In the face of famine
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.