Cathblog - One thousand Words

Image: by Mev Puleo



In 1994, photojournalist Kevin Carter was awarded the Pulitzer prize for photography. The photo was of a starving Sudanese refugee girl bending down just a kilometre from a feeding station.  Nearby stood a vulture, peering at the little girl as she crouched down in exhaustion, hunger. The BBC explained as follows:

… A young African girl was crawling weakly towards the centre of a clearing. She didn't have the energy to stand and, emaciated, stood little chance of survival. If the plight of this little girl couldn't stir the world into action nothing would, as Carter knew instinctively and immediately. He crouched with his camera, ready to frame an eye-level shot. As he did so, a vulture landed behind her, obviously awaiting the moment of death. He carefully framed the photograph, being careful not to disturb the bird, and clicked…...

Three months after winning the award for this image, Carter committed suicide. It is too simplistic to say that this experience was what led him to take his own life, but as a war correspondent, it was one of many moments that had clearly moved him and tortured his dreams.

Yet by taking that photo, he raised some awareness of the plight of African refugees. Carter’s story raises questions about the medium of photography and how it is used in ethical and moral ways.

Today, images such as this go ‘viral’ on social media. No sooner does a leader get elected than their picture is all over the internet – the election of Pope Francis being an example of that. This image of the Sudanese girl, by mid-90s standards also went viral. It touched a chord.

Photography is one of the most powerful mediums available. In managing the Facebook account of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, I have been struck by how a meme of Pope Francis with just a few words will attract hundreds more “likes” than a simple media release, even if the information contained there-in is riveting (as of course most Bishops Conference media statements are).

The power of the photograph; its content, composition, message can say much more than an article, a radio grab, or even a television show - as evidenced by the adage ‘a picture tells a thousand words.’

In 2004, I went to Cambodia for a four-month volunteer stint with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).

The question of whether to take a camera with me weighed heavily on my heart, but five weeks in, I realised there were stories that needed telling. 

During my time, I worked as an English teacher to Montagnard refugees from the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It was a dramatic and difficult refugee situation.

Babies were born in squalid conditions in refugee camps in Phnom Penh and I was able to take the very first photos for the families; families were resettled or sent home; people faced the prospect of never seeing their loved ones again.

The Cambodian authorities would question me as I would bring my camera and guitar into the refugee sites; but fortunately, they always let me through (interestingly, cameras are not allowed at all in Australian detention centres).

After overcoming my scrupulosity, I learned to ask them if it was okay to take their photo, and made sure I gave them copies later. It ended up becoming something of a game and a novelty, and the kids happily posed and received a copy of their photo as soon as I could get to the photo shop in Central Phnom Penh.

Extraordinarily enough, many of them later contacted me through social media and were able to show me photos I had taken, precious memories that they would not otherwise have had.

Later, I was able to do the same when living in Asuncion, Paraguay; and the use of photography and film ended up being a wonderful way to fundraise for the very people featured in the photos.

The late photojournalist Mev Puleo had a similar predicament. A brilliant photographer, she had a large archive of photos displaying Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees; poverty-stricken Haitians; and world-renowned theologians. She reasoned in the end that by not taking the photos, she was denying them a voice who might speak for them.

Blogger Joshua Hearne on ‘Telling the stories that matter’ wrote the following of Puleo: With the permanence of the photographic image, she was able to convict the hearts and minds of many people who would much rather simply wait a moment and forget all about the plight of the less fortunate.’

The image-saturated society we live in demands reflection. In photography, we have a reality and truth which is depicted in all its starkness, beauty and sadness.

How should we depict a suffering world? Should photographers leave those who are suffering alone, or should they invade that moment? Should they penetrate someone’s world with a camera lens? It is a difficult question which needs discernment.

The way in which we approach such moments is one of the most important factors. We cannot simply push our way in like paparazzi. There are no ethics in that. But when dealing with suffering, we need to ask the pertinent question that Puleo did: Can we deny them a voice that might speak for them?

Christian art depicts the suffering of Christ in often gruesome and stark reality. Christ’s broken body on the cross; images of the Good Shepherd; images of Mary, the Disciples.

These were never depicted as photographs, but in art. Yet they lead us to contemplation. They help us to know something of the greatest story ever told. Indeed, it could be this fact on its own that is enough to sanctify the act of taking a photo.


Beth Doherty is media director for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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