The British photojournalist Don McCullin has just turned seventy-five. During a career that has now spanned half a century, perhaps his most unforgettable photograph is of an emaciated albino boy in the Biafran War in Nigeria, taken in 1969. He is leaning over on skeletal legs with an abnormally large head, clutching an empty tin of corned beef. I have never seen an image like it and, at the time, neither had most of the Western world. Here is the photo:
In his autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour, McCullin describes his encounter with this boy, one of 800 war-orphaned children he discovered at a makeshift hospital:
As I entered I saw a young albino boy. To be a starving Biafran orphan was to be in a most pitiable situation, but to be a starving albino Biafran was to be in a position beyond description. Dying of starvation, he was still among his peers an object of ostracism, ridicule and insult…The boy looked at me with a fixity that evoked the evil eye in a way which harrowed me with guilt and unease. He was moving closer. He was haunting me, getting nearer. Someone was giving me the statistics of the suffering, the awful multiples of this tragedy. As I gazed at these grim victims of deprivation and starvation, my mind retreated to my own home in England where my children of much the same age were careless and cavalier with food, as Western children often are. Trying to balance between these two visions produced in me a kind of mental torment…I felt something touch my hand. The albino boy had crept close and moved his hand into mine. I felt tears come into my eyes as I stood there holding his hand. I thought, think of something else, anything else. Don’t cry in front of these kids…He looked hardly human, as if a tiny skeleton had somehow stayed alive…If I could, I would take this day out of my life, demolish the memory of it.
There was a massive empathic response to the suffering of the Biafran war – partly evoked by photos such as McCullin’s – leading to foreign intervention and an unprecedented international relief effort. But it is now more often the case that photos and statistics about people starving or massacred in distant countries do not provoke such a reaction. A common explanation is that we suffer from ‘compassion fatigue’ brought about by the barrage of depressing news stories and images from around the world. In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag described something akin to this when she wrote that ‘images anesthetize’: we have now seen too many photos of emaciated children for them to make a difference any more. We have become, in the words of Pink Floyd, comfortably numb.
For me, McCullin’s photo still has an extraordinary power. Not long ago, one evening around midnight, I was looking at the image of the albino boy on my computer screen. And suddenly his face morphed into that of my four-month-old son. There it was, his soft chubby cheeks and playful blue eyes balanced atop an emaciated and starving body, holding an empty tin of corned beef. My son’s face in that of a dying boy, a grotesque and distorted horror. A wave of nausea rose from my stomach and swept a shiver through my body. My palms were covered with sweat – as they are right now as I recall the sight.
It was a moment that opened me into a new kind of empathy. Since that night I have had a greater capacity to see the individuality in the faces of children I come across, whether it is a television image of an orphaned girl in Brazil or an eight-year-old at a bus stop in Oxford looking terribly sad and alone. Somehow I feel more alive to their sufferings, more aware of their identities. With help from Don McCullin, my own children have led me into the lives of others and helped expand my emotional lexis.
If you suffer from compassion fatigue, what might be your personal cure?