While in the field, it is important that you never forget what you are there to do: to capture images that tell a story and document history in the making. But in the process, bad things can and will happen in conflict zones; and yes, while in a third world country, you are bound to see first hand the touchstones of poverty and desperation. It’s inevitable.
When faced with a situation that challenges my moral judgments versus my cinematic views, I simply follow my rule of “20 seconds.” I switch off emotions and turn on the camera for 20 seconds to capture what I’m witnessing. Then, just as quickly, I turn off the camera to assist.
It is not a matter of being a ghoul by these actions, but rather the cold-hard fact of doing a good job in a bad situation. It does not always have to be death or injury to allow these events to happen--they can and do occur when you least expect it—and when it does happen, it can reduce you to tears within seconds, and rip the soul right out of you.
It happened to me during my first foreign assignment. I was twenty four years old. Broken hearted and wanted to see some action. I was following a group of Canadian doctors and Special Ops soldiers along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their mission was to support the influx of refugees fleeing the violence that erupted during the Taliban withdrawal in northern Afghanistan. Following a group of Canadian doctors isn't considered a major event in terms of world news, but the images that I captured will forever haunt me in my dreams.
For the poor and the desperate, there is no hope with basic treatment. Children stand in line with their parents hoping for a cure for blindness, two policemen stood there with one eye between them, a medic treats a man whose foot is bloated with gangrene, and when an old woman is asked whether she would like medicine or blankets for her children, she simply replied, “blankets.”
Yet, it was not these scenes of despair and tragedy that drew my breath, but more so, the sight of a man whose son lay on the ground—crippled by Cerebral Palsy. Inside the tortured body of this young man was a human being whose thoughts and ideas will never be known due to a disease that has been part of his family’s fight for survival. His father cradled his rolling head, slowly moving his hand across his face to ward off flies.
At that very moment, the scene never caught much of my attention. I took a few shots and moved on with my coverage.
About an hour later, I looked across the field and saw the young man lying by himself, exposed to the scorching sun as flies prey on him like vultures. At this point, what do I do?
I took a deep breath, framed a close up and let the camera roll—showing the flies crawling around his eyes and mouth. I took my eye away from the viewfinder and slowly counted to 20. That was it. I turned the camera off and walked over to him. Kneeling down beside him, I used my body to cast some shade over his. My hands slowly wavered back and fourth to brush the flies off his face.
Tears of sorrow rolled down my face as I looked into his eyes. He stared at me and smiled. Other photographers came over and asked if they could help in any way. I looked up and shook my head. They saw what I was doing and walked away, understanding that I was doing what I needed to do.
For ten minutes I sat there, brushing away the flies, stroking the side of his face—wondering where his father was. Feeling the texture of his face under my hand, my heart wanted him to know that I saw him as “human.”
I would have sat there all day if I had to. There was no way I could leave him. I had taken an image that will forever haunt me, and now, I was prepared to pay the price for capturing his plight. Everything has a price in life. But it was not that I had to—it was because I wanted to.
I looked up and saw his father walking to me. He looked at me and said the most heart-warming words anyone can hear. It was simply, “Thank you.”
I walked away and continued shooting. Looking back half an hour later, the ground was empty, father and son had left.
Blogger Note: The following was a re-post. I will remove it and post it back to its orignal date.