By: Nilima Achwal, KF8, Bolivia

While taking pictures throughout Bolivia of Kiva clients, colleagues, and friends, I’ve noticed a theme. Most people don’t smile. No matter if it’s a jolly loan officer who loves his job, the cleaning girl that always peers curiously over my shoulder at my laptop and brings me mate de coca, or good friends hanging out after work. The second I take out my camera, in fact, the second before I click the shutter, the grins vanish. Ironically (and maddeningly), the second the flash is out, the subject in question almost always smiles or laughs.

It’s not that people scowl for pictures. They just present themselves in a professional, even “cool” way. In their minds, it makes no sense to grin like an idiot just because someone is taking their picture; it’s just not that exciting. Also, since digital cameras are not nearly as ubiquitous here as in other countries, some entrepreneurs get nervous and tell me to wait while they quickly fold their hands in their laps, take off traditional indigenous hats, and look “proper” before I take the picture.

That’s a better-case scenario. Sometimes entrepreneurs don’t want their picture taken at all. I think this has something to do with not wanting to be viewed as attractions. They usually agree to it when I explain that the lenders want to meet them.

What does this mean for the pictures of Kiva entrepreneurs that make it on to borrower profiles and journals? Personally, while taking journal pictures I casually make a little joke or cry “Say whiskey!” (the Bolivian equivalent of “Say cheese”) to get them to giggle, though they try to force back the laughter. After one such occasion, I showed the photo on my camera screen to the group, and one of the young women burst out laughing, teasing her friend, “Look at Marisol, she’s looks like she’s laughing in the picture.”

I always feel the need to convey the warmth and friendship I have experienced with the borrowers so that lenders can experience it too, and the simplest way to do that is through a picture with smiling faces. In real life, we think of smiles as a symbol of acknowledgment and friendship that surpasses language and cultural boundaries.

The conflict comes in when we think about how the borrower wants to present herself to the world. If the borrower feels more comfortable looking professional and hat-less, however much we would be fascinated by a smile and a hat, who are we to force our hegemonic cultural norms on others? However, it could be true that a picture of a smiling entrepreneur brings in funds quicker than would a picture of a seemingly depressed looking man or woman. And isn’t empowering people to pull themselves out of poverty the ultimate goal? But at the same time, by urging entrepreneurs to smile for pictures in order to bring in more lender dollars, we might almost be using our economic power to once again impose our cultural norms on other people.

I’m not saying I am going to stop encouraging borrowers to smile for pictures. To tell you the truth, I like pictures of smiling people. I’m just a little bit more conscious now of my immediate instinct of suspicion of people that seem cold or depressed in photos.

Kiva Journal Pictures

Nilima Achwal is a Kiva Fellow who is working with several branches of Fundación AgroCapital in Bolivia this summer. Lend to an AgroCapital entrepreneur now!

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