California Forum

Why must this misery continue?

People are dying. People are suffering. And I don’t understand why.

There are enough resources in this world for everyone. Why must this misery continue?

Even after traveling the globe, visiting 10 countries on four continents to put human faces on the issue of global poverty, I cannot fully answer that question. But I did learn one extraordinary truth: The human spirit transcends even the worst deprivation. And if we hope to change it, we must connect at that most human level.

I witnessed people suffering from the ravages of war, disease, child labor, forced prostitution, starvation, rape, homelessness, abandonment, blindness and environmental toxins with little or no hope of help.

In Liberia, barbed-wire fences and huge billboards that read, “Real Men Don’t Rape” were a constant reminder of war and its aftermath. I found children as young as 8 years old who had lost their families in the war, had been raped and were living in an orphanage that was ill equipped for healthy children, much less those who had suffered such emotional trauma.

They had little food, scant shelter and no supplies. One girl, suffering from a fistula, had soaked her mattress with urine and was sleeping on iron springs, all that remained of her bed.

Of all the things I witnessed while working on this project, these are the faces that are etched in my memory forever. Amazingly, these children didn’t ask for food or a home. All that these innocent victims of horror wanted were supplies so they could attend school.

In India, I photographed a 22-year-old mother who was starving her child so she could use her to beg on the streets to earn money to feed her other children. The child was 2 years old and weighed nine pounds.

Sacrificing one child to feed your others is unimaginable. This photograph is so searing that I fear you will dismiss it as something alien, something so outside your experience that it doesn’t feel real. It is.

Please don’t turn the page quickly. Look, really look, at these faces. Imagine yourself behind these eyes. For without that connection, this project is lost.

When I was a little girl, I would imagine myself escaping into the frame of a wonderful impressionist painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I would immerse myself in the pastoral beauty among the flowers and landscapes that captured my heart.

I never imagined myself in the grim world of 8-year-old Fati, tears streaming down her face from the effects of malaria while balancing a bucket on her head, as she scavenged through toxic e-waste, detritus of the developed world, barely able to breathe, in the hope of finding something to sell to survive.

I’m asking you to immerse yourself in these photographs as if this were your reality. Could you survive with no home, not even a mattress? Breathing the black soot of toxic waste? Drinking contaminated water? Walking miles and days just to find water or food? Facing starvation?

Enduring head-splitting pain from malaria with no hope of medicine or treatment, ever? Being sold into prostitution by your family and forced to have sex day in and day out as your eyes turn yellow and your liver collapses from hepatitis? Running in the African bush, terrified of being blinded by a snake bite, from sunrise to sunset, as the four small boys I photographed in Ghana did every day?

It’s a hard reality to face, never mind try to fix. But if we cannot connect, cannot imagine, cannot see, we can never hope to change.

For me, just as it did in the Met, my heart led me to our shared humanity, inspired by the dignity, love and even laughter against all odds that I witnessed.

In India, a sea of people passed by a little blind girl begging for money to feed herself, her brother, and her mother. I stopped the crew I was with so we could hear her story.

She and her family had nothing but a prayer mat to sleep on in the insufferable 100-degree heat outside a mosque, one of the few places they felt safe. My heart melted watching the unconditional love this family shared and the delight the children showed as they sang me a song, clapping and grinning.

In Peru, I visited another orphanage, this one housing more than 830 abandoned children who were all smiling and learning and loved by the founder, Miguel Rodriquez. He knows every child by name and embraces each one with a kiss on the cheek every day. He embodies the example of extraordinary changes for the good that one man can achieve.

And there is hope for little Ana-Maria, whose angelic pose I captured in the face of eviction in Romania. She is now attending kindergarten.

I am a documentary photojournalist who uses the art of photography to bring awareness to issues throughout the world. Art is a powerful means of expression. But in combination with the ethics and unvarnished storytelling of journalism, I can assure that every face also has a name and a story.

I am in awe of Tom Nazario, who gave me this opportunity and who believed that this kind of photojournalism could help make a difference. His nonprofit, The Forgotten International, not only recruited and supported me, it also provided a dedicated cast of colleagues, including videographer George Rosenfeld and the social workers, interpreters, guides and drivers who helped us gather the facts and tell the stories of the people we met and photographed.

Tom reinforced how little it takes to pull people back from the brink of survival. By supporting his organization and others highlighted in this book, we can demonstrate our shared humanity and prove that no one, especially the least among us, is forgotten.

Mostly, I was humbled by the grace, generosity, fortitude and bravery of the hardworking men, women and children who allowed me into their lives, lives they did not choose and often cannot control. Through them, my life was enriched.

I hope you’ll look deeply into these photographs. They might change your life, too.