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?