In the face of famine

July 22, 2011

Thursday, July 21, 2011 was supposed to be like any other night shift here on the pictures desk in Singapore – selecting, editing, and captioning pictures as they came in from around the world. On the menu would be coverage of National Day in Belgium, Eurozone summit, Tour de France, Europa League soccer, golf, and the daily file from Libya, Yemen and the rest of the Middle East, just to name a few.

In my close to four years working as a pictures sub-editor I’ve seen a large variety of what the world, and life has to offer. The rise and fall of politicians and regimes, tsunamis, earthquakes, athletes celebrating and hanging their heads in scandal-ridden shame, conservative cultures covering up in the name of modesty and liberal cultures baring all in the name of expression, fashion, entertainment, or just for the sake of it.

Through my photographer colleagues around the world, I’ve also witnessed a lot of bloodshed, violence and death. From a little girl clutching her dead mother’s body with her intestines spilling onto the road after a bomb explosion, to relatives reacting following gangland executions, heads and genitalia severed. ‘Soldiers’, ‘rebels’, ‘freedom fighters’, ‘terrorists’ – all killing each other in the name of one ideology or another. All of this, as a news organization we’ve presented to you.

I’ve also seen the images we decided not to distribute — similar gangland executions, but with bodies skinned and dismembered, genitalia placed in severed hands. Images we deemed too gruesome to publish in a newspaper, or simply just unsuitable for any use.

Until today, July 21, I’d thought I had been desensitized enough to be able to handle anything our photographers send in and be able to see the world unfold, and in turn show the world what’s happening right now.

All these years, sitting in my ergonomic desk chair, in the air-conditioned newsroom, drinking cup after cup of iced Milo to keep me going, I’ve always wondered what our photographers go through covering the various disasters and conflicts. The other Global Pictures Desk editors and I are bombarded by hundreds upon hundreds of images every 8-hour shift work. The Global Pictures Desk never shuts down and this flow of pictures is never ending — 3 shifts a day, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But when I step out of the office I’ve always been able to purge my mind of images that undoubtedly caused nightmares for my colleagues out in the field who actually were there taking the pictures.

Yet, today, what shook me were eight images taken by Feisal Omar in Somalia that didn’t even come close to what I’d call graphic, compared to the more horrifying images I’ve seen. A mother with what seems to be a faint smile of hope watching her malnourished child being treated by a doctor.

Then the same woman weeping as her child lies dead on the table covered with a cloth. And then finally she stares, seemingly straight at the viewer, her sadness resonating through the pixels of the image on the screen.

Undoubtedly you’ll be seeing these images: children with tubes in their noses and sunken eyes as they are treated for malnourishment and dehydration. Sitting in my comfortable chair it’s hard not to feel ashamed. Here we are, in the 21st Century, where on one hand we have societies where children are dying from hunger and on the other, societies battling rising childhood obesity. What kind of world are we living in where the affluent are driven to excess, while the impoverished just wither away? These thoughts kept repeating in my head.

As I moved the Somalia pictures to the wire, and continued to work on a series of pictures from Libya, all I could see was the mother, the children and flashes of my two-year-old niece’s face. A colleague said to me, “Ignore it, zone out, it’s better for your mind.” But I wonder, is it really better to tune it out?

I wonder how do you feel as you see these pictures? Are you sick to your stomach at the thought that this child didn’t die of a gunshot wound, a bomb blast or disease but of the lack of the most basic necessity, food?

When I saw these pictures I sat in my seat, for the first time in my career, feeling completely impotent. That’s when I walked away from the desk, away from my colleagues, and for the first time, in the office… I cried.

5 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Thanks for sharing this, Gil. And it’s right for us to feel something from time to time.

Posted by vivpix | Report as abusive

I’m glad you decided to write it down and share. I have been through certain days when I saw pictures that weren’t maybe gruesome but so hard hitting, as if the picture spoke to that person inside of me who I have draped with a cover of insensitivity that we don when in news.. and leave behind such helplessness, and then some anger somewhere over the next opulence we indulge in.

Posted by Anuja | Report as abusive

Thank you for posting these pictures and your thoughts.
It is hard to understand how things like this can happen when we have all the tools at hand to avert them.
In the last 100 years we have developed exponentially in the fields of technology, computer science, and engineering yet at the same rate neglected the growth of ethics, common sense and wisdom.
I wish our kids could get a scholarship for outstanding ethics instead of sports.

Posted by veisa | Report as abusive

Back in the 1980s when Ethiopia was hard hit by drought, I worked for World Vision. It was hard to see these images. Now, I am still hit with them and I do attempt to help when I can, but many in the USA are without work and on food subsidy. I feel so bad for them. Sometimes the food never gets to these precious people.

Posted by Authena | Report as abusive

thank you for shraing.
we need more people doing this publishing.

Coming from Africa, I too starved. My mom didn’t even had corn flour to feed me and my two younger sisters. It is really sad that kids struggled against obesity in one part of the world and african children died from the lack the basics…food.
“Do as little as you can, even though you think it’s not much”

Posted by Cisbelia | Report as abusive