Supplemental: Concerning a powerful photograph!


Post reader gets it right:
Each Saturday, the hard-copy Washington Post includes a full page of letters from its readers.

The page is called Free for All. This Saturday, a Post reader from suburban Gaithersburg, Maryland got something very right.

She had written in praise of a photograph which ran ten days before. This is what she wrote:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (10/18/14): Michel du Cille’s photo of Esther Tokpah, the 11-year-old Liberian whose parents died of Ebola [“A new generation of orphans,” front page, Oct. 8], deserves the highest award possible. It told a story of haunting bewilderment and grief in the face of tragic reality. The courageous presence of physician Jerry Brown, offering words of comfort, added poignancy to this extraordinary window into one of our world’s unspeakable nightmares. I am humbled, heartbroken and grateful.

K— J—, Gaithersburg
“I am humbled, heartbroken and grateful.“ Those are unusual things to say about a photograph. But there the photo in question was, published again by the Post.

Especially in black and white, it’s an astonishing photo. On-line, the Post presents the photo in color, in which it loses some of its remarkable power.

On Saturday morning, we looked at the photograph in question in black and white:

It shows the 11-year-old girl who had lost her parents. Tears are streaming from her eyes. Her lips are pursed extremely hard against her grief.

We’ve looked at that photograph quite a few times since we first saw it Saturday morning. We’re not sure we’ve ever seen a more penetrating photo. It’s the kind of photo which makes you wonder why any of us ever do any of the things we do.

We can’t show you the photo in black and white. In color, we think it shows us much less.

Still, we’ll suggest that you give it a look. In our view, the reader from Gaithersburg had a good eye.

The photo does deserve the highest commendation, if we’re still able to think that commendations matter. It may also make a person want to look away. Especially in black and white, its power explains the unusual set of reactions the reader described.

Why do we do the things we do? That very unusual photograph left us asking that.


  1. "Why do we do the things we do? That very unusual photograph left us asking that."

    I do not understand this statement. The photo is sad but how does it reflect on anything I do or have done?

    1. Perhaps Bob is suggesting that the snark, the vitriol, the tribal game-playing, and the other things we type and say are ultimately pretty hard to justify when confronted with the image of that little girl dealing with an unimaginable loss?

    2. An unimaginable loss to an unspeakable nightmare.

    3. How is this unimaginable? Kids lose parents to car accidents, prison, cancer, drugs, abandonment. In Africa, there are many similar AIDS orphans. This can only be unimaginable to those with no imagination or no experience of the world. Use of hyperbolic language is wrong and contributes to the unhelpful hysteria. If this is a nightmare to people in Africa can it be worse than the civil wars that have orphaned children? The unspeakable here is the tolerance for a lack of medical care, ignored until something like this happens. We should be ashamed to fear for ourselves in this preventable situation.

  2. I am more touched by the photos of healthcare workers unselfishly caring for those who are dying, risking their own lives in the process. Comforting a crying girl is easy compared to that.

    This photo affects us because emotion is contagious, more contagious than Ebola. I don't think it says much beyond that. Death sucks. All losses are unimaginable. There have been AIDS orphans for decades now. Not so many photos of them for some reason.

    Harpers Magazine has a hit piece on Hillary Clinton this month, featured also at Huffington Post. It suggests she has done nothing. Without any snark, I'd like to point out that the Clinton Global Initiative has been working on health care issues and development in Africa since 2006. So has the Gates Foundation. Such efforts may be why Nigeria has been better able to combat Ebola than the countries torn by civil war, where development has been less possible.

    When Bob asks why we do the things we do, I answer that I donate to UNICEF instead of giving gifts to people who don't need them, in order to help those in poverty who are hardest hit by things like viruses and natural disasters. I suspect other liberals do something similar. I doubt many trolls do, although they are welcome to prove me wrong -- not to late to help out.

  3. Does Somerby's question make sense? We’d say his question is murky, hard to paraphrase, just extremely unclear. But when it comes from our top blogger, his readers loves work of that type. In that sense, we’d say this post captures one part of the blog's essential culture.

    Moving right along, what is the relationship between Ebola and hit pieces on Hillary Clinton?:

    Do trolls actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do? Your observation about them is loaded with qualifiers, possibly even with a “weasel word” or two.

    1. What a waste of consciousness you are.

    2. What is your point -- or more accurately, what is the point of you? You seem to be completely tone deaf as to when your self-satisfied smirking is appropriate and when it isn't. But apparently that's all you've got.

    3. Considering that to date the spellcasters had mentioned ebola more in comments on this blog
      than Bob had in his posts, I'd say the waste of conciousness charge is unfounded.
      charge is a bit misplaced.

    4. Yes, everyone must talk about Ebola because it frightens you.

    5. No, but anyone who purports to cover American journalism and waits until October 20, 2014 to mention it is probably someone fascinated with Meredith Viera's PR department.

  4. I'd say your response is motivated by ill will, hence the difficulty you report in seeing the meaning behind Somerby's question. Certainly "trolls" have the full range of feeling available, but with the unfortunate caveat that something brutal overtakes the potential for kindness in the "inner feelings" they have before it has any chance to stand on its own. As a general rule, the one quality which unites these "trolls" (who for some reason spend a great deal of time reading and responding to a blog they supposedly have such disdain for) is the ugly, mean-spirited tone that characterizes their comments - masquerading as superiority.

    1. There is something obscene about publishing the picture of a child at such a moment of naked grief in order to sell whatever our current news sites advertise.

    2. "in order to sell"

      You think this picture -- the picture of this distraught girl -- was chosen to sell?

      "We put the weeping orphaned girl there. Our advertisers want the pull it'll bring."

      Or something, I guess. Maybe you'll tell us the thinking you imagine is behind that, please. On second thought, please don't. Please spare us the torture that further examples of your "thinking" would surely bring.

    3. Can this child have given any meaningful permission for the use of her photo? Would she want this terrible moment to be on display to the world like this. I think this is a victimization of a child who no longer has the protection of adults. Leave her alone.

    4. I hope the photojournalist gets caught up in the flight ban when Obama is forced to order it.

      One small step above being a paparazzi.

    5. Amazingly we can apparently argue about whether journalists can take photographs or not. If they do, we can say they are exploiting the situation and if they don't we can say they are not showing us what is really happening and "filtering" our information. As with most things, photos can be enlightening and moving or they can be exploiting and pandering. If you think the photo should *not* have been used, please explain why in terms of journalism.