A couple of years ago, a famous photographer captured a grossly undernourished child making its way to a food camp oragnised by the UN, a kilometre away. It's tiny bones were seen painfully through it's gossamer skin and it could barely move. It struggeled to crawl, hunched over its brittle frame in the dry desert sands. But the most striking part of the photograph was of a vulture sitting in the background, threateningly close to the sickly child. Apparently, it was waiting for the Sudanese toddler to collapse before it would gorge on the remnants of its flesh and churn out a substantial meal of its starved form. The picture appeared for the first time in the New York Times and gained huge wordwide attention.
This particular photgrapher won a Pulitzer Prize for his work - the highest honour for a journalist. Ironically, he commited suicide at the age of 33, a little more than a month after receiving the prestigiuos award. The reason: he was so weighed down by the numerous sights he had seen in the past - of people suffering, dying, famine, trigger-happy madmen who were often the authorities. He also came under severe critical scrutiny for taking the child's photograph instead of helping her, taking advantage and benefitting personally from the child's misery, with some even calling him no different from the vulture that was part of the frame.
When I first came across this story, it saddened me to see talent lost but even more for his actions. I agreed that the desperate child needed immediate help more than her picture splashed across major publications. What many don't know is that the photographer had been under instructions to not touch famine victims for fear that they may have deadly diseases that are contagious. I'm all for precaution, especially in matters of health - one of the most important personal assets according to me. However, in this case it was tough to ignore the plight of a young child in need of help. Somehow, the situation didn't seem to warrant precaution at the cost of her sufferring.
Recently, the issue was refreshed in my mind when the latest Pulitzer Prizes were announced. This year too, the winner of the breaking news category was for a reporter's photograph which dramatically captured a Japanese videographer fatally wounded and sprawled on a pavement in Myanmar during a street demonstration. The Japanese photojournalist so dedicated to his profession, continued to click pictures despite being grievously injured on a sidewalk. The reporter who got that on camera and won the award did take a minute to remember his fellow journalist who died shortly after his image was saved for posterity but frankly, that seemed like an extremely orchestrated gesture. It made me wonder...didn't this photographer commit the same crime as the first when he chose to capture his suffering on film rather than rush him to the nearest hospital?
I've seen both pictures that the photographers mentioned above took. Controversy aside, they are powerful images that stir you and which require real skill. But I'm also a firm believer of Karma - what goes around comes around. So what if their places had been reversed with those of their subjects? Would the pictures still have been so special to them?