Turning Point Images: The Girl in the Bathtub

Via EPA.gov

Since the invention of the camera, human beings have known turning point images.

These images capture moments denied to the outside world, but intimately connected to the realities of specific scenes of human suffering. Most often those scenes take place where no one wants to go. Photographers who document these places take great personal risk to bring remote, hidden pockets of pain into the daylight where we all can see.

And once you’ve seen, you can’t go back.

Consider the Vietnam conflict’s “Napalm Girl.” The iconic image turned 40 years old this week, and you can see the picture and read an interview with the woman who was that child in the photograph here.

(Nick) Ut’s editors made an exception to a policy preventing frontal nudity in photos and went ahead and published it. Known simply as “napalm girl”, the photo transcended the divisive debate about the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam War and crystallized the barbarity of war.

Also in the news this week, a photograph of a five-year-old Kentucky girl made national headlines when it almost appeared in a U.S. Congressional hearing about mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining practices. The photograph shows the child sitting naked in bath water that appears to be contaminated with toxins and heavy metals from mining runoff. (Click here to view the photograph on Katie Falkenberg’s website: The Human Toll: Mountaintop Removal Mining.)

Note: The photographer removed the photo of the girl in the bathtub due to the controversy, but other powerful photos remain on this link.)

There is a lot going on in this news story, and it continues to evolve. There are accusations of child pornography, sham hearings, sleazy politics, and emotional manipulation. I’m not sure where it will end, but I feel confident we have reached our turning point image.

The girl is not running and screaming, like Kim Phuc in the napalm attack on her village. She sits still as a stone, her arms wrapped under her legs. Her head is down. She is a portrait of submission and vulnerability, and any adult looking at her knows she has no real knowledge of the insidious presence in her bath. She probably knows water is supposed to be clear, but she has no choice but to trust those who care for her and accept her surroundings.

We Appalachian people like to think ourselves hard to tame. The Hatfield McCoy feud movie was on The History Channel last week, and there was plenty of armchair whoopin’ and hollerin’ about how fierce our people can be. Big men, big guns, lots of chest puffing and tough talk. I wonder this week, as a little child shows who we really are in 2012, if we will own the truth.

We are vulnerable. We are alone. We have trusted and we have hoped for the best. In many ways, I think we have remained deliberately ignorant about what is all around us.

Will we ever get up and run? And if we do, is it too late?

You can read the testimony by Boone County WV resident Maria Gunnoe on June 1, 2012, at the hearing titled “Obama Administrations Actions Against the Spruce Coal Mines: Canceled Permits, Lawsuits and Lost jobs” (sic) by clicking here.

12 thoughts on “Turning Point Images: The Girl in the Bathtub

  1. Pingback: Friday roundup, June 8, 2012 « Coal Tattoo

    • Thank you very much, Carol. I just discovered that the family has “declined media use” of Falkenberg’s photo, and it has since been removed from the photographer’s website.

      As a mother, I understand that decision. As someone who believes this photo could have a positive impact on the national conversation, I am disappointed.

    • Blair, that is always a good thing to pray for.

      Regarding the pornography allegation, that is really an interesting issue to me. I think clearly there is no intention of creating and distributing child pornography here. It is an art photograph, and it functions beautifully as such.

      There is a degree to which, though, it may not be all bad that this allegation came up; it begs a lot of other questions about child welfare, adult attitudes toward the degradation of children and the environment, and what anyone is willing to do about it. Does it take something shocking, so shocking and disturbing some people won’t even look at it, to get our attention? I had a hard time looking at the photograph. It had a visceral, unsettling quality that upset me. It was very powerful.

      I just don’t know.

  2. I do not have to see that Time (I think that’s where it was) magazine image ever again–just to think of it fills my heart and eyes with inexpressible anger and sadness. probably the objectionable pornography was not the naked child but the obscene denial of the rapers of the earth

  3. Pingback: Your World in a Bathtub: 2012 | Esse Diem

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