Best to turn away
Hollow eyes. In an impossibly remote village in Nicaragua an 18-year-old widower was explaining how his pregnant wife was swept to her death when Hurricane Mitch parked its fury overhead. His hurt literally stole his voice away.
Dead eyes. Together with her mother we watched the last breaths of her four-year-old daughter in the decrepit Nazran hospital. The terrible burns caused by rocket fire on their home in Chechnya might not have killed the child, but the one week wait at the border to scrape up enough bribe money for the Russian guards to let them through to medical help was what closed the curtain.
Frantic pacing. The Zambian mom who just discovered she had AIDS, like her husband, in a country where anti-retrovirals are as rare as UFOs. Her evident fear billowed like the red dust of her circling – what would happen to her infant daughter, soon to become yet another of Africa’s AIDS orphans?
It’s a world of hurt and pain. And it always seems that those with so little lose so much. Large portions of humanity live permanently at the intersection of tears, graft, guilt, good intentions and inevitably bad follow-through.
On occasion I’ve been a part of the crew that chases after human misery: a tsunami, famine, a war or a flood. Others in the crew – aid workers, disaster specialists – come to do some good. At least what they do feels tangible, even if the results are most often mixed.
I come to take pictures, shoot video, record the keening cries of mourners and capture their pain in well-crafted sentences. It’s an intellectual exercise to convince myself that this too is doing good. The standard lines about how getting the message out can stir the ‘world’ to respond are brittle.
The attention span of those of us with wealth to donate is growing ever shorter, especially for news about seemingly intractable problems like global poverty, refugees, huge natural disasters and famine. So often reporting from the front seems like doing nothing more than being a purveyor of chequebook absolution – see my pictures, read my story, feel guilty, write a cheque, feel better, forget about it.
We have the luxury in the west of forgetting. We can dismiss the inconvenient or unpalatable, because we have so many other options. But the poor, who live mostly as statistics in UN reports, don’t have that luxury. And while the reporting seems futile at times, doing nothing only seems worse.