Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Image, The Power, The Distance Between Them

I've been following the story of the New Delhi gang rape with reluctance and horror. It's truly one of the most repugnant cases I can remember, a terrifying example of mob mentality and misogyny at its most base and sickening. I don't want to get too much into the details here; if you haven't read about the case and want to lose a little sleep, you can read the basics here. If you want to lose a lot of sleep, you can read about the "women's empowerment" session that happened in the wake of the attack, at which a female professor told the audience that the girl was responsible: "Had the girl simply surrendered when surrounded by six men, she would not have lost her intestine," Dr. Shukla said. "Why was she out with her boyfriend at 10 p.m.?"

(That's right, ladies: If confronted by six men who want to rape you, go along with it. If you decide to fight, don't get all PMS-y when they decide to pull out your intestines. GIRL POWER!)

But I digress.

I thought about the case more last week after Ram Singh, one of the accused perpetrators, was found dead in his cell, an apparent suicide that's still being investigated as a possible murder. How his face was known to me only in the context of this case, and how in that context, it was virtually impossible to look at it and not see signs of extraordinary cruelty, knowing the act he was involved in.

And then I saw this photo taken by AP photographer Manish Swarup, and found it almost unbearable. This is Ram Singh's mother after finding out that her son had died violently in prison. 

I felt angry on seeing it. It felt invasive and cruel to take pictures of this woman at this time. It felt private, like something we shouldn't get to see. Hasn't she been through enough? I can scarcely imagine what it would be like to find out your child had done what her son did, and then, in the midst of dealing with that -- the horror mixed with the almost unavoidable desire to protect one's child -- find that he had then died. The mind reels.

And yet after that first reaction, I found myself grateful for this photograph. It made me angry, sad, and uncomfortable. It reminded me that this man was a human being, and that other human beings loved him and grieved his death. Also -- and I mention this not in some love-thy-enemy, "rapists and murderers are people, too" sort of way; I can't even pretend to be that big -- but I do think of it more seriously: Rapists are, at the end of it, people. They have mothers and fathers and friends. They are not invincible formless monsters. I don't know if that's more or less frightening, but it certainly bears consideration. What blend of influences -- genetic, cultural, parental, psychological, social -- turn a person into someone capable of what was done to this girl?

So I'm grateful for the picture, as hard as I found it to look at. It reminded me of how powerful -- and how difficult -- journalistic work (be it in the form of the written word or the image) can be. How much do we carry around of what we witness and report?

It put me in mind of the story of photojournalist Kevin Carter and the photo that won him the Pulitzer -- the same year that he killed himself. While this was his best-known shot, he'd been working in conflict zones, risking his life to record horrors, for years. After this photo was published, Carter was frequently vilified for getting the shot rather than helping the girl. The question: At what point do one's responsibilities as a human being (assuming one thinks we have any, and aren't just chomping snorting raping bits of fleshgoop held together by laws and clothes and the fear of being caught) trump the responsibilities of a job?

I've thought about Kevin Carter's photograph a lot and about the heat he took for waiting for the right shot and snapping it, rather than helping the girl. At my most optimistic moments, I like to think he thought that the right shot -- taken and published somewhere prominent -- might do more to stop the suffering he was seeing every day than he could possibly do on his own. Perhaps he believed that seeing was stronger when collective. That in the face of such an image, no one could fail to act.


Vulture Stalking a Child
(Kevin Carter, Sudan, 1993)

There is such distance
between him and the girl,
toppled onto herself in the dust,
between him and the bird,
watching quietly behind.

Through the tunnel of his lens,
continents stretch between them.

Buses rattle through mountain roads.

The fleet messenger sent on foot
stops to rest beside a quiet stream,
entranced by the bright fish
drifting against the current.

The wires bearing the dots and dashes
unspool; the telephone poles are laid flat
by strong winds.

He waits, remembering
how the moths come back to the streetlights
at night after the gunfire stops,
how they pay
no attention to blood on the tar,
seeking only the light, the light,
beating their wings against it.

There is a moment when death
is at its most beautiful,
when that beauty may cause motion.
Otherwise, it is just death.

He waits and waits
for the bird to open its wings.