Commentary: A photojournalist's respect for the dying

Copyright: Michel du Cille, The Washington Post

Copyright: Michel du Cille, The Washington Post

Here on Intercross, we regularly feature articles about law, policy, and operations. We also do a number of historical or "memory" pieces per year. But this week, we're switching gears a bit and focusing on a new topic: compassion - a synonym of humanity and a core component of humanitarian action. Inspired by a piece in this past weekend's Washington Post,


Editor, Anna Nelson, reflects on what it means to document the dying with dignity. 

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Photojournalist, Michel du Cille (who was turned away from a speaking engagement at Syracuse University last week because of fears over his exposure to Ebola in Liberia) penned an excellent article for Sunday's edition of the Post in which he talks about the challenge of taking dignified pictures of the victims of the virus.

He wrote:

"Respect is often the last and only thing that the world can offer a deceased or dying person. Yet the camera itself seems to be a betrayal of the dignity I so hope to offer. Sometimes, the harshness of a gruesome scene simply cannot be sanitized. How does one give dignity to the image of a woman who has died and is lying on the ground, unattended, uncovered and alone as people walk by or gaze from a distance? But I believe that the world must see the horrible and dehumanizing effects of Ebola. The story must be told; so one moves around with tender care, gingerly, without extreme intrusion."

His comments really struck a chord, reminding me of the time I spent with venerated war photographer, James Nachtwey, in the southern Philippines in 2009. That year, the ICRC teamed up with a group of VII photographers to produce an exhibit entitled, "Our World. At War." The aim was to show the impact of armed conflict on individuals. It was my job to accompany James and write up the stories of people we met. 

We had travelled from Manila to Mindanao to examine the plight of tens of thousands of villagers who had been displaced by fighting between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. 

James Nachtwey/ VII & ICRC

James Nachtwey/ VII & ICRC

One day during our two-week assignment together, James and I visited the ER of a hospital in Cotobato. A young man with a gaunt face, bulging eyes, and a body of just skin and bones was brought in and placed on a gurney. His mother tried unsuccessfully to soothe him.

All we were told was that he had been displaced by the conflict and cut off from access to much-needed medication.

I remember watching as James moved discreetly and deliberately towards him, creating a sort of bubble around himself and his subjects. With a single expression, a lift of his camera, and a gesture of hand-over-heart, James sought and was granted tacit permission to enter the private space of the man's suffering and document it.

They were most certainly the last photos ever taken of the young man. When we returned to the hospital the next day, we were told that he had passed away.

I've often wondered, and wonder still, why would someone in so much pain and discomfort let a perfect stranger take his picture? 

Reading Michel du Cille's article, it struck me that perhaps the answer lies in his description of an attempted conversation with the sister of a dying Liberian girl: 

"As we tried to converse, neither fully understanding the other’s dialect, our eyes did the talking. To me, her eyes said, 'This is the end'.”

It was the same thing I had witnessed in that Cotobato ER between James and the young man, who was, I believe, by no means oblivious to his situation or to James' presence. It was as if the dying and the documenter had made a silent pact: you can have my story - it's all I have left to give - but only if you take it with dignity, respect, and compassion.

James, like Michel, believes in bearing witness - that there are stories that must be told. I admire both men, and all photojournalists of their ilk and caliber, for doing so "with tender care, gingerly, and without extreme intrusion."