work of Shelter. I also shared the video because I want to practice what I preach.

What should you avoid?

Earlier today I saw a picture that a ministry in Haiti had posted on facebook to highlight an event. The image was of a large family in front of a home fashioned out of scrap tin and tarp. The family spread out in a line. The colours were dark and the small figures unsmiling and small. If you looked closely you could see a couple in the centre holding babies wrapped up in blankets.

The image was stark.

A colleague asked the person who posted why they chose this particular picture.  I felt the same way, I wanted to ask why they didn’t show a positive picture instead of another stereotype of poverty.

The original poster responded with a story of the picture. This was a strong and happy successful family who was celebrating the birth of twins. The emotion and love of the person who posted the picture was obvious. They cared about these people and wanted to portray their capacity.

“Event pictures must explain things that words can’t explain”

The problem is that none of us know this family. We don't know the people and their story and can only judge the image by what we see. Without personal knowledge we couldn't understand the image. The colleague who questioned the picture finished with a great insight – “event pictures must explain things that words can’t explain”.

Changing the focus on our lens

We have all seen thousands of videos showing off a person who is working to eliminate poverty somewhere. Many of those videos follow a predictable pattern:

  1. Show people in tragedy (who don’t look like me)

  2. Show heroes coming in to save the day (who definitely look like me)

  3. Ask viewers (who also look like me) to donate so they also feel like a hero.

I think a lot of those pictures and videos do little to help and actually belittle the people being portrayed. I think they dishonestly show outsiders as the ones with all the answers.

I challenge people to show a different story. Whenever possible, a great mission video will show people in positions of agency – as people with the ability to change their circumstances and story.

People tell me that like the idea, but I also get plenty of pushback. Many are convinced that if they don’t share shocking images, no one will do anything.These leaders feel obligated to show shocking images of the the horrible reality of poverty. They know that if people feel bad/guilty they will get donations.

It works.

I do believe that there is a place for shocking images – the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi on the mediterranean beach shocked us all into pushing for Syrian peace – but even in this particularly pressing emergency the picture was taken with a sensitivity.

The truth is that the VAST majority of us are not working in the centre of a disaster response. We are not caring for people who will die today or tomorrow from disease, crisis, or men with guns. If we are involved in long-term community development we need to consider how we share our story.

There is a term that has been coined for pictures of other people suffering - it's called Poverty Porn ... its grotesque and it shouldn't have a place in our advertising.

The Story Formula for a Great Mission Video

I train people to do something very different when sharing video and photos of their work.

I make sure that I don’t take much footage of heroic pictures of a person from outside the community who is there to simply direct others or hug cute kids. This reinforces a stereotype that outsiders are the solution to internal problems.

I also don’t take pictures of raw sewage, or broken stuff. This is simply because I wouldn’t want someone coming to my house and taking pictures of my garbage cans, or snapping selfies in the part of my yard where I keep all my junk.

I thought it might be helpful if I shared some of my process in developing this video:

What I Do

My process usually begins by asking myself if I produce a great mission video who will want to watch it. I often just think about a few of my friends and ask myself what would those guys be interested in seeing?

I look for something interesting or educational:

I like to watch youtube videos explaining how to build stuff. They are inspiring. I think “I can do that!” I never will, but I feel I learn a new skill when I watch a master showing off their process.

That’s why I share the details of the build (not every step – that would be dull) … but enough that someone with a handyman mindset can get what is happening. I think people are interested in the process of what we do. People want to see how a house is built in 3 hours. That’s a compelling story.

Take footage of the process, but remember that this is not your main objective. Your primary purpose for a great mission video is to share a true human story that everyone on the planet can relate to.

I show partnership:

I try to always highlight how people from the community are in the drivers seat

Unfortunately this cannot be done with some charitable agencies simply because the people in their stories are definitely not allowed into those positions of power.

In this video I highlighted the side-by-side nature of the work, how we each took part of the job, the mutual leadership, how the family gave us massive watermelon wedges as we gave our labour.

Thankfully, this exchange was natural. I didn’t have to cherrypick images to force promote something that was not naturally happening.

When you are capturing footage that you are also telling the whole story of community ability. Don’t just take pictures of your friends, or try to capture an image of “nobility in the midst of poverty”, take pictures highlighting the real abilities of the people from the community.

I show off other people:

I wanted to highlight the work of a partner I admire. I don’t love self promotion – but I enjoy sharing the stories of what my colleagues and partners are doing. Help build up someone else!

If you are running a charity, take some time to promote other partners. It’s not only kind, but it is important to honour those who are doing great work.

A great mission video will share a universal human story:

There are themes of every human being on the planet. We all understand: family, desire, jealousy, hope, disappointment, the thrill of a gift, loss … the list goes on.

I chose the concept of house and home in this video because this is a universal human story.This theme was a pretty easy choice as building houses was our objective for the week. We all relate to a house – they may be all different shapes and sizes as the video shows, but we all understand House and Home. Human beings have a feeling associated with our house and our home. HGTV wouldn’t exist if we didnt!

What’s your best advice, what do you find is helpful when you are trying to create a great mission video? What story do you tell? What do you avoid?

Please share your hard-won secrets with the rest of us leaders – we want to learn!

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