Monday, October 13, 2008

20 Seconds

As I’m about to embark on yet another trip that will take me around the world, I’m reminded of a question that faces many of us that photograph in conflict zones and third world countries: “At what point do you put down the camera and start to help?”

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.


Jay said...

Wow. Thanks for making me cry right before I go to bed...

That is an amazing story. Thank you for sharing it.

I think that all too often this happens to everyone --- right here in America. We all know someone who is hurting in some way... and we have all, at some point or another, watched without helping. This story was an inspirational one, I loved it.

Indrayani aka, Indi! said...

This was sooo touching..
I have no words to tell you how much I connected with and felt what you did...
Human miseries ...and you at the forefront of it all..
I loved your 20seconds policy of dealing with all this..
You are inspiring...
Keep rolling...
Bless you.

Anonymous said...

I almost have no words for this post Ron...inspirational, that's the only one that I can think of.

The Demigoddess said...

Ron, I shouldn't be following your blog...You get me teary-eyed nearly half the time I visit.

I think you may have heard of Kevin Carter , the apartheid photographer who took this picture in 1993 in Sudan. He committed suicide just a year later. He didn't have a guiding principle like yours.

Random Hiccups said...

This was a very inspiring post! What a blessed man you are. Not everyone is constantly confronted with the tortures of poverty. Not everyone experiences the moments you do. Thank you for sharing your moments.

Dan Denardo said...

Great post, Ron. I cannot help but think of how richly blessed (for the most part) we are here in the States...yet it never occurs to most of the residents of this rich country.

Hillbilly Duhn said...

The only thing I can say is that in the world, there should be more people like you.

And just for future reference, I don't like to cry into my coffee...

That was very touching, you're a stand up guy. Good for you. Good for you...

DUTA said...

People don't really get the tragic meaning of war unless they are faced with one(not only with its pictures).

Well, it might happen in the well- developed zones too. It depends a great deal on World Economy. If it doesn't get better within the next two-three years, then even countries like America, Canada, Germany, France, etc..are likely to become conflict zones with human tragedies like that seen in your touchng photo. May God Help Us All!

Bon Don said...

Ron, you made my heart skip a beat with your story. It brought tears to my eyes. I felt like I was there. Thank you for sharing your amazing life adventures!

*Bon Don*

Ron said...

Jay: I'm glad you related this story back to our own backyards, it's true, most times we never have to look too far to see how incidents like this occure so close to home. It can happen anywhere.

Indrayani: Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate your comments very much.

Carol: The fact that you commented on this post means a lot to me. Thank you for reading and understanding.

Angel: Thank you so much for reading my blog. You're amazing! And yes, I have heard of Carter. That was a very controversial picture. I don't know if I could've taken that one. It's always hard to put yourself behind someone else's lens. But I can definately understand the hardship he faced after taking it. I too sometimes feel sadness, but I guess we all find different ways to dealing with it. He was a great photographer, one of my favorites.

Random Hiccups: I think I'm very blessed to be doing what I do. I can't thank God enough for allowing me this privelidge. Thank you for reading.

Dan: Yes, it's amazing how lucky we are here in America. Sometimes we tend to forget that there are people out there who have less than a fraction of what we have. Thanks for reading, buddy!

Hillybilly: Thank you for your kind words. I'm so blessed to have you as a follower of this blog.

Duta: Thank you for your comments. Please be safe over there in Isreal.

Bon Don: I made your heart skip a beat? Awww...sadly, whenever I read your posts, my heart skips a beat too...followed with tears (of joy because you crack me up). Thank you!

learningtofly said...

This is my favourite post from your blog, I always love substance over style.

But I have to question, how far can we see people as human?