Home > Life Thoughts > What does Compassion look like?

What does Compassion look like?

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com·pas·sion (k m-p sh n). n. Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.

The story behind the photo:

As described in Time magazine, the scene Carter captured in his now-famous photograph was one he stumbled across during a trip he made on his own in order to cover the civil strife in war-torn Sudan:

In 1993 Carter headed north of the border with [friend and fellow journalist] Jaoa Silva to photograph the rebel movement in famine-stricken Sudan. To make the trip, Carter had taken a leave from the [South Africa] Weekly Mail and borrowed money for the air fare. Immediately after their plane touched down in the village of Ayod, Carter began snapping photos of famine victims. Seeking relief from the sight of masses of people starving to death, he wandered,into the open bush. He heard a soft, high-pitched whimpering and saw a tiny girl trying to make her way to the feeding center. As he crouched to photograph her, a vulture landed in view. Careful not to disturb the bird, he positioned himself for the best possible image. He would later say he waited about 20 minutes, hoping the vulture would spread its wings. It did not, and after he took his photographs, he chased the bird away and watched as the little girl resumed her struggle. Afterward he sat under a tree, lit a cigarette, talked to God and cried. “He was depressed afterward,” Silva recalls. “He kept saying he wanted to hug his daughter.”

After another day in Sudan, Carter returned to Johannesburg. Coincidentally, the New York Times, which was looking for pictures of Sudan, bought his photograph and ran it on March 26, 1993. The picture immediately became an icon of Africa’s anguish. Hundreds of people wrote and called the Times asking what had happened to the child (the paper reported that it was not known whether she reached the feeding center); and papers around the world reproduced the photo.  Friends and colleagues complimented Carter on his feat. His self-confidence climbed. But Kevin Carter was also a troubled soul, struggling with issues such as financial insecurity, drug problems, failed relationships, and the horrors of having witnessed multiple scenes of death — enough of a burden for anyone to struggle with, but in Carter’s case it was a burden made extra-heavy by the critical condemnation heaped upon him for taking the photograph that had made him world-famous:

Though the photo helped draw enormous attention to the humanitarian crisis that was engulfing Sudan, it was criticized by others who felt that Carter should have helped the girl and was instead exploiting her suffering for his gain. The real vulture, they said in vitriolic hate mail, was Carter himself. Some photojournalists might have easily dismissed such criticism, but it hit Carter hard and fed his self-doubts.

On 27 July 1994, barely two months after having received his Pulitzer Prize, 33-year-old Kevin Carter could shoulder that burden no more and took his own life:

The Braamfonteinspruit is a small river that cuts southward through Johannesburg’s northern suburbs — and through Parkmore, where the Carters once lived. At around 9 p.m., Kevin Carter backed his red Nissan pickup truck against a blue gum tree at the Field and Study Center. He had played there often as a little boy. The Sandton Bird Club was having its monthly meeting there, but nobody saw Carter as he used silver gaffer tape to attach a garden hose to the exhaust pipe and run it to the passenger-side window. Wearing unwashed Lee jeans and an Esquire T-shirt, he got in and switched on the engine. Then he put music on his Walkman and lay over on his side, using the knapsack as a pillow.

The suicide note he left behind is a litany of nightmares and dark visions, a clutching attempt at autobiography, self-analysis, explanation, excuse. After coming home from New York, he wrote, he was “depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners … “

It would be easy to feel compassion for the little girl in the photo and, ultimately, we should.  How could we not? Can we feel compassion for the man who took the photo and then did nothing to change the little girl’s situation? Maybe that is impossible for some and still hard for others.

I was thinking on what compassion is tonight after reading the following passage from Matthew:

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

I am still thinking on it.  I am wondering if compassion can take on many faces and levels of degree.  I posted the definition of compassion at the top of this post because it resonated with me – deep awareness… wish to relieve it. I can find myself having those reactions for both the child in the photo and the man who took the photo.  In different measures.

I think the question that is sticking with me most tonight is this:

When was the last time that I was deeply moved by compassion to make a difference in someone’s life?

How about you?  When was the last time you were given opportunity to practice a deep form of compassion?

  1. October 20, 2011 at 2:53 am

    Ugh. That picture. I had seen it before. Terribly powerful.

    Had a chance today. Have to tell you the story over a lunch b/c can’t share publicly. Nothing major. Just a situation with a student in one of my classes. I hurt for him and was able to give grace through taking time to really explain something…a bit more to it than that but nothing pulls on my mercy like weakness.

  2. February 24, 2012 at 3:08 am

    Thank you for sharing. Both the picture, the story AND the definition of compassion. Compassion is nothing more than pity if we refuse to act on what we know, what we’ve seen, and what we feel. This picture was shown during a presentation given by the executive director of our local Kids Against Hunger…it captured my students attention and has truly called them to action. It saddens my heart that this is the world in which we live- and calls me to do more than bring awareness to the issue of hunger & poverty but to do.

    “‘When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me a drink…., and they asked, ‘Lord, when did we feed you or give you drink?’ Jesus replied- ‘What you do to the LEAST of these you do to me.'”

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