Friday, January 29, 2016: January, 2016 Update
In the midst of the Ebola crisis last year, I came across the photograph below by Bryan Denton, an American photojournalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. Taken in Sierra Leone, it’s one of the saddest pictures I’ve ever seen, on a par with Kevin Carter’s image of a vulture stalking a starving Sudanese child, or the photograph of Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, that awakened a world in denial to the plight of its refugees.
Unlike the latter two pictures, there is nothing particularly dramatic or emotionally compelling about Denton’s photo. On the left, a little girl sits somewhat stiffly on a log. Her cornrows echo the stripes she is wearing. On the right, a woman in a colorful dress stands against the wall of a building. Her arms are folded across her chest, head angled down. She and the girl avert their eyes. In the center, a red-and-white striped rope extends from the foreground into the distance where it finally turns ninety-degrees to the left as if enclosing the girl.
The New York Times caption says: “Marie Kamara, left, sitting behind a quarantine line in the village of Rosanda . . . under the watch of a community leader. The girl died [of Ebola] several weeks after this photo was taken.”
Did eight-year old Marie feel sick the day Denton took this photograph? Did she understand why she couldn’t leave her home, or have any idea that her life was in jeopardy? The picture doesn’t say. In fact, it doesn’t say much at all, while at the same time it tells us everything: At her hour of greatest need, a little girl is deprived of loving touch and comfort. Unable to reach out to her, a village elder stands helplessly by.
I see this photograph as a metaphor for our time, a period when governments have failed to protect the most vulnerable and unfortunate among us. In fact, state institutions are often the perpetrators of pain and suffering. Marie Kamara and Aylan Kurdi are but the tip of the iceberg, two innocents who stand out from countless other children and adults only because a photographer turned up before or soon after they died. To me, their photographs are like mirrors, forcing us to look at our reflections and ask why hatred, fear, ignorance, and violence have overwhelmed voices of compassion, wisdom, tolerance, and peacemaking. At what point do we face our species’ abject failure to ensure the security and well being of all? At what point will benevolence become a governing principle?
Here is another photo of Marie, taken only a few days before she died at a clinic, with her mother Fatu Fornah:
As a seventy-one-year-old male living in America, it’s hard to explain why I am so moved by the brief life of an African child I know little about. Perhaps it originates with one photographer’s appreciation for the work of another. Whatever the reason, I feel the need to honor Marie by keeping her in my consciousness. Her photo is installed on my desktop and sits on a shelf in my living room. I only hope it never stops being a teaching.
* * * * *
Between the Ebola and refugee crises, ongoing wars in Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan, brutal terrorist attacks on civilians throughout the world, genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and mass shootings, police killings and gun violence in this country — not to mention the clown circus passing as presidential primary season in America — it’s hard to feel good about the year just passed.
Closer to home, there’s fortunately better news to report. I’ve come to realize that Pixetera is no longer a “project” but an integral part of my routine: If two or three days go by without taking pictures, I get antsy because photography is what I rely on to satisfy a deep creative need. It’s been a mostly solitary undertaking but connecting with several kindred spirits last year has changed that dynamic in wonderful ways. In the fall, I met a photographer neighbor, Michael Bogdannfy-Kriegh, who approaches his craft not only as art but also as a spiritual quest. He and I are planning to go on a photo walk soon providing we won’t freeze our toes off. And last month, I had my first phone conversation with John Todaro, whose photo blog I regularly follow. A phone call doesn’t sound like much, but with both men, having a sense of the person behind the camera adds immeasurably to my enjoyment of their images, and motivates me to do better work. If you’re not familiar with their photography, I invite you to check them out.
Rounding out this trio of photo buddies is Susan Mayer, a graphic design instructor at Parsons and a walking encyclopedia of twentieth century art. Although strictly an amateur, she has a terrific eye: We often have fun taking pictures together and some of hers end up being more successful than mine. Regular visitors to Pixetera may recall seeing a number of them here, attributed to sm.
Finally, I owe an apology to those of you who have clicked on “Related” links only to be taken to earlier posts that have nothing to do with the original photographs. That’s because — and this is somewhat embarrassing — from Day One I didn’t understand WordPress categories or what to do with them. I’m now in the process of going back in time and making corrections so they’ll be more user friendly. It isn’t a book, photo show, or grant but it is a priority for 2016.