“WHO ARE MY MOTHER AND BROTHERS?” (Mk 3:31-35): 29 January 2008 (Tuesday)
This photograph won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 and has been described as the picture that “made the world weep.” It was taken by a freelance South African photographer named Kevin Carter.
There is something utterly sad and deeply disconcerting about the photograph. To the right you see a malnourished child, a starving Sudanese girl. To the left is a well-fed vulture. The vulture is stalking the child, waiting for it to die, so that it can feast on its carrion. This haunting picture captures the horrors of mass starvation caused by the civil war in Sudan, Africa.
If you ask me, the title I would give this picture is: “Who Are My Mother and Brothers?” Those are the words spoken by our Lord in the gospel reading today when his relatives ask to see him. But his words take on a different meaning in this photograph: The Sudanese child is starving to death because she is not getting any help from anyone. She has no mother, no brothers, no sisters, no friends; she has been left alone, except for the waiting vulture. No one knows what happened to her, not even the photographer who took this picture.
After taking this picture, the photographer sat under a tree, cried, and chain-smoked. His photograph became famous, and the photographer received the accolade that he had dreamed of all his life. But he also became notorious, severely criticized for not having done anything for the child. Two months later, he parked his red pickup truck near a small river where he used to play as a child, connected a hose to the exhaust pipe of his truck, and gassed himself to death.
What we have here is not one, but two tragedies. Aside from the photograph of the Sudanese child, we also have another equally tragic portrait: the life and death of photographer Kevin Carter. Before he committed suicide, Carter left a note: “I’m really, really sorry,” it said. “The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist.”
I think his life could also have been called: “Who Are My Mother and Brothers?” For not helping the Sudanese girl, the world quickly condemned him. The judgment he received, I think, was too self-righteous and cruel, for who can say what he could have done given all the circumstances?
As a result, Carter found himself increasingly isolated and alone. Like the Sudanese child, he probably felt that he had no mother, brother, sister, or friend to help him. In Dan Krauss’s 2005 documentary about him, “The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club,” his daughter, Megan, had this to say about her father’s famous photograph: “There is another way to look at the picture. I see my dad as the suffering child; and the rest of the world is the vulture.”
When the Lord asked the crowd, “Who are my mother and brothers?” he didn’t mean to say that he didn’t know his relatives. What he meant was that in the Kingdom of God–that is, in the greater scheme of things–our families, our backgrounds, and our social status don’t matter quite as much as our decisions and our actions. He went on to explain, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
In other words, it is the good that we do more than anything else that will ultimately define who we are. Our good works will shape our identity, but it will also link us to one another and to the Lord. When we do good and help others, we become brother and sister and mother to one another, as well as part of the Lord’s family.
Unfortunately and tragically, the photographer Kevin Carter didn’t realize soon enough. But neither did the world. If the world had been mother and brother enough to him, who knows? Perhaps Carter would not have taken his own life.
(image: photograph by Kevin Carter, 1993)
Here’s a Quick Question for you: “Is there someone in your life whom you’re being invited to be mother or brother to?” Think about it, and share a thought, a feeling, or a question. Who knows? It might help another reader.