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.

The UBB Anniversary: The Truth is Always Respectable

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in 7 years.”  — Mark Twain

Today is April 5, the first anniversary of the deaths of 29 men in a terrible coal mining accident at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

I honor the dead, and the families who mourn them; yet this post is not about that accident.  This post is about a question that the accident and its aftermath pose.  It is about something my father believes that I am not yet sure I do, and the anniversary of the UBB tragedy brings it again to the forefront of my thoughts.

“The truth is always respectable.”

My father is much more intelligent than the vast majority of people I know and even know of.   He is one of those “scary smart” men who can remember long chains of statistics, human connections, and historical sequences.  He is trained in the liberal arts and the law, has served in the army and the National Guard, endowed a prize in evidence at his law school and is intensely close to his God.   The fact that he is my father makes his stature even more awe-inspiring for me.  I listen when he speaks.  I take as pillars of my life some of his core tenets:

  • All things in moderation (If my father had to choose between Lost Horizon and the Bible for his one book on a desert island, I know he would struggle).
  • Your experience is the only experience you have; one always generalizes his or her own experience.
  • Never resist a generous impulse.
  • Fewer clothes in a marriage mean fewer arguments. (Note: I have been corrected since the original post, it’s not fewer arguments, it is arguments of shorter duration.  Got it.)
  • You can never see a great film too many times.
  • Butter is worth it.

This is just a sampler of his wisdom, but you get the idea.   The man knows what he’s talking about when he shares the wisdom of his over 80 years, and I pay attention.

That is why I am so troubled about my personal struggle with, “The truth is always respectable.”

Given the track record of how dad’s thinking turns out to be accurate I really wish this core idea were easier for me to understand.  I am still not there, and the UBB date on the calendar clouds things even more.

Evidence in the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigation turns up testimony that all of the men did not perish instantaneously as originally reported.  I remember the claim that no one survived the blast being quickly and widely disseminated to ease concern that the miners suffered.  Now we learn several men may have not been killed immediately, and that one man made valiant efforts to save his fellow  miners, only to have to retreat as his own oxygen supply dwindled to dangerously low levels.

When I learned this, honestly I was angry.  I was not angry at the now-alleged wrong information, I was angry that anyone thinks the families need to know that.  How horrific, to be maybe even healing a small amount, only to face renewed grief.  If someone I loved had been in that mine, I thought, just leave me in peace.  Let me have the only thing I can possibly have, and that is that he died without struggle or pain.  Let me move on, let my heart rest.

Then here comes this news…….and there is no rest for the hearts and minds of these families.  It feels so wrong, almost unethical to bring this to light if there is nothing that can be done but to hurt more.

But some time has gone by, and now I do more than just react to this terrible and seemingly pointless news.  I start to turn it around and reconfigure what it means to be devoted to knowing the truth.

If we say, either explicitly or implicitly through our responses to new information, “This is pointless and painful and you should never have told us,” what else are we saying?

We are saying it is acceptable to withhold information that might change future outcomes.

It is true that the terrible UBB explosion cannot be undone.  Those men are gone from this world forever, and their families and communities will never be the same.  But it is also true that large corporations (including the government) breathe a sigh of relief when we don’t make too much out of knowing what really goes on: who was lax, who made a serious error, who showed disdain for human life, who would just as soon deliver a modified story as the real one.

My conflict is with whether or not what the truth IS deserves respect.  That is what I usually hear when I hear, “The truth is always respectable.”  If it’s true that you cheated on a test, or lied to Congress, or abused a child, is that respectable?

No.  But making the reality of what you did available to yourself and to others who deserve to know is.  It’s more than respectable; it’s the only way anything gets any better over the long haul.

The real stories necessitate real change.  I want to put my head under a pillow so I can’t hear the real stories.  But hear them, and share them, and support them I must.

Dad, you did it again.  How do you do that?  I love you.

Image credit: EthioSun.com