On writing, righting and apathy

image from multimediaseattle.org

The above photo depicts a brutal form of execution known as necklacing, carried out by forcing a rubber tire, filled with petrol, around a victim’s chest and arms, and setting it on fire. The victim may take up to 20 minutes to die, suffering severe burns in the process. The practice became a common method of lethal lynching during disturbances in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s.

Photojournalist Kevin Carter was the first to photograph a public execution by necklacing in South Africa in the mid-1980s. He later spoke of the images:

“I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures… then I felt that maybe my actions hadn’t been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing to do.”

He went on to say:

“After having seen so many necklacings on the news, it occurs to me that either many others were being performed (off camera as it were) and this was just the tip of the iceberg, or that the presence of the camera completed the last requirement, and acted as a catalyst in this terrible reaction. The strong message that was being sent, was only meaningful if it were carried by the media. It was not more about the warning (others) than about causing one person pain. The question that haunts me is ‘would those people have been necklaced, if there was no media coverage?”

(Source: Wikipedia: Necklacing)

In March 1993 Carter made a trip to Sudan. The sound of soft, high-pitched whimpering near the village of Ayod attracted Carter to an emaciated Sudanese toddler. The girl had stopped to rest while struggling to a feeding center, whereupon a vulture had landed nearby. He said that he waited about 20 minutes, hoping that the vulture would spread its wings. It didn’t. Carter snapped the haunting photograph and chased the vulture away. (Source: Wikipedia: Kevin Carter)

image courtesy of photobucket.com

It is unknown what happened to this young girl after this photo was taken. What is widely known is that Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for this photograph, presented to him on May 23, 1994 at Columbia University.

On July 27, 1994 Carter drove to the Braamfontein Spruit river, near the Field and Study Centre, an area where he used to play as a child, and took his own life by taping one end of a hose to his pickup truck’s exhaust pipe and running the other end to the passenger-side window. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 33. Portions of Carter’s suicide note read:

“I am depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…I have gone to join Ken [recently deceased colleague Ken Oosterbroek] if I am that lucky.”

This is certainly not a new story, but it’s something that’s been on my heart lately. Photographers, journalists and writers give voice to suffering and chaos. Hopefully in an attempt to draw the world’s attention to it, thereby calling others to action. But in that moment and the moments immediately following, what are they doing about it? Would Kevin Carter be alive today if he had set down that camera and come to the aid of that little girl? Would the darkness have consumed him had he chosen to be a light instead of a neutral observer? I just don’t know.

I’ve said before that one of the occupational hazards of being a writer is that you’re always writing. Every situation becomes a potential story. But I never want to come to a place where what I put on paper becomes more important than inserting myself into the bigger story of life. Especially if by abandoning my mental pen and notebook I might have a hand in changing a tragedy into a happily ever after, or at least an after.

“Some people confuse acceptance with apathy, but there’s all the difference in the world. Apathy fails to distinguish between what can and what cannot be helped; acceptance makes that distinction. Apathy paralyzes the will-to-action; acceptance frees it by relieving it of impossible burdens.” – Arthur Gordon

“By far the most dangerous foe we have to fight is apathy – indifference from whatever cause, not from a lack of knowledge, but from carelessness, from absorption in other pursuits, from a contempt bred of self satisfaction” – William Osler

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17 Responses to “On writing, righting and apathy”

  1. Glynn April 13, 2011 at 10:13 pm #

    Writing is often emotionally and physically draining. Without some kind of rest, we face burn-out, or worse. While it was a different kind of creation, even God rested after six days.

    Good post, Kathy.

  2. Sandra Heska King April 13, 2011 at 10:32 pm #

    Oh, Kathy. So powerful.

  3. Jason April 13, 2011 at 10:37 pm #

    Brilliant post, Kat. As someone who was in journalism for the longest time it’s sometimes a real challenge to show up and do your job without getting involved. And the images of things…well…they can haunt you. I remember every dead body I saw during my time in full time media.

  4. Simply Darlene April 13, 2011 at 11:55 pm #

    This makes me want to puke. I kept thinking “how could the photographer take images and do nothing to help?” And who cares about the bird? What about the babe? What about the babe?! When making money or seeking fame or chasing both becomes bigger than a suffering human, it is time to bury the camera and the pen.

    Lord help us all in our choices. Make the desires of our hearts to be in perfect line with Your will for us. Guide us to use our gifts, our talents, our resources for Your Kingdom, for Your children. And forgive us when we don’t.

  5. JamesBrett April 14, 2011 at 6:36 am #

    we don’t call them necklacing here, but that’s exactly how thieves are killed in geita. [all over africa, i assume.] except they use kerosene and not petrol. and sometimes more than one tire.

    it’s difficult to know what to do with an angry mob running down the streets with tires and kerosene and grubbing hoes (our equivalent to pitchforks, perhaps?). i want to interfere, to try and stop them. but my tanzanian friends tell me they’ll only trample me, or beat me. i think i should try anyway. sometimes.

    but as of yet, i’ve not stepped in. my daughter still has her father. but i struggle with whether or not i’m doing what Christ would do.

    • katdish April 14, 2011 at 9:51 am #

      You know, James it’s pretty easy for me to sit here in the comfort and confines of suburbia sharing stories of atrocities half a world away. Much more difficult to witness them first hand I imagine.

      • JamesBrett April 14, 2011 at 11:37 am #

        it is difficult to witness. not that i actually see the killings. just the mobs of people going to participate. the moment someone yells “mwizi!” (thief), everyone leaves their houses with sticks and tools. there’s yelling and screaming and whistles and people throwing rocks at metal gates. and they come from everywhere, hundreds of people.

        one time i actually did leave the house to try and stop it — but a tanzanian friend stopped me. he told me not to go, that there’s no way i could stop them from hurting the guy. i told him i didn’t care if they hurt the guy.* that i just didn’t want them to kill him. he insisted that they normally don’t kill thieves. but when i pushed him (because i’ve heard about lots of burnings) he admitted that the mob often does get carried away… and the thief is killed.

        i’ve about decided the best thing for me to do is to go and get the police. because if they arrive, they’ll take the thief and not let him be murdered. that may be what i do next time. [though if he’d only been beaten (and not killed), i’d rather have let the mob deal with the robber.]

        *perhaps a different story for a different time, but i believe their form of ‘policing’ works when the thief is smacked around a little and scared a lot. it’s much better than being taken by the real police — where he might sit in jail for a year waiting trial… and only then be sentenced to his punishment. he’ll likely not be treated well there and his wife (or wives?) and children won’t have anyone to provide for them. in my opinion it’s much better that he be beaten a bit and then allowed to return home. he’ll have a bad reputation, but he’ll be able to feed his family. maybe. of course, that may be why he was stealing something in the first place.

        these are just hard decisions to make. i’m not speaking of you, katdish, but there are many who talk about these issues as if they’re simple. but there’s just so much more going on than what can be seen on the surface. i’m sure there’s more than i see, as well.

  6. Jake April 14, 2011 at 8:39 am #

    Kathy. I’m picking up on a trend. Billy’s story about the luckiest boy in the world made me think and honestly, it’s not terribly different from this story, although much less graphic. I think for us Jesus people it’s kind of like, “Hey God! I memorized your word. DO any of it? Why?”

  7. Cam April 14, 2011 at 8:59 am #

    May we act to fight injustice before we write to change the world.

  8. Candy April 14, 2011 at 9:03 am #


  9. Hazel Moon April 14, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    One photo can make a difference. At least people were talking and that can create change (eventually) Sad but good post!

  10. karen April 14, 2011 at 3:14 pm #

    My buddy military correspondent Joe Galloway never put on a uniform, yet, he’s covered more wars than most soldiers. He’s seen the horrors of war up close and personal, and skillfully used his weapons — his intellect and his way with words — to make a nation care about the men a war they’d just soon forget. Joe suffers post-traumatic stress disorder as deeply as any soldier. I understand why journalists and soldiers take their own lives. Somebody has to walk point. It’s terrifying. Even if you do live through it — you never ever feel safe again. And, frankly, it angers you that no matter how loudly you scream for help, people are too busy talking about Snooki and Lady Gaga to hear the cries. Troubling post, Kat.

    • katdish April 14, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

      It’s got to be deeply troubling to devote your life drawing attention to atrocities that people would just as soon not have to think about. The sad reality is that unless it affects people directly, most would rather not remember that others suffer. It is troubling.

  11. Louise April 15, 2011 at 5:36 am #

    Thank you.

  12. Deb. April 21, 2011 at 8:57 am #

    This is the sort of scenario that helped in my decision not to follow a career in photojournalism, but health care instead. It’s different for all of us, but I found myself disconnecting behind the camera. Ten years ago I was shooting a project in the slums of New Delhi and I realized that in my desire to ‘raise awareness’ I was unable to justify to myself coming and seeing, but doing nothing for the individual whose image I was using to tell my version of a story.


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    […] On Writing, Righting, and Apathy, Kathy Dishman Richards –  …one of the occupational hazards of being a writer is that you’re always writing. Every situation becomes a potential story. But I never want to come to a place where what I put on paper becomes more important than inserting myself into the bigger story of life. Especially if by abandoning my mental pen and notebook I might have a hand in changing a tragedy into a happily ever after, or at least an after. […]

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