Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Photographing Human Suffering

As a photojournalist,  I always had problems photographing human suffering.  When I was about four years old, I saw my father take his last breath in his bedroom while paralyzed from the neck down at age 23.  That was less than two years after the death of my mother.  Before I reached kindergarten, I attended four of my baby sitter’s funerals. They ranged in age from the mid 60's to over 75 years old.   When I was in the second grade, my first grade teacher died of cancer, and in the fourth grade one of my friends died in a motorcycle accident.  Those tragedies, mixed with the others I experienced before becoming a staff photographer, gave me a special understanding of the human condition.

While most journalists would tell you that they separated themselves from stories, I could not do that.  As a Christian in training, that was not an option.  The best picture I never took was a woman kneeling in the middle of the road crying with all her belongings in her hand as red flames shot over thirty feet high into a bright blue sky from her burning apartment behind her.  As I dropped to my knees to shoot the picture with my Nikon FM with a 180-f2.8 lens, she looked right at me as tears rolled down her eyes. I tried hard to push the shutter, but I could not get my finger to work.  Finally I got up, walked past the lady and said," God Bless you. " I ended up shooting a picture of firemen helping relatives and using hoses to put out fires.  I realized at that moment, spot news photography was not for me.

However, to keep my job, I made a decision that instead of photographing the victim, I would try to shoot photos of someone helping the victim, a neighbor,  a rescue worker or policemen doing their job.  Every time I had to photograph a tragic situation, I would think, what if that was my grandmother, wife, or sister.  Would I shoot the picture?  If the answer was no, I would look for another positive photo out of their situation. That worked 75% of the time; although there were many times I had to shoot the negative photo because there was no time to get another photo.

You take a human being raised in the best possible condition which includes two loving, educated, financially- secured parents, great neighborhoods, great schools, great family, great church, and no tragedies- that person's mind can only handle so many negative images.   When you consider that most people on earth are not raised with all those great conditions, they can handle even a lesser amount of negative images.  That is why many people that see tragedies early have problems, and soldiers coming from war lose their minds, or end up taking the lives of family members or other humans. I realize that most people learn to deal with negative images in a positive way, but thousands don't because they don't get professional help or have a good support system.

As a psychology major, I made a decision in 1986, that I would try my best to find a positive picture in every negative situation.  For twenty-eight years and 2 months, I did my best.


  1. I am utterly blown away by your narrative above.
    Thank you for taking that time and sharing the thought process. It points to an etherial aspect here whereby we are part of this.
    The woman in tears is brought back to almost a birth-like moment and also sheer terror (from in your story within your narrative or inner dialogue). Yet we are picture takers do not want to be lazy about it and detached. We bear some responsibility.
    I think about this, too. Do I have the right? Am I helping?
    How will it seems later after the moment is gone… For heaven's sake there is this inner dialogue that ought to take place bend just the dials on the camera or the histogram. I am spinning now in my own mind:
    If I do this amazing coverage on Christmas morning with my own kids, was it fair and did I do it right? They owned their own experience, or should, or did I help. That's a silly example but life is this dynamic process and you of course were referring to a tragic moment. And in a way, too, what is God's perspective? This is not just a camera event; it is a life event, too.
    From what angle ethically do we gaze out… those of us who want to curate life. Maybe they, the subject we chose, are experiencing this or that and then we are in this role of commenting with our photograph. It is so slightly coercive. I have my camera and I step forward, yet not entirely without bias and self interest.
    You sir are phenomenal and you've said it all better than I.
    There is a psychological part in play as a story is.

  2. I stumbled upon your website by chance and noticed photos of not only two people that I know, but two humanitarians who have changed this world for the better - Pastor Paul Thibodeaux and the Hon. Michael Thurmond. My husband and I were in school with Paul at Iowa State University and my husband was the President of Paine College where Michael graduated and is a staunch supporter of the institution. They are both just really great people.

    I am not a photographer, but I am a consumer of great photography. Your pictures are moving. The stories behind your pictures are even more heartfelt. I was particularly moved and inspired to try to be a better person by this essay on photographing human suffering.

    You should write more. It seems as if the life that you have tried to lead through your work will inform the next generation in a positive and important way. I particularly appreciate your nod to education in a quote in a previous blog that "for every $100 that you spend on equipment you should get 5 hours of training."

    From one human to another, thank you for your contribution to humanity.