Me and the man with the iPad

July 29, 2011

By Barry Malone

I never know how to behave when I go to write about hungry people.

I usually bring just a notebook and a pen because it seems somehow more subtle than a recorder. I drain bottled water or hide it before I get out of the car or the plane. In Ethiopia a few years ago I was telling a funny story to some other journalists as our car pulled up near a church where we had been told people were arriving looking for food.

We got out and began walking towards the place, me still telling the tale, shouting my mouth off, struggling to get to the punch line through my laughter and everybody else’s.

Then there was this sound, a low rumbling thing that came to meet us.

I could feel it roll across the ground and up through my boots. I stopped talking, my laughter died, I grabbed the arm of the person beside me: “What is that?” And I realized. It was the sound of children crying. There were enough children crying that — I’ll say it again — I could feel it in my boots. I was shamed by my laughter.

Inside the churchyard there were tents and inside the tents children were dying.

Rows and rows of women sat on the ground cradling delicate babies. An aid worker told us we had ten minutes and so we went to work. Camera shutters clicking, pens scratching: “What’s her name? How far did she walk? How many of her kids are dead?”

Some journalists leaned down over the mothers to talk to them, some stuck cameras inches from their faces. I stood further away when taking the photos, I sat down in the dirt to interview people. I thought I was better, but I wasn’t. I was just more conceited.

I remember looking up and seeing a girl who worked at a U.N. aid agency crying. I motioned to her to get out — her tears as self-indulgent as my sitting in the dirt. And then we leave. Thank you, we say. Thank you for talking to me. Thank you for holding up your dying baby for my camera. And thank you for your dignity. Thank you for giving it to me. Thank you for letting me have it.

Because that’s the thing. An Ethiopian girl told me last week that she cried as she watched foreign journalists interviewing a Somali woman in a Kenyan refugee camp. “All she had left was her dignity,” she said. “And then they took that, too.”

She was right. And I knew that I had done that. Many, many times.

I used to tell myself that it was okay because what I did was important. A U.N. official once excitedly phoned me at 7am to tell me the U.S. had donated millions of dollars to his agency because someone from the government had read a story of mine in the Washington Post.

Another aid worker approached me in a bar in Addis Ababa. “Hey! That story you wrote about that woman? That woman who had a kid die every year for the last four years and now only has one left? Awesome, man! Awesome!”

Her name was Ayantu. I don’t know if her son, Hirbu, is still alive.

Last weekend I was there again. The U.N. loaded me and some other journalists onto one of their planes in Nairobi and we flew to a tiny village near Somalia to meet people suffering from hunger, to ask them our questions, to find the sorriest tales possible.

We jumped into an imperious row of white jeeps when we landed and swept into the village. Doors flew open, everybody walked very fast, everybody was very important.

I saw six people all firing their cameras at one bemused woman. I saw aid workers fawning over the head of the World Food Programme. I saw soldiers fanning out to protect us. And then I saw the man with the iPad. I stood and stared for some time, enjoying the deliciousness of what was one of the strangest things I had ever seen in my life.

I raised the camera.

This is what I’ll write, I thought. Not about another Ayantu. Not again.

Because it’s a cycle. African governments know that drought is coming and they don’t prepare. Foreign charities working there talk about long-term plans to help people become self-sufficient but they’ve been failing to achieve them for 20 years. It’s as much about politics and war and poor economic policies as it is about no rain. I’m no expert but I know that much.

I also know it’s wrong that every few years we’re faced with an “emergency” that could have been prevented, that aid groups must frantically try to raise money to respond, that journalists need to find emaciated babies at death’s door and film and photograph and write about them before the world gives a damn.

Part of me felt bad for publishing the photo of the man with the iPad. Because he was a good person doing his job. And because we are the same.

He comes with an iPad, I come with a notebook.

Both of us steal dignity and neither of us belong.

29 comments

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I don’t understand how this removes (or robs) someone of dignity.
On the other hand, I could see how one might appreciate allowing a dying person to be recorded for history…something to be left behind (if only the image).
Taking a photo doesn’t lessen a person’s worth in and of itself, does it?
Just my opinion.

Posted by ziggy3339 | Report as abusive

Thank you for sharing this insightful and “socially generous” view… along with your photojournalism.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

I can see how that iPad could have fed maybe 1000 mouths, whereas your notebook just, say, one. But then, I’m sure that your pro camera is more expensive that the one on that iPad. Or perhaps even the laptop on which you wrote this article. We could play butterfly effect and claim the tree downed in the making of your notebook is now not there to dampen the climate change the led to this famine, but I’m divagating.

I do fully agree on the ending words though. And I don’t think such sad ironies are isolated to just Africa.

Take for instance, a TV show the other days trying to prove that poor Americans are not really poor because they own a fridge.
Or take for instance our own personas, donating to charities just 25 dollars instead of 35 because we need the other 10 for a coffee at Starbucks in the morning.

I don’t think expensive technology is the problem here, but rather not taking inexpensive steps that could have saved those poor lives.

Posted by MDan | Report as abusive

Thank you.
Thank you for caring about the dignity of the people you are helping. I am sure that your reporting has saved lives, even if it hasn’t the changed African politics that are so destructive.
Also thank you so much for talking about a real issue rather than a manufactured crisis.

Posted by Arafel | Report as abusive

For most of us it is inconceivable to understand or even appreciate the horror and surreal environment of abject poverty. To witness humanity at this level of decimation is so alien to our hard wired make up it is only by being within the foul stench of agonising death, the very bottom of hope, the realisation that millions are born simply to die without human dignity that we will appreciate the strength of the human spirit to live. To understand and know why this cycle of ” life ” will perpetuate ad infinitum look simply to our value system. Spend more on war than peace, seek to take out more than we put in and possibly the most reflective of our consumerism world, sacrifice humanity in persuit of unsustainalble largesse.

Posted by Sjoe | Report as abusive

Is ECHR having full access to customer help too?

Posted by ta-boo | Report as abusive

That’s silly…. if you are kind and respectful, and can take a good enough picture — you give people dignity.

Posted by P.D. | Report as abusive

Poverty and hunger is terrible, thank you for your perspective and effort. It’s a sobering experience and reminder to all that these issues are still ailing humanity.

Never the less; hunger, malnutrition and poverty is rampant in America as well.

Posted by JoseSixPack | Report as abusive

When are we going to admit that the real cause of poverty, starvation, and death, is widespread government corruption and the absence of the rule of law? We allow regimes to remain in power, decimate their own populations, and all we do is throw money at the victims of said government’s incompetence and abuse. Sometimes nation building is in our own best interests.

Posted by hdc77494 | Report as abusive

It would be helpful on first-person articles to have the author’s name on the piece; I had to click to the main blog to find it – thanks!

Posted by blairhickman | Report as abusive

Hi blairhickman,
Thank you for your feedback. Barry’s name is visible on the right-hand side of the blog post under Author profile, along with a biography and a portrait.
Cheers,
Corinne
Online Visual Editor

Posted by CorinnePerkins | Report as abusive

i think it was a great photograph for many reasons. The feelings surrounding that specific instance of “dignity stealing” is the only thing to focus on by those witnessing terrible things that are totally out of control. The only thing to counter balance these photos of dignity stealing is to publically produce them to heads of state , head of food programs, and ultimately to anyone who will look at these photos so that someone could give aide that may one day return dignity in another form..such as irragation so that there maybe agriculture in future inevitable drought/famine

Posted by carriep719 | Report as abusive

The indignity is if we are, only, but observers. Every photo presents an opportunity – the subject is revealing themselves and it should be for something. A picture must do more than move us, it must compel us to take action.

Posted by carly1976 | Report as abusive

I recently took a trip to Haiti in which I delivered medical equipment to various organizations. My guide took me for a walk through the heart of the worst slum in Port Au Prince. I took my Digital SLR with me but did not snap a single photograph. I could not get myself to point a lens at them. I too felt like it was out of line. Great article and perspective, though I do think that the photos you take can help to raise awareness as well as money for these tragedies.

Posted by DCL574 | Report as abusive

I agree with everything you’ve said–and I appreciate your article as well. You’ve already read the other comments. But saying what you said about dignity needs to be said, and you said it. I’m glad you said it. It’s very personal and that’s not something I’ve honestly come to expect from Reuters. You get all my thumbs up (I have four, because I have four arms…). But I’m not hungry like they are.

Posted by hellllllothere | Report as abusive

Dear Mr. Malone,

Your pictures match your words: full of power and truth. Despair, alas, is the only credible outcome.

Posted by phatterry | Report as abusive

Pushing a button on a machine to take a picture does nothing to help “right then”. Therein lies the Guilt.

Posted by rrrreale | Report as abusive

I am a freelance photographer & I absolutely LOVE when I was able to do it- Perhaps IF my insurance would get me a powerized chair, I could once again enjoy capturing the beauty of things people take for granted.

As for this type of photojournalism (which I WISH I could do) I have to say somberly that this is an extremely important part of it! Of course with the person’s permission & perhaps a little something in exchange for the opportunity.

The “outside world” doesn’t know, care, understand, empathize, etc… for these people- Photojournalism is an extremely important job & yet it can be VERY emotionally grueling – It must be!

Keep up the great work, your lob IS to open the eyes of the people that don’t know or care… MAKE them care! There is NO reason for THIS to be happening! I may be frail at 47 years old but wish I could be there to help… in SOME way… If not just a shoulder to lean on & I am an extreme empath at that.

I would LOVE to send $$ to help BUT? Where is this money REALLY going? I do NOT trust any governments anymore… The elite that think thy are so deserving & better than THESE people? NOT!! Just as the daughter of the formula 500 had spent a “sinful” amount of money, over $5 million? for a wedding… She said she is not ‘spoiled’ but “privilged”- hmmm… My mother taught me at a very young age that “God doesn’t look at the bad things you do in life… That He sees what GOOD you do in life to help OTHERS & THAT is what matters the most in the end. I suppose that is where the ‘prayer of St. Francis” comes from- AND the quotes in the Bible of Jesus, “… do unto others as you would have them do unto you…”For some people? It’s the same as KARMA. I wish I was financially able to “bypass” all the ‘goverment hooplah’ & GET THINGS DONE RIGHT for these people!! I suppose THIS is one of the ways the government AND Microsoft’s own ‘Bill Gates’ plan to “depopulate”- For those who do NOT know- Check out YouTube… Anyway? There are a LOT of things that are going on “behind the scenes of the goverment(s)” & WE are being ‘kept in the dark’… We, meaning ALL people of ALL nationalities really need to wake up & look a things objectively- Quit being “SHEEPLE” or Ostriches with your heads in the sand.
We ALL need each other! Yet that is EXACTLY why the government(s) are trying to tear our ‘unity’ with one another apart!! I ask that EVERYONE open their minds & see. If only I had the $$ these “ELITES” throw away… I would be able to help others, especially these people. There is NOTHING in this world that is MORE REWARDING than when you accomplished a goal to help others in need, in which ever way is possible- If there are any philanthropist here? Please get in touch with me- The plans I have to help, even in or own backyards, is beyond comprehension of what CAN be done, & quickly at that! May God pour out the blessings of this world. As far as this type of photojournalism, with permission comes dignity in this situation. Keep up the great work & may God bless you & keep you strong in this endeavor! +

Posted by millstone7201 | Report as abusive

Being someone who works in hospice palliative care, I am daily with eople who are terminally and dying as well as their families and those who are bereaved. I was touched by what I felt was humility, your humility to recognize that you were witnessing people being photographed and their very essence and humanity being captured and reflected if only through a moment, and in the end product, a photograph. In their reality, what they own is their dignity and the fragile membraine of life they still have. I get it. Many others will get it – your stopping and ‘seeing’ with your heart and your understanding of finding a new way to tell the story. For it is your honesty and integrity that perhaps others too can learn. I salute you. The wonderful man with the ipod is juxtaposed against the devastation of a land without water and food. Perhaps through more of the above, awakening and looking within and not turning away when there there are opportunities to make a difference, we can each be instrumental to change and help shift the world to being a better place for everyone by ‘recognizing the dignity and spirit’ in all of us and all living creatures – even the dead cow… that could have fed a family and so contributed to life. Don’t stop your work. I hope the rest of us can do something worthwhile to make a difference as well. It’s up to us to want to do so and find a way…

Posted by Kela | Report as abusive

I don’t quite understand why telling the world of this tragedy and showing the misery of the victims should make one feel they’ve robbed someone of their dignity. But if it does the author should know.

What REALLY puzzles me is the lack of any kind of feeling in those that ‘speculate’ on grain and oil driving the prices up and directly adding to the mass starvation of the poorest of the poor, those people who’s dignity this article has ‘robbed’. I bet they’d trade that dignity for the food that is stolen from them by those ‘speculators’. I am also always surprised by the dearth of stories about those foul enough to ‘earn’ money that way.

Posted by acmavm | Report as abusive

Why is an iPad evil? What about the expensive trucks the journo rode there in? Or the expensive dinner he had the night before? Or the expensive flight he’ll take with his virtuous notebook? It might feel awkward and hard to understand, but lives are lived differently all over the world, sadly. So would it really be somehow better if the man with the iPad just hid it? Robbing dignity is a lot more about this kind of condescension, I think–play poor when you’re among the poor. It’d be a lie. Hiding the water bottles or leaving the iPad at home because it makes YOU uncomfortable–these acts of concealing the truth from the poor (because why? they can’t handle it? C’mon, they can handle these difficult lives…) is actually much more offensive than shooting a photo with an iPad. Still, it’s something I think about too.

Posted by KeithBKNY | Report as abusive

Thank you for this honest, insightful piece.

Posted by Tamatieland | Report as abusive

…it’s a cycle. African governments know that drought is coming and they don’t prepare. Foreign charities working there talk about long-term plans to help people become self-sufficient but they’ve been failing to achieve them for 20 years. It’s as much about politics and war and poor economic policies as it is about no rain…

You have succinctly identified the problem. We talk too much and nobody plans. These people don’t need us to give them food and water. They need to be “taught how to fish”.

Posted by Chicagodoc | Report as abusive

Just once I would like to see the hoardes of journalists show up and give all their food and water on them to the people they’re interviewing, and do without, themselves, for 24 hours. Just 24 hours. At least pay these people for what you journalists are taking and making your living from.

Posted by Q.Hatshepsut | Report as abusive

Thank you. You are difinately not like the gentleman with the iPad: I am touched by your humility. Yes, the story needs to be told but we need to respect the dignity of our subjects in our effort to bring their story to the world. This is something some western journalists never consider – they think it is okay when it comes to covering Africa. …and for your readers who do not understand, I appreciate their inability to comprehend what you are trying to put across – but what they should appreciate is that when you have lost everything, the only thing you have left is your human dignity and the last thing you want is to have cameras in your face to be shown to the world in that state. As for the guy with the iPad, i don’t know if he is a UN agency staff or a journalist, whatever the case, there is something like dressing for the assignment. Going to a refugee camp in Somalia in a suit says it all. I am not surprised he brought an iPad with. Even the line up of UN vehicles…. You did the right thing…your story speaks volumes.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

I’m not sure if you have reached the right conclusion, but at least you have expended some thought on the issue.

iPads are pricey, and I wouldn’t waste money on one (although I have been thinking of getting a much cheaper Android tablet), but as someone else pointed out, probably not as expensive as professional cameras. In fact I suspect the man in the suit came in what he was wearing and used what he had to take the picture, which is honest as far as it goes.

The loss of dignity comes, I think, in being shown to the world in reduced circumstances, to use an archaic but very accurate turn of phrase. That’s why they often don’t want pictures taken.

IME people who need help don’t usually give a hang about what you are wearing, but they may be embarassed by how they themselves look, which can range from what they are wearing to the outward signs of their emotional state. You are embarassed by this man’s suit and iPad, but I doubt if they are.

Of course, my only experience is from the urban homeless, not disaster victims, but they are all human beings.

Posted by elektros | Report as abusive

And then you realize that you’re not watching the circus. You’re part of it.

Posted by whulsbergen | Report as abusive

This photography could be a metaphor of journalists’ and photograph’s job. Even without a suit, you’re just strangers, here for an instant, so distant and so far from what you see. A metaphor of what we all are in this mediatic world.

Posted by panamerican | Report as abusive

The problem with photojournalism sometimes is that as people in privileged countries often see pictures of suffering people in far off places, they may suffer from compassion fatigue. It is interesting what this anti-hunger campaign did to counter this phenomenon. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/14/busine ss/media/antihunger-campaign-forgoes-ima ges-of-starving-children.html

The truth is that photographs do not even begin to demonstrate the suffering of people. Words and images are the only thing people have to spread the word that there is inequality in the world, yet they are always remarkably inadequate. It is very easy to put up an immunity to being emotionally moved by such things. There is no guarantee that taking a photograph of someone suffering will help the person.

Therefore, it is extra important that photographers receive the permission of those they photograph, as those who are photographed may not feel the photos are worthwhile. Peoples’ dignity should always be respected.

Posted by ecm83 | Report as abusive