Stop Kony 2012, an online campaign to raise awareness about Ugandan guerrilla leader Joseph Kony, went viral Wednesday, thanks to a 30-minute video about Kony’s group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has abducted and forced around 66,000 children to fight in his army over the past two decades. 

However, the campaign quickly sparked questions not about Kony, but about the charity behind the video, Invisible Children.

One image propelled many of those questions:

(Glenna Gordon/ Scarlet Lion )

The image showed the founders of Invisible Children — Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole, and Jason Russell — posing with guns alongside members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), who have fought against the LRA. On Wednesday, Vice magazine posted the photograph with the headline “Should I Donate Money to Kony 2012 or Not?”

The photograph was immediately criticized.A widely-cited student blog “Visible Children” called it an indication of Invisible Children’s emphasis on direct military intervention in Uganda. The Racialicious, a race and pop culture blog, said the photo helped paint a “picture of neo-colonialism.” Others quoted Chris Blattman, a political scientist at Yale, who wrote that Invisible Children’s program “hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden... the savior attitude.”

To get the story behind the photograph, I turned to Glenna Gordon. who captured the moment at the Sudan-Congo border during the 2008 peace talks while she was on assignment for the Associated Press. Hear her take on the Kony 2012 campaign after the jump.

The official Invisible Children response to the photo and other criticisms is also below. Watch the Kony 2012 video here.

Q. How did you happen to be there to take this photo?

Gordon: I was on assignment for the AP covering the 2008 peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA, and we were all sort of stuck at this small camp, in the same space, to wait for the talks to resume. There was nothing to do. I saw that the Invisible Children guys were [posing with guns], and I thought I should take some pictures.

Q. What were the reactions of the SPLA members standing with them?  

Gordon: The SPLA were into it, because they were bored too. People were having a lot of fun videotaping it, taking Polaroids and posing with all of these guys. Everyone was into it.

I think I felt a lot of discomfort, but I didn’t say to stop it, which maybe I should have because if we were attacked by LRA then, the SPLA should have had guns in their hands.

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.

Q. What did you think of the Kony 2012 video?

Gordon: I can’t bring myself to watch the video. I found all of their previous efforts to be emotionally manipulative, and all the things I try as a journalist not to be. After the peace talks in 2008, they put out another video, and I saw the footage used in these videos blending archival footage with LRA and SPLA and videos of them goofing off. It was the most irresponsible act of image-making that I’d seen in a long time. They conflated the SPLA with the LRA. The SPLA is a government army, holding weapons given by the government, and yet they did not create any division between them and LRA. That’s terrible.

Q. How did you see other aid groups and Ugandans respond to Invisible Children while in Uganda?  

Gordon: People who have lived there for years, bona fide aid workers who have studied foreign policy and other relevant fields like public health, who are really there because they are trying to solve problems — they see Invisible Children as trying to promote themselves and a version of the narrative.

Most Ugandans also think they are ridiculous. They say “Invisible Children! They seem pretty visible to me.” Even the name is so loaded.

In Uganda, Invisible Children has programs operating but I don’t want to speak to those because I don’t know them.

Q. The Kony 2012 campaign has made a lot of people aware of Joseph Kony. Do you think there will be a tangible impact of Kony 2012?

Gordon: The LRA isn’t even active in Uganda anymore, so we’re getting the issue to the spotlight with so much misinformation. I applaud efforts to bring humanitarian crises to the limelight, but if we do so with misinformation, we are sure to make mistakes. We need to do so with an eye toward accuracy and responsibility.

Q. The filmmaker of Kony 2012 featured his son in the video to help people understand the situation in Uganda. Do you think that contributed to the film’s success?

Yes, and I think that it is a legitimate comparison to make in the film between Ugandan and American kids. It’s a mistake to think that we shouldn’t have the same expectations for livelihood, education, etc. for children in both countries. And that idea may create more political will.

Q. Who do you think is doing good work on the ground? Which groups do you think have better answers about how to change what’s happening in Uganda?

 I think there are a lot of reputable NGOs doing the daily business of development — the actual building of latrines, training of teachers, etc. Oxfam and IRC have great operations in Uganda. Lacor Hospital, Caritas Uganda, The Refugee Law Project, Christian Counseling Fellowship, and African Youth Initiative Network. I really hope that we can redirect the energy to these groups, as much as possible.

 Below, read Invisible Children’s official response to the photo:

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.

Read Invisible Children’s full response to criticisms of Kony 2012 here.

Read Gordon’s response to the photo on her blog, here.

Watch the controversial video:

View Photo Gallery: President Obama last year announced the deployment of about 100 troops to target the leadership of the insurgent group from northern Uganda. Here’s a look at some of the members, and victims, of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

BlogPost: Kony gets support of Obama

BlogPost: Invisible children responds to criticism

BlogPost: Joseph Kony and Lord’s Resistance Army: A primer