Yesterday in New York I stopped by the United Nations to see a special photographic exhibit running through May 15 called Malaria: Blood, Sweat and Tears. The nearly 40 pictures were taken by 43 year old photo-journalist Adam Nadel. Fifteen of them can be seen at http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/02/21/weekinreview/20100221-malaria-ss_2.htmlare
The photos taken in Uganda, Nigeria and Cambodia are of those who either have the malaria or are engaged in fighting the disease in a variety of ways including as community health workers, a guard at a bed net warehouse, or an African pharmacist. Each picture is compelling on its own but when you consider them as a whole, and examine common features, you better understand what makes this photographer’s effort to bear witness so powerful.
Many of those photographed are outdoors, even when a house or building is in the background. That is probably for practical reasons having to do with sufficient light. But it also underscores the degree to which they live exposed and vulnerable, not episodically, but routinely, in an almost permanent state of jeopardy. Everything about their lives seems foreign and far away, distant and difficult. Children are barefoot on mostly dirt roads. Rooms are dark and all but empty.
The exhibition reveals the many connections between malaria, hunger and poverty. The disease is especially hazardous for those suffering from malnutrition which compromises one’s immune system by retarding the production of antibodies needed to fight the parasite. Also, a low fat diet inhibits the body from absorbing anti-malarial medications. As a result patients often spend what little money they have on an insufficient dosage.
I recognized one of the women in the photos. She is in her late twenties, with jet black hair and high cheek bones shining in the sun like polished apples. She is wearing a colorful flowered blouse and carrying her feverish son, with a green towel draped around his shoulders. They are outside, with a lush green hillside behind them, just slightly blurred.
From the way her body is angled it looks as though she may be balancing in the back of a truck. Her son’s chin is tucked between her left arm and breast and her strong left hand pressing against his back steadies him as they race toward their destination. His lower jaw is pulled slightly to the left, as if his teeth are chattering from severe chills. His eyelids are heavy, almost closed. But not her eyes. In fact they burn fiercely, not with fever but with frightened determination.
I recognize her even though we’ve never met. I recognize her because I can see from her urgency and selflessness that she is every mother I’ve ever known, acting on instincts encoded in genes millennia ago. She is the Philadelphia mother who shared her Witnesses to Hunger story at our Conference of Leaders, she is my wife Rosemary and sister Debbie, she is every mom who has worked at Share Our Strength,
The website says her name is Pheap Sung. She told the photographer that “He was sick for three days, had a very high fever. I would have sought help at a private clinic, but I did not have the money. The free clinic is a long way, but I decided I had to take him. I thought he might have malaria.”
If the clinic had been five times as far it would have made no difference. There is no such thing as too far, too much, too expensive or too complicated. There is no such thing as unreasonable when it comes to a mother doing what is necessary for her child.
The exhibition brings us images from thousands of miles away but if we look carefully enough it reveals not the distant and foreign but the intimate and familiar. The photos are a way of holding up a mirror that challenges our perceptions and call on our imagination.
In that way the photos succeed, at what Ophelia Dahl described in her Wellesley commencement address as “linking our own lives and fates with those we can’t see” affirming that “imagination will allow you to make the link between the near of your lives with the distant others”
We can’t all go to Uganda, Cambodia, or Haiti to witness suffering or to fully understand the need, opportunity and possibility. But if we are purposeful about using our moral imagination we shouldn’t have to.
In today’s world more than at any time in human history, we have access to all of the information needed for bridging that chasm between distant and near. The question is what we do with it, whether we not only analyze and categorize and think about it, but also let ourselves feel something about it and act on those feelings.