As a photographer, you’ll ask yourself, how was Haberberg able to make those pictures without relying on pity?
That’s a key point about Haberberg’s images. As easy as it would be to aim for tearjerkers in every child’s photo set, she rises above the easy approach of just accompanying them to hospitals to show them hooked to machines out of a science fiction movie and surrounded by stern-faced clinicians in lab coats.
Instead, Haberberg visited these children at home, looking for moments when they are immersed in play and laughing with friends. In many of the photos, the viewer can’t even tell the child has a disease or disorder.
Haberberg finds a girl studiously practicing cello and a boy beaming as he bounces on a trampoline. Photographing them relaxing on the sofa instead of inert in a hospital bed shows them as children instead of patients, which lets the viewer see them as part of a family who could live down the street — not as a kid to pity in an anonymous clinic.
Yet every child in the book who copes with tremendous challenges also lives in ways typical of your neighbor’s kid, such as the little girl who loves to swing and whose mother dressed her in a cute pink outfit with matching bows in her hair. There are the pictures taken on the porch with a sister or in a family room with dad or on a playground with friends, making the point there is more to their lives than just constant care.
Then, in the next image, the viewer is reminded that the same child gets nutrition through a feeding tube or takes medicine through an injection. Over and over, the viewer will think: No one should have to endure this, least of all a kid.
As hard as it is to get through the entire book without choking up, as I did several times, there are those who will ask why Haberberg made such a book. They might suppose she took advantage of the families by showing them at their weakest moments.
So it’s worth remembering how Susan Sontag described this kind of work in her later book “Regarding the Pain of Others.” It is on point, when she addresses head-on the pathos, or feelings of pity, that comes to mind when a viewer sees images of people suffering. While Sontag found plenty to critique in this genre, she also saw potential for making a difference. She wrote:
“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do — but who is that ‘we’? — and nothing ‘they’ can do either — and who are ‘they’? — then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”
If one of the greatest goals of photojournalism is to awaken the viewer from complacency by arousing an emotional response, then Haberberg succeeds.
Eliciting a response does not mean the viewer has to find a way to cure these illnesses any more than the person shocked by war photography is supposed to find a way to stop war. Instead, the goal is to pull us away from our constant distractions and put us back in touch with our humanity. Read “An Ordinary Day” and you will find your emotions stirring deeply and strongly.
Stephen Wolgast is an instructor at the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University. You can write him at [email protected]