Orphanage, Haiti, 1980
My dad tells me that this girl was wearing a diaper when he began taking pictures of her. When she started fussing, one of the nurses came to take the diaper off and revealed a horrible rash. He continued taking pictures, despite her nakedness.
I wasn’t sure about publishing this photograph since it disturbs me so much. I think part of the revulsion I feel when I look at it today is that I remember how it felt to see this as a child. Now that I’m an adult I’ve seen many images of suffering that I’m numb to, but I’m not at all desensitized when I see this one. When I was a child, this image was not only horrific because of the story it told, or because of the mystery surrounding the explanations my parents gave me for my questions (“What happened to that girl? Why are her privates showing? Why does she look like that?”). The real horror for me was and still is the fact that my own father was the one who saw her, was next to this kind of suffering and vulnerability and could be detached enough to photograph her. When I see this my instinct tells me that I want to cover her up, and my father did the opposite of cover this girl. It disturbs me to picture him above this girls’ bed, touching his lens, pushing the button on his camera, pausing to look. I can’t help but imagine that perhaps what was running though his mind was along the lines of aesthetic composition rather than her suffering. This same man could look, could point his camera at someone like this and also, unashamedly, point his same eyes and camera at me.
My father says that he disagrees with journalists who refer to their stories as “coverage”. He believes in “discovery” instead, believes that shedding light on information is the noblest thing an artist can do. As one of the subjects used in is art, used to demonstrate these very ideas, I’ve spent my life unsure of whether I agree with him.
“Ultimately — or at the limit — in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes. ‘The necessary condition for an image is sight,’Janouch told Kafka; and Kafka smiled and replied: ‘We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.” -Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography