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january 2018

An invitation to feel compassion


by Hans Durrer
Next In 1998, after the fall of Suharto in Indonesia, photographer James Nachtwey began to explore conditions of poverty in a country that was on its way towards modernisation. He spent a good deal of time with a man who lived with his family on a railway embankment. The man had lost an arm and a leg in a train accident.
  When the story was published, unsolicited donations poured in. A trust fund was established and the family lives now in a house in the countryside and all the basic necessities were taken care of, as Nachtwey told his audience in a "TED Talk". And: "It was a story that wasn't trying to sell anything. Journalism had provided a channel for people's natural sense of generosity and the readers responded."
  Documentary photographers as well as war correspondents often rationalise their going into war zones by saying that they are bearing witness and that they are giving a voice to the voiceless. Although this might not always be the whole story (journalists and photo journalists might get a kick out of being in danger zones, might even be addicted to war and, last but not least, they also have to make a living), there is no doubt that especially visual journalism often has a remarkable impact as James Nachtwey's Indonesian example perfectly illustrates.
Next I want photographs to make me feel, I want to be touched by them, to be moved by them. That doesn't happen often yet when it does, when a picture hits me, it is, I suppose, more because of the scene portrayed and the story (or stories) that accompany the pic than because of composition and light.
  Left: Nidhi Chaphekar, right, in the aftermath of the attacks. Picture: Ketevan Kardava / Georgian Public Broadcaster via AP

Take for instance the one taken at Brussels Airport after the terror attack on 23 March 2016: "Woman who became the face of the Brussels attacks", aptly titled "The West Australian" — and for me, this photograph was exactly that. Whenever this attack comes to mind, I see (my brain makes me see it, that is) this image. It shows two women sitting side by side on airport chairs. One with a blood-soaked hand talking on a mobile phone, the other, obviously in shock, staring at the camera, bloodied, covered in dust and debris — she was identified as Nidhi Chaphekar an airline stewardess with Indian-based Jet Airways. She had been about to join the rest of her crew for a flight to the US when the bombers struck. She is a married mother of two.

Next I'm glad this photo exists for it helps me to not forget that the lives of people who suffer such tragedies, and the lives of people close to them, have been forever altered. To me, this photograph is an invitation to feel compassion. Needless to say, others see it differently. Photojournalist Ketevan Kardava, who took Chaphekar's photograph, received flak for "stripping away her dignity," as the Huffington Post reported. Nidhi Chaphekar however "was grateful that I clicked her picture and shared it. That helped her family know she was alive," said Kardava.
  We often do not know why we're doing what we are doing. And, why we regularly do not do what we know we should be doing. In other words, I'm rather sceptical of rationalisations for they are nothing but the stories that we tell ourselves after our subconscious has decided what to do (or not to do) in a given situation.
  I've never thought the photojournalists' "bearing witness"-argument very convincing. You take photographs of somebody who clearly needs help? I imagine I would feel ashamed yet I do not really know for I've never been in such a situation. And, I wouldn't like to be. Or, do you simply do what you were trained to do? Photographers take pictures, this is what photographers do. It is their job to show us photographs of people, places and things that they went to see — a strange job, come to think of it.
  However: I highly appreciate it that photographs that document tragedies exist for they allow me to feel compassion for the suffering of fellow human beings (and their close ones), they help me to connect with the world.
  2018 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes