NO PHOTOS ALLOWED!

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.

17 comments

  1. That was a powerful and thought provoking blog Susan – thank you for posting! Although I haven’t yet witnessed first hand the same depth of poverty here in Laos (although I know it exists and will be visiting the provinces in 2 weeks) I really do understand it not feeling right taking some photos. As you (and your husband) said – it’s about each of us changing our existing picture, whatever that is, little by little.

  2. You are making a difference! Writing your article, even without pictures, brings awareness. Bless you for taking this assignment.

  3. Susan, beautiful words to reflect an absurd reality. Great perspective and sensitivity. I will try to do better too.

  4. Incredible perspective Sue….beautifully articulated to those of us here sitting comfortable with a coffee in hand in warm clothes…..again, perspective. Thank you.

  5. You definitely provided us with the reverse of that famous expression. With just a handful of words you created a myriad of photos. I found myself picturing every single one of those scenarios you described. Very moving Sue, and to know that you are making a difference, much more than just a sideline spectator. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Your blogs keep reaching deeper and deeper into our humanity. Not only are you making a difference but this experience is changing your perspective in ways you probably never imagined. Sharing that with us increases your reach to make a difference. Miss you.

  7. Indeed! An important reminder of just how fortunate we are and a valuable lesson in compassion, respect, and humility.

  8. Hi Sue – for me, the absence of the photo actually made my mind’s eye picture this level of poverty and, in a way, feel it. In some ways we become desensitized to certain things because the images bombard us on TV ads or social media. I think not seeing a picture really made your words and the imagery deeper. Another great blog! We think about you often – can’t wait to see you again 🙂

  9. Sue, as I read I felt every word… that is exactly what I kept thinking as I walked through a hospital where there are more people on the floor than on beds, cancer has disfigured faces and bodies and the smell of infections lingers in the air. The bigger picture is exactly what we need to focus – on making an impact by driving sustainable change… me going and buying beds for those that were on the floor is not going to tackle the root cause of their illness… there is so much we can do if we think carefully. That’s why we are Pulse Volunteers – let’s keep it up and spread the word!!!

  10. I empathise completely with your sentiments, also working in Africa. The things i have seen have galvanised me to action – over and above my assignment, and if we can in a small way galvanise others with our blogs then our time working with these partners is even more enhanced.

  11. Really well written. Made me sad for those children. What an experience for you, it will help you help them even more. Stay safe!

  12. Your words paint a vivid picture! What is even better than pictures is storytelling. I think your stories will move more people to action than any photo probably could. In fact, I see a few people who commented are taking action because your story! Keep telling the stories and inspiring action, Sue!

  13. Hi Sue, I’m with Michelle’s comment above – you have brought tears to my eyes while reading this. Take care, Sue

  14. Thank you for sharing Sue. Thinking of you with love -and such respect for all you give. You are a blessing to all who know you and your love for ppl is a gift that you have been sharing for your whole life. Be safe friend. Love you, Anne Robie Murray

  15. Such a beautifully written and important post, Sue. Thank you for your honest sharing. I can definitely relate to your experience and reflections.

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