Mamma Sessay: A Portrait of Maternal Suffering

July 5, 2010 — 7 Comments

Michelle and Barack Obama at La General Hospital, Ghana. Photo by Karen Attiah

For the past few days, I have been mentally volleying the arguments for and against the publication of the images I will discuss in this post. Time Magazine recently published a photo essay depicting the tragic plight of Mamma Sessay, a teenage girl who faces serious complications during her pregnancy. Photographer Lynsey Addario captures the stages of a half naked Mamma going into labor, to her hemorrhaging blood after delivery, and then finally, her death. In an attempt to cover the serious issues of poor maternal health care in Sierra Leone, Addario snaps away during perhaps what we would consider the two most sacred and intimate points in a woman’s life: the labors of childbirth, and the solitude and finality of death.

I warn you, if you should choose to click on the link, the photo essay is graphic and heart wrenching. Not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

Here is where things get tricky. As this blog focuses on the empowerment, maternal issues, and media representation of women of color, this debate is of particular interest. Some people are outraged. Daniel Waweru of the Guardian takes a sharp critical stance on the photo essay and on the photographer herself (emphasis mine):

“No one who recognised Sessay’s human dignity would take or publish the third [photograph],in which her eyes are glazed with pain, the bedpan at her feet filled with blood. Photographer, situation and subject combine to produce a moment of hideous dehumanisation: Sessay, in her moment of deadly suffering, is a thing, not a person.”

Kenya’s The Daily Nation also lashed out at the implications of such media images representing Africans. In the article entitled “Images of the Dying African Border on Pornography”. author Resna Warah declares,

If there was an award for “death pornography”, then these images would surely win a prize.”

There does not seem to be a shortage of photographs, videos, and anecdotes from the lenses and penses of Western journalists telling the monolithic story of The Noble African, resilient in his/her struggle against the odds of poverty, war, disease, hunger, rape, and destruction, and suffering. Everywhere I turn, I feel as if there was some secret cabal of NGO and charity public relations wonks who met and decided that the standard formula of any awareness campaign linked to Africa needs to include pictures of young children accessorized with flies buzzing, distended bellies for the hunger/health campaigns or maybe with an AK-47 or three if we are talking about war, in DarfuCongAnda somewhere. One has to wonder, with glut of such images and stories constantly showing Africans on the brink, on the edges of human existence in the worst of conditions, how can anyone imagine that Africa can be redeemed, and that her people are….just that. People?

So back to Mamma Sessay. A girl, who through cruel fate, died from what is presumably preventable if she had access to adequate medical attention. The question is, are these photographs dehumanizing her, thus undermining what (I would hope to be) the purpose of the photos, for the audience to relate and empathize with her? Or is the photographer serving the journalistic call to simply depicting the truth, despite how shocking the truth can be?

On the other end, shouldn’t any attention to the plight of mothers in the developing world help the cause?  Ignoring the fact that women are dying needless deaths due to preventable complications during pregnancy is irresponsible.

And what about Sessay herself. Should the photographer have taken such pictures of another person under conditions of mortal agony? Of her dead corpse? Do we know if Mamma or her family was able to give consent?

I think that maternal issues need our attention and support to ALL women. Maternal mortality is also an issue here in the United States, although I am very well of the fact of the huge disparities within health care structures between the West and Africa. I by no means want to put the two situation on the same levels for the sake of being politically correct.

But is this too far? Is this a raw portrait of suffering, or “death pornography”? What do you think?

7 responses to Mamma Sessay: A Portrait of Maternal Suffering

    aconerlycoleman July 6, 2010 at 12:46 AM

    I had a funny feeling when I saw the photos (not surprising, given my apprehension toward any representation of Africa and Africans). My stomach turned. Part of me thought that the fact that the photographer didn’t show her (Mama Sessay’s) face out of respect. A few pictures later, the truncated images of a woman who was very clearly in pain and dying seemed exploitative.

    “Death p*rn” indeed. It’s not far from poverty p*rn- exploitative images that capture reality in a way that prompts pathos in the viewer, guilt in the more liberal viewers, but is quickly forgotten after a charitable donation or a kind act. The privileged denizens change nothing in their own lives, and nothing changes in the lives of these women.

    Basic and ready access to pre, peri and post-natal/maternal care is a matter of recognizing the humanity of citizens of the “developing world/ Global South” regardless of the mandates of capitalism. Until we realize that, nothing will change. Women will continue to die preventable deaths and those with effective demand will continue to live in relative privilege.

    The tragedy of Mama Sessay’s death was not lost on me. I read these stories and see these pictures and all I can do is pray and make donations to organizations that can affect change.


    Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Karen! What first came to my mind was–how could this photographer just sit there and watch this woman die and not do something? I’m not sure how much she could do, but this distance between the journalist and their subject has always been problematic to me. There is a fundamental lack of respect there.

    Perhaps it is necessary for the journalist/photographer to be able to document without respect to desire and without getting approval. We heard a talk from a National Geographic photojournalist who is a professor here and worked extensively in Africa and who suggested as much. However, as much as he talked about capturing “the truth” of a scene, in the end it seemed like he just wanted to take a “good picture” and capture the most dramatic photo since that is what would get published and be admired and be what people would like.

    That made me really worry about the motivations of journalists and photographers documenting news in Africa. As academics, we have or often feel some sort of obligation to our informants and to the community to represent their past and present in a way that resonates with “the truth”, even if it is impossible to completely grasp (or, if you are a hard-core postmodernist, even if it doesn’t exist at all except as constructed through discourse). And we are obligated to try to do something for people–individuals, communities; economic, social, cultural; direct, indirect. I wonder what this person has done since or if they think that publishing shocking and graphic images (which you rightly called death p*rn) is enough. If so, then they are either extremely naive or, in worst case, inhuman and emotionally blind to the suffering of others.

    “Objectivity” has been widely recognized as a myth in nearly all other disciplines–by continuing to hold onto it, journalist perpetuate problems in their field and contribute to an ongoing cycle of image production that casts the African as a noble savage; as a village savant; as a lazy, ignorant wretch. And that reflects fundamentally on individual practitioners and on the field at large because they choose what stories to document and what photographs to take and publish. This is why we have to talk about media representations of Africa at the beginning of every single African History class–learning about Africa has become a work of deconstruction–breaking down all of the stereotypes and assumptions–before any learning can even take place, if you ever get there at all…


    i can’t access the link here for some reason…that aside i really enjoyed reading your take on this. i really wish the pictures of Mamma Sessay had not been taken and publicised in such a way. i found myself nodding in agreement with what Daniel Waweru wrote. furthermore, i can’t help but consider the fact that Mamma Sessay was black African and how this made it somewhat ‘easier’ for the photographer to feel no qualms in not only taking the pictures but allowing them to be placed in a Western news source. i can only provide links to blog articles that talked about race, death and photography more eloquently than i ever could.

    ‘The brown and the dead’ and ‘Must brown people be martyred for Americans to feel motivated?’

    Emmanuel Clottey July 13, 2010 at 7:40 PM

    Don’t be surprised! They depict Africa and Africans this way all the time and most people in the west hardly raise a voice to object. That video has left a pain in my heart. And trust me Mamma Sessay and her family never gave consent. They were too distressed to understand the abuse they were undergoing at the hands of the photographer. The unethical nature of the video should make any journalist worth their salt bow their heads in shame for such low level of journalism.


    I guess I’m torn. I currently am interning at an NGO that focuses on reproductive rights nationally and internationally and I learn how people think in terms of calling people to action. Although these pictures are of a personal, private and emotional nature, like you said, they are gut wrenching and stir emotion. To call people to act and be outraged, sometimes the shock value works. Now, some people may be offended, sure, but it is easy to look at a picture and feel like a person is being objectified because the photo is a still. What’s really emotional is that from that one shot, you know there were infinite moments of pain and sadness that wasn’t captured. That is what calls people to action. I feel like Mamma Sessay passed away due to unnecessary circumstances, but the more Americans get off their ass and understand that there are people DYING from PREVENTABLE situations, the more they look at these pictures and get angry at the moment and not the picture itself, the less deaths like these will occur.


      it’s great to hear from someone who actually works with an NGO that focuses on reproductive rights and presumably knows the inner workings. however i am under the impression that even after seeing these pictures most people will not be moved to do anything. yes they may be shocked, outraged and disturbed for a few hours, maybe even a few days, but after that they continue living their lives comfortably far removed for anything the images evoked. and even if someone were to donate money after seeing the images, how many will be willing to make a constant effort to change things for the better? or will shocking images have to be taken and published every few months or so just to get people to do something? i really don’t understand and i believe there must be other ways of getting people to act on an issue than using shock therapy.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Women as Symbols of Conflict « "More Than Rubies…" - July 30, 2010

    […] What does this say about photojournalism? How do we compare the Afghan Girl, whose photo is something like a work of art, to Aisha’s photograph? Now I believe that we should all be aware of the struggles of women all over the world. What I am questioning is how our media crudely ushers in such awareness. There is something about the Afghan girl that still captivates me to this day. True, she has suffered. But Curry managed to capture a nuanced iconic image that lingers with millions around the world, twenty-five years later. Have we lost that ability in the rush to sell copy and generate clicks in our 24/7 news cycle? Or more crudely, does it sway our opinions about our involvement in the war? What does our media think of our capacity as an audience to empathize, to become aware of the ravages of war, that it has become protocol to publish the mutilated bodies of foreign women in order to grab our attention? […]

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