This expression is well known “a picture is worth a thousand words” and I completely agree that throughout history a single photograph has changed the world’s perception of a person or event, or it has become an iconic symbol for generations. For me, there are 5 photos, many taken during times of conflict, which are etched in my memory, probably because they evoke strong emotions. If you are an American most likely you will know these examples: soldiers raising the American flag over Iwo-Jima, a naked young girl running from napalm in Vietnam, New York City Times Square on V-Day, a sailor kissing a young woman, Neil Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon, the lone man facing down Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square. Probably each of us has several “special” photos that evoke all sorts of emotions for us. Great joy, pride, sadness over something we once had that is now gone, regret that we have lost track of that person or can’t even remember where the photo was taken or even who is in it (yes millennial’s that happens-write captions!). A photo takes us back to that place or time in our lives for just a fleeting moment. Pictures often move us to action, “I must call that old friend” or “I must change what I am seeing”. I recently read a book that had this quote by Dorothea Lange, an American photographer, “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.”
So if photos are so important and express often what words cannot, what’s with my title NO PHOTOs ALLOWED? For me, it has to do with my inner voice telling me it is not okay to capture the raw suffering of others just for the sake of my story.
I thought I “knew” poverty, or at least had a better sense of it than most Westerners. When I returned to East Africa, as a PULSE Volunteer, a volunteer told me the poverty is “deep” here. I casually tossed that statement aside, thinking I know what poverty looks like, I have worked and lived in many developing countries over the years primarily working in a health care capacity. However, through my extended time here in Africa the poverty somehow feels different to me-it is in fact “quite deep”. The sheer numbers of children in filthy tattered clothes, some without shoes; the makeshift deplorable “houses” with large holes in the roof with walls shedding what little plaster that is left making it unsafe to sleep in; the smell of animal waste or human body odor that frequently permeates the air; the filthy mattresses that serve as the family bed; the infectious diseases like malaria that are endemic, the parasites in the water. I often wonder, would showing you a picture change things, is it better than words? For me, I see it, I feel sad but I remain merely a spectator, on the sidelines, I will never know what it is like to live such a difficult life. My inner voice tells me that there is an important story here, there is compassion for the suffering of others and respect for human dignity and yet somehow a photo, even with consent still doesn’t feel right. As my husband said the bigger picture is that there is hope, each of us can change “the existing picture” just a little, maybe just for one person; it just requires the desire to do so.