The Photograph by Sefi Atta
In today’s world there are photographs everywhere – web pages on the internet, magazines full of fashion and film stars, newspapers full of photos of war and sport, places and people from other lands.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and maybe it is, but what is the picture telling us? Sometimes we only see what we want to see…
Make a picture in your mind: a girl with thin cheeks and tired eyes. Her arms and legs are as thin as sticks; she is only skin and bone. Clouds of dust circle above her head as the food trucks drive away. Their wheels leave marks on the dry ground, and soon only, the marks show that the food trucks came to the village, and left.
The sun is at its hottest; the African sky is unending and cruel. Even the white men with cameras, busily taking photographs of the usual fighting over the food, are now getting ready to leave. They pack away their cameras, jump into their cars, and drive quickly away to cool, modern hotels in a city miles away. They are photojournalists.
One of them, sunburned and hot, dressed in a shirt and jeans, kneels down on the dusty ground to take some photographs of the girl before he leaves. In the pocket of his shirt, is a protein bar, soft from the sun, uneaten, untouched, forgotten.
He doesn’t stop to think about the uneaten bar in his pocket and the starving girl. He is only one man. What can one man do in a world where life is cruel, and governments cannot or will not help their people? And who wants to stay in a place like this, with its dirt and its terrible smells, if they can drive away from it?
The girl caught the photographer’s eye. She was in the middle of a group of boys, fighting just as strongly as they were, when the food trucks arrived. But she was pushed down and fell under the boys’ feet. The boys stepped all over her, and when she could move again, the bags of rice were all gone. She stayed there, red-eyed, moving her fingers slowly over the dusty ground.
The journalist takes his last photo, returns to America with his bag full of films. One of his photographs of the girl sells and is placed on the front cover of a news magazine.
‘You’ve caught the face of hunger in Africa,’ the news editor tells him.
He wants to tell the editor that this photograph is just one face, in one village, in a country full of hungry faces. But he does not say it. The photograph is good for him. More people admire his work and want to buy his photographs for their magazines and newspapers.
The photograph is in most news stores by the end of the month, even in those bookstores where people go only to read the magazines and not to buy. They look at the face of the African girl, and quickly turn away to enjoy the rest of their shopping trip.
But the girl’s picture stays in their minds.
A teenager has just finished looking at the clothes in Vogue, an expensive fashion magazine. She sees the photograph under the heading STARVING AFRICA. Her parents are from Africa. She herself was born and schooled in America, watching American TV, American films, and has never travelled out of America. She is uncomfortable with photographs like these. She remembers her classmates in school, who joke about starving Africans. She isn’t African in that kind of way, but she isn’t truly American either.
When she was younger, Cinderella, Snow White, and all the other girls and princesses in the Disney films didn’t look like her. When she was older and became interested in fashion, the models on the magazine covers didn’t look like her either. Then the magazines found out that Africa had beautiful women.
A Nigerian model is in the latest copy of Vogue, dressed in blue, and thin, so thin. The teenager feels the fat at the top of her legs. She wants to be thin like the model. She wants to wear jeans that are like a second skin. She wants a photograph of herself with cool, unsmiling eyes like the Nigerian model. She is careful about what she eats, and if she eats too much, she puts her finger down her throat to make herself sick.
Why does our world have people who starve, and people who decide to starve themselves? It doesn’t matter why. The hunger inside this teenager is real. So she stares at the girl in the photograph, does not think about the dry dusty hungry land behind her, and admires her cheek bones.