On assignment in the famine-stricken country in 1998, photographer Jon Warren found a ‘moment of tenderness’ amidst suffering.
Is there a place for photographs that depict human suffering?
Earlier this week on Skype, I followed a thoughtful discussion among some talented African colleagues asking this very question. They were rightfully ashamed of photographs that degrade and demean the subject. Others felt the only reason to show such images is to shock the audience.
I remember my first assignment to Sudan, in 1998, to cover a famine in the region now known as South Sudan. It was so isolated that the only way to get there was a long plane ride from northern Kenya; the plane landed on a dirt strip that was only usable if the rain stopped. I’ve never seen such widespread starvation. An entire region was dying.
Mass starvation is an awful thing to see. I struggled to find anything I could share. I’m an emotional guy, but this was the first time I’d wept so much I worried my pictures would be useless.
Everywhere I looked, children and adults were emaciated skeletons. A stick-figured boy told me everyone else in his family had died on the trek to the feeding center. Babies died while I watched. Bodies of the elderly were hauled away, wrapped in sheets.
More than 2 million people were at risk. They needed immediate food aid and long-term peace. And I was there with a camera, a witness to the horror. If I was silent, how would help come to them?
So I looked for moments of tenderness, of caring, of real humanity, of any hope that I could find. Mothers gently coaxing their emaciated children to eat high-nutrition porridge. Or the subject here: A father came into one of the feeding centers with his child. He himself was in rags, but he cradled his child with tenderness and love.
When I got back to the U.S., I had a heated debate with European colleagues who said the images depicted unsightly stereotypes. I was angry. I asked if they had seen the famine, the dying children. Did they understand that the pictures I was sharing were the least objectionable ones I could find? Would someone give us the millions of dollars needed without seeing the proof in the photos? What would I say to the mothers who were counting on me to tell the world that they needed help?
I completely understand objections to pictures that show starving children, especially when the very worst cases are presented as the norm. At World Vision we work hard to emphasize hope and progress—to show God at work. Even with the Sudan famine story, the second feature we ran inWorld Visionmagazine was one about agricultural solutions that could make southern Sudan the breadbasket for Africa.
But when the truth is horrible, when injustice and suffering are rampant, those of us who are witnesses have a responsibility to alert the world to what is happening. We need to look though our cameras with love, but we also need to show the truth.
+ Jon Warren is a photojournalist for World Vision U.S.