Baby Mim lives at a small hospital in Western Bangladesh minutes from the Indian border. When her mother became ill her father abandoned them– and they found a home at the hospital. When Mim’s mother is unable to care for her the nurses all look after her. She has a beautiful, yet fragile gaze and an inquisitive spirit.No Comments »
I thought I would share a different kind of post today. Sometimes documenting life– picking up my camera and pressing the shutter– is incredibly hard. I spent some time in Bangladesh (a little country above the Bay of Bengal hugged by India) earlier this year– and wrote about a small, yet very conflicting moment during my reporting on the trip for The Common Language Project. It was one of those days when after it’s over you think “Maybe I’m not cut out for this”– or simply “I can’t do this.” But I sat on the riverbed, called someone I love from Seattle, and got some encouraging words on the end of line from Brady, “You were made to do this.”
I left Bollobhpur village in a covered wagon. I waved as the wheels of the cart moaned over dusty potholes and little children shouted “Hel-low, how-are-you-miss,” their roadside cricket matches momentarily interrupted.
I felt drained. I didn’t want to leave but I was eager to get away.
Two and a half weeks earlier I had packed my backpack and set off for the little-known village in West Bangladesh to investigate maternal and child health issues and birthing culture in rural areas. I was following an international group of young midwives who planned to volunteer at the hospital in Bollobhpur, currently run by midwife Sister Gillian Rose, who is famous for providing excellent care in this remote part of the country.
In Bangladesh, nearly 80 percent of births are delivered at home, and the main cause of death for newborns is infection, a risk that can be higher in non-sterile environments. I visited Bollophur’s not-for-profit hospital because I wanted to see what childbirth in Bangladesh could look like for women lucky enough to live near such an establishment.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the stark reality of life and death — how both intermingled and how frequently — that I would witness firsthand at the hospital.
I had read the numbers and done my research. I knew that for every 1,000 births in the country, 41 babies died in their first year. But before I came to Bollobhpur village I didn’t know what that meant.
I had never been immersed in an environment where life is both beginning and ending around the clock.
In my two and a half weeks photographing births and interviewing mothers and midwives, I watched a newborn and her mother lock eyes for the first time, their pupils expanding to take in more of each other. I saw a premature baby gain weight, come out of the incubator and go home with his family.
But there was death, too.
It was 9 a.m. on a Sunday and I was following Sister Gillian on her morning rounds at the hospital. I was capturing sound and images for a profile story when we came across a small family: a tiny premature baby boy, his young mother and his grandmother.
I took a couple of photos of the miniature one-pound boy sleeping in his incubator, showing them to his mother, whose eyes lit up at the sight of her baby. Sister Gillian reached through an opening into the incubator to check the baby’s vitals while I continued documenting her routine.
Then, in a sudden series of movements, Sister Gillian popped open the plastic container, felt the baby’s arm for a pulse, listened for a heart beat, picked up the child and placed him in his mother’s slight arms. Sister Gillian’s competent hand rose to the woman’s back, patting her between her shoulder blades and speaking a few sentences of Bangla. Sister Gillian then hurried out of the ward, leaving me with the young mother. I searched her face for signs of what had happened. I looked at the baby, not much bigger than a doll. Her eyes were fixed on the chipped paint of the blue swinging doors in front of her. And then I knew.
The grandmother let out a howl, painful and low, from the bottom of her belly. She then stood up, threw her hands in the air and struggled out of the maternity ward.
Tears swelled in the woman’s eyes, and she looked down at her baby — still in shock that he was no longer really there.
I stepped back awkwardly, unsure of what to do. I looked away for some time and then began taking pictures of other patients, giving the mother some space. I considered taking her photograph from the back of the room.
“This is the image that will actually make people understand,” I thought as I held up my camera for the shot, but I hated myself for wanting to take the picture.
She wasn’t looking at me. I had a strong desire to hug her and rub her back. I didn’t want to be documenting this, but I didn’t want to not document it either. I took one shot and put my camera down. “What would another photojournalist do?” I asked myself.
I still don’t know the answer to that question. One of the international midwives I had been staying with cut past me and said, “Try to be a little considerate.”
I took a moment to gather myself, placed my camera on a shelf and sat down next to the woman.
She still hadn’t made a noise. I placed my hand on her back, and I felt her spine collapse as she exhaled. Tears streamed down her face as I tried to imagine what she was thinking and feeling.
Nurses swept in, cleaning the incubator, gently lifting the baby from her arms, and wiping the scene clean in a matter of seconds — almost so quick it was as if it never happened in the first place. Everyone in the maternity ward was watching her.
I could hear the grandmother’s wailing from outside. The young woman began to shake and cry softly as I rubbed her back, squeezing my eyes shut, trying not to cry myself.
Later that afternoon, I met with a government doctor. I wanted to know why the baby had died. Who was to blame? What could be done? The United Nations Development Programme reports nearly half of all children under 5 are malnourished in Bangladesh. The doctor explained that many babies are born prematurely because their mother is malnourished herself. Most women depend on their husbands for food, and a UNICEF study found “about 48 percent of Bangladeshi women say that their husbands alone make decisions about their health.” Sister Gillian confirmed that while there are many reasons babies are born prematurely, in this case it was probably malnutrition and anemia.
When I left the interview, the heat of the day was approaching so I decided to escape to my favorite place in the village: the riverbed behind the hospital. It was a place where the mundane task of cleaning bodies and washing clothes suddenly became vibrant and lively. A village mom scrubbed her 5-year-old son with soapy suds as he giggled and flapped his arms. Other women methodically slapped their colorful saris against slabs of stone as the village kids floated by on palm tree branches.
I cupped my face and sighed as tears collected into my palms. Shaking my head back and forth, I didn’t know if I did the right thing. I thought about what my best friend would say — my editor, my journalism ethics teacher, my mom. I thought about the people who would never witness a tragedy like the one that had just unfolded. The ones who might be moved to act by an image like this one.
But most of all I thought about that young woman who lost her son.
I didn’t even know her name.75 Comments »
Welcome to the world little man! Isaac was just a couple weeks old when I had the pleasure of holding his little strawberry-sized hand. Throughout the shoot he went in and out of sleep, sometimes opening his eyes wide and scanning the room, and other times closing his eyes, and twisting his lips up into a smile. Here’s a few photos from our casual family shoot last weekend.