The Blowback: Pregnant and smoking--fair image?
After I wrote about the phenomenon of healthy young people dying of H1N1 and the death of Sara Wilson's six-year-old daughter, Heaven -- the only H1N1 death in the state of Virginia so far of a healthy individual with no pre-existing medical condition--readers wrote in droves. Many people wrote to ask how they could help Sara pay for the funeral urn she wants but can't afford for her daughter's ashes. But many others wrote in, some angrily, asking why we chose to depict Sara, who is four months pregnant, sitting in her trailer smoking. Here's one:
"...I found the photo ... as offensive as they come ... I would ask your photographer why he felt it necessary to capture this grieving mother, as she drags a cigarette on an unmade bed… with their personal items strewn across the bottom of the image. It was most uncomfortable for me, a reader, to see such a personal moment that in effect has little if anything to do with your story. How about photos of the other children who have been lost to H1N1 that you reference in the article – something respectful?"
The Post's ombudsman, Andy Alexander, also wrote about the choice of photo on his Omblog.
Was the photo--which ran in the print edition, but not on washingtonpost.com--disrespectful? Here's what happened:
On the day that freelance photographer Jay Paul and I went to meet Sara, it was raining heavily. That limited Jay's ability to take photos outside. Sara initially was reluctant to have us come inside the trailer where she lives with four other people, saying it was in disarray after Heaven's death, that no one was functioning very well in their grief. We had spoken that morning about going to a coffee shop or diner to talk. I was coming to Sara's house to pick her up. We only had a few hours to talk, because Sara had a doctor's appointment in Richmond.
But Sara also wanted to show us photos of Heaven that she had put on a poster board to display at her daughter's funeral. She didn't want to take the pictures outside and have them be destroyed in the rain. So she asked us in. We got to talking. I asked her where she would bury Heaven's ashes. Sara said she planned to keep them on the dresser in her bedroom where she had already set up a shrine.
"I have to see her, always," she explained.
Sara asked if we wanted to see the shrine. When we said yes, she took us into her bedroom. There, she sat down on the unmade bed and said, "We might as well talk here."
As for the smoking, Sara answered the door with a cigarette in her hand. She showed us Heaven's photos with a cigarette in her hand. And as we sat on the bed, she smoked one cigarette after another. When I asked her about it, she said she'd begun smoking more after Heaven died to deal with her stress.
Readers asked, why couldn't we have found another image of another child who had died of H1N1? Why didn't we find a moment when Sara wasn't smoking? Why didn't we ask her to put her cigarette down? Well, first and most important, we do journalism. That means we capture reality, however ugly, untidy and uncomfortable. We don't stage photos. We don't stage the news. This is not Reality TV where images are massaged and storylines manipulated.
This was an intimate moment - one that showed her smoking and not sleeping and being so burdened by grief that she can't make her bed. That image had everything in the world to do with the story. And it was an image she freely asked us to witness.
Still, I was uncomfortable with her smoking and being pregnant. When the interview was over and as she headed to her car in the rain, I did take her by the shoulders and say, "You have GOT to find another way to deal with your stress," that her smoking wasn't good for her baby. She agreed.
Sara may not have much in the way of education. She may not have a job right now. She may live in a trailer. She may smoke, which carries a high social stigma these days. But none of that detracts from the fact that she is a mother overcome with sadness at losing a child so suddenly and strangely.
What do you think?
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