The One Photo that Devastated Me

Yesterday, I slowly, carefully clicked through TIME Magazine’s Top 100 Photos of 2015 (http://time.com/4124895/top-100-photos-of-2015/).  Some of the photos were joyous and beautiful: the United States Women’s soccer team celebrating a big goal, a beluga whale spraying water at smiling Japanese children, and tulip fields blooming in the Netherlands. But many more of the photos were sobering, distressing, even poignant:

  • a picture of Artiam, 4, who was killed in a Ukrainian army artillery strike;
  • Syrian migrants, including small children, crossing a razor-wire fence as they enter Hungary;
  • an unnamed infant girl with Ebloa symptoms in Liberia;
  • the now-famous photograph of the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi, 3, washed ashore in Turkey; and
  • a 12 year old girl holding her undernourished brother, 1, at a Myanmar concentration camp.

I don’t know if it’s because I have my own child, but it was the pictures of children that affected me the most.

Oma Salema, 12, holds her undernourished brother Ayub Khan, 1, at a camp for Rohingya in Sittwe, Myanmar.Tomas Munita. Photo used with permission.

The Myanmar photo (above), taken by New York Times photographer Tomas Munita, is particularly haunting. The picture lingered with me long after I viewed it for the first time.  The subjects of the photo are a young girl and her one-year old brother, whom she is holding.  They stand alone, in the middle of a dirt street that separates plywood or corrugated metal dwellings (to call them houses would be a reach).  The background in the photo is largely blurred.  Several people and animals mill around, but you cannot make out faces.  The sky appears to be overcast, and debris litters the makeshift roadway.  Your eyes are drawn toward the haggard sibling pair in the middle of the street, and almost everything else fades away as you observe them.

The twelve year-old girl stares straight ahead.  Her face is smudged with dirt, and her unyielding expression belies her natural beauty.  Her dark eyes express firmness, resolve, want, and maturity, but very little hope.  Her left arm carefully, naturally, cradles her brother, while her right arm tenderly rests on his lower back.  A lone bracelet adorns her right wrist.  Her clothes are worn, tugged ever so slightly to her left side.

My gaze then shifts to the one-year old boy.  He is exactly the same age as my daughter.  He has large eyes that gaze half-heartedly at something in the distance, behind the photographer.  The index finger of his left hand rests in his mouth, the same way my daughter’s does.  He is naked but for the embrace of his sister, and his thin legs straddle her left hip.

So many questions begin to arise in my mind.  Why are they there?  Why is the boy malnourished? Where are they now?  Is anything being done to help?  I realized I knew nothing about these camps in Myanmar.

My curiosity drove me to conduct a quick online search.  Between 100,000 and 150,000 Rohingya people are trapped inside these camps outside of Sittwe, Myanmar.  The Rohingya people are primarily Muslims who were driven into the camps after widespread violence, most of it instigated by government-backed Rakhine Buddhists, who make up the majority of the population in Myanmar.  The Rohingya have repeatedly been denied citizenship by the Myanmar Government, despite having lived in the country for generations.  Many have attempted to flee, but most neighboring countries have refused to accept them, and many have faced deportation back to Myanmar.  They are truly a people without a country.

Since 2012, tens of thousands have been living in these heavily guarded concentration camps and suffer from largely preventable outbreaks of disease caused by malnutrition, dirty water, and filthy living conditions.  The Myanmar government claims that food is dropped off at the camps, but many Rohingya have died from starvation.  A recent study by the International State Crime Initiative concluded, “The Rohingya face the final stages of genocide.”  The same study explained that the situation should warrant comparisons with Germany in the 1930s and Rwanda in the 1990s.

Talk about context.

And that is just one of the one hundred pictures.

As I clicked through, I wanted to stop, to shield myself from the pain and suffering so palpably laid bare in each passing photo, but I kept clicking.

I finally had labored through all one hundred of the photographs, and I sat in silence.  I contemplated what I had seen, and what I should do.

For months, the American news cycle has been dominated by the 2016 presidential election, and I enjoy some good political coverage as much as the next guy.  But how did I miss this?  In the midst of watching Chuck Todd interview Donald Trump for the fourteenth time, only to rehear him quote his “huge” poll numbers, or listening to Goldman Sachs-backed Hillary Clinton exclaim, for the fifth time in as many rallies, “We need to take our country back from the special interests!”, maybe we are missing the bigger issues.  Maybe we are missing every one of the bigger issues.

We talk for hours about a slight uptick in a candidate’s poll numbers while thousands struggle for survival in a concentration camp in southern Myanmar.  We fawn over Channing Tatum and Jennifer Lawrence (are those the relevant movie stars right now?) while moms are simply trying to find food for their malnourished babies.

I reflected on my own life.  The ups and the downs.  The blessings and the trials.  The things I complain about.  The things I wish could change.  They all pale in comparison to the utter hopelessness displayed in that one photo.  I have it so good, and I should be incredibly thankful.

But the one question still haunts me:  Is anything being done to help?  It just seems like if we are called to make an impact at all in this world, that place in that photo should be the place we are trying.  We talk about how we are serving our communities, about how we are helping people through our jobs, volunteering for art clubs, and sacrificing our valuable time for Little League (all good things).

But sometimes maybe we use these good things and good projects to shield our conscience from the stifled call of a struggling world.  We drench our consciences in the retardant of community or political activism, and our consciences are satisfied—for a short while.  We alleviate the pain of considering those overseas with the balm of self-pity: “I have it hard too.”

I don’t have a call to action; these are merely my thoughts, all prompted by a photograph.  I know that sometimes my personality drives me to consider things too deeply and exaggerates their relative importance, and maybe this blog post is just that.

But maybe, instead, there is a longing in each of our hearts to do something that really matters during our short time here on earth.  And it’s strange that a single photograph can so perfectly extract that longing inside of us.

One thought on “The One Photo that Devastated Me

  1. Good article and ponderings. We have some close friends working inside Myanmar if you’d like more information or would like to visit and see what’s going on first hand.

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