Behind the Photo of Invisible Children’s Founders Posing with Guns

© Glenna Gordon. Photo: Founders of Invisible Children pose with members of the Sudan People Liberation Army near the Sudan-Congo border, April 2008.

The Stop Kony2012 campaign video, which has now been viewed 55 million times on YouTube, has unleashed criticism about the video’s creators, followed by a backlash against the backlash.

The video, created by the charity Invisible Children, calls for intervention to bring Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, to justice. It is being criticized by Ugandans, NGOs working in Uganda and neigboring countries where the LRA operates, academics and the press.

Amidst the controversy there has been an outcry over a 2008 news photo showing Invisible Children’s founders posing with machine guns amidst members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which has battled the LRA. Photographer Glenna Gordon took the photo on assignment for AP in 2008, Ri-Kwangba, on the Sudan-Congo border, during peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA.
Gordon notes on her blog, www.scarlettlion.com that Vice magazine used the image without her permission –and without a caption – to illustrate its article “Should I Donate Money to Invisible Children?” That’s a valid question, she says, but just as the Kony 2012 video is being criticized for its lack of context, Gordon says her photo needs context, too. Without it, she says, the image “continues to perpetuate misinformation and to mythologize the film makers as bad asses, a practice I do not support.”  She says she tried to publish more information about what she calls the “questionable practices” of the founders but “no publication would bite.”

The Washington Post has just published an extensive interview with Gordon.  She is asked for her reaction to Invisible Children’s work and the video, and her thoughts on the photo:

Q. Invisible Children has received some criticism that their efforts and this photo seem “colonialist,” or hint at the “white man’s burden.” What do you say to that?
Gordon: I think all of those things are true. The photo plays into the myth that Invisible Children are very much actively trying to create. They even used the photo on their official response page. I don’t think they think there is a problem with the idea that they are colonial. This photo is the epitome of it, like, we are even going to hold your guns for you.

Invisible Children’s Jason Russell disagrees, the Post reports. Russell, who is shown in the photo along with colleagues Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole of Invisible Children, says they wanted to meet and film members of the SPLA to get their reaction to the peace talks.

“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.”

The full interview with Gordon, and links to both criticism of the campaign and the reaction by Invisible Children, is on Washington Post.

Correction: an earlier version of this story misstated the location at which the image was taken. Apologies for this error.

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6 Responses to “Behind the Photo of Invisible Children’s Founders Posing with Guns”

  1. andrew stromotich Says:

    these guys are looking worse and worse with every turn

  2. An Open Letter to Everyone With an Opinion About Kony 2012 | Arnold Lane Says:

    [...] for making a good salary.  (They should, however, be vilified for this completely inappropriate photo in which they posed with big [...]

  3. Ambrose Pierce Says:

    I learned about Invisible Children through a post on one of the NYT’s blog that ran a couple of days ago. I’m a journalist and have known about Kony for more than a decade now and was glad to see that a very substantial group of people, including the Obama administration, are no longer looking the other way as Kony continues his campaign of violence against the children of Uganda because of the efforts IC has made in raising awareness through the power of social media along with go old-fashioned shoe-leather lobbying of Congress. They have clearly done more to prick the conscience of policy makers than any journalist or academic has done to date. While I think it’s important for people to be critical when looking at these organizations, I find the amount of cynicism expressed truly sad. It seems nothing is off limits, even when it comes to those who genuinely seem to care and ARE doubtless making a difference. To suggest that their methods are “colonialist” and born out of “white man’s burden” is really unfortunate, because the same could then be said of every journalist, photographer, doctor, and NGO operating in Africa. All are there with the hope they can make a positive difference in the lives of Africans where help is needed. To suggest IC is just another brand of colonialism is not only flawed reasoning, but it discourages those who would offer support from doing so.

  4. Denny Robins Says:

    Keep your eye on the ball.
    Criticize IC if you want.
    Get Kony is the name of the game !

  5. Craig @ Canvas Prints From Photos Says:

    As has been said above, it is truly sad when people who want to help make a huge difference, are kicked and punched for any mistake. So what if there is a photo of them holding guns – if at the end of all this Kony is no longer killing and abusing children then will it matter?

  6. Danny Says:

    “Kony continues his campaign of violence against the children of Uganda” FYI Ambrose Pierce, Kony hasn’t operated in Uganda for years….