The Mamma Photos and the ‘Indignity’ of the African

Not long ago, Time Magazine released some maternal mortality pictures taken by New York Times photographer, Lynsey Addaria,29307,1993805,00.html.  In the pictures, 18 year old Sierra Leonean, Mamma Sessay was photographed through her ordeals trying to birth the second of her set of twins. Mamma never made it through; she died under very avoidable circumstances.

In the graphic and gross photos, Mamma’s face is shown contorted with the pain of death, just hours before her demise. Dishevelled and stark naked in her own pool of blood, Mamma was presented as almost “sub-human” as the clock ticked to her final minutes.

The photos of Mamma shown, as it were, to pull at the heartstrings of viewers, and perhaps, draw attention to the case of maternal mortality in Africa, rather than achieving those aims, succeeds on the contrary. In the place of pity – for which the world is drained out of, for Africa – disdain is evoked. In the stead of drawing attention to maternal mortality, the Mamma photos portray the African to be lacking the fundamental determinant of humanity, which is dignity.

It is unfortunate that the circumstances of Mamma Sessay’s death is daily replayed across several sub-Saharan African countries. Women in some parts of the continent die from preventable and treatable complications during childbirth. It is also to the discredit of the continent that years into the 21st century, bringing a life to the world still comes at great peril. However, while Ms Addario might have set out to remind the world of the risks her fellow women face, her tools, it seems,  direct the thoughts of her audience elsewhere.

The naked, despicable photos of Mamma Sessay, in agonizing near-death and in death, is a gross violation of the canons of journalism. It is contravenes the code of ethics, in the way and manner a helpless woman was displayed naked to the world, in her most vulnerable circumstance, ever. If Mamma had lived, would she have approved of naked pictures of her on the websites of Time Magazine, for the world to see? Yes, if Ms Sessay had lived, would the photo journalist been able to obtain her informed consent to display such photos?

The harm limitation principle of journalism brings to fore the questions of the amount of information at the disposal of the journalist, and the amount s/he is morally allowed to pass on to the public. In other words, not everything the journalist sees or hears should be for public consumption. Human dignity must be upheld in all things. A proverb of the Igbo of Nigeria says that the palm wine tapper never divulges everything he sees from his vintage position atop the palm tree. Journalists are under moral obligation to be sensitive when reporting tragedy or grief, both, conditions that reduce a human being to his lowest in terms of self-control.

In the Honor Code, renowned Princeton Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah posits that societies rally around the prevailing sense of what is honourable or dishonourable. Dignity, respect, and esteem lie at the core of all societal relationships. Advancements in the cultural, social and economic spheres come about when individuals consider themselves honourable and dignified by carrying out certain practices. In this instance, the Mamma photos, while it seeks to do good, does more harm to the African. It does not respect the African nor the African woman it tries to protect.  There is a strong sense of decency in the African Ubuntu philosophy. Ubuntu places humanity above the self, and any form of personal profit, gain, fame or publicity; I am because we are. Ubuntu extols respect and not pity for fellow human beings.

Lynsey Addario, despite the disrespect for the African portrayed in her picture, seems to possess a clear understanding of the central role of personal dignity in the life of every human being. In her other photos of wounded American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, Ms Addario presents to her audience, photos of stoic looking American soldiers, well covered and obviously bearing their pain with philosophical calmness. There are no blood stains, no contorted faces screaming with unimaginable pain, no nakedness, just some calm and in-control looking soldiers, clothed with dignity and self-pride. Other pictures taken of self-immolation among Afghan women try to preserve the dignity of the victims, even under such heart wrenching, despicable, self inflicted conditions.

Mamma Sessay is dead and buried. She is oblivious of the naked, pain and fear stricken pictures of her circulating around the world. But, Mamma Sessay lives in every African man or woman, who wants to be treated and portrayed with dignity, in his best of times, and in his worst of times.

The much sought after economic and political advancement of Africa cannot be achieved by further degrading the inhabitants in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world. It will be achieved by what has worked for centuries in the building up of a people; positive affirmation as the foundation for social psychological empowerment.

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