Capturing Compassion

Capturing Compassion

Seeking to arouse America's compassion, five photojournalists have documented the suffering of terrorized refugees from Darfur in an exhibition that will travel to cities around the country.



Three girls search for firewood near a displaced persons camp.
© Ron Haviv-VII / Courtesy of Darfur/Darfur.


On opening night of the photo exhibition "Darfur/Darfur," the crowd at the James Cohan Gallery is indistinguishable from the regulars who frequent Chelsea, Manhattan's chic art district.

But the projections of photos bathing the walls are a world away from the views of suburbia by Bill Owens or the kinetic sculptures of Roxy Paine typically shown here. Oversized images tell the grim tale of the carnage taking place in Darfur, Sudan: In an aerial shot, charcoal cross-hatches sweep to the right, ending in an orange inferno–the remains of what was once a village. A portrait shows a young man proudly grinning above an armature of an AK-47, 180 rounds of ammunition supplied by the government and a gasoline-filled bottle–a young recruit of the Janjaweed, the "devils on horseback," Arab-Muslim militia who storm into villages, looting and burning. They fight as much for themselves as for the government, which uses them as a paramilitary force to suppress non-Arab Africans. On another wall, Kalma, a camp sheltering more than 100,000 people displaced by the conflict, stretches across the horizon, a veritable subdivision of plastic tents. Here, in one five-week period, more than 200 women were sexually assaulted.

"Darfur/Darfur" exhibits the work of five photojournalists– Lynsey Addario, Mark Brecke, Hélène Caux, Ron Haviv and Paolo Pellegrin–and Brian Steidle, a former US Marine. Over the next two years, it will travel to several dozen cities, bringing into focus the ongoing tragedy that has, for the most part, been ignored by the major media, most politicians and the public. Leslie Thomas, a Chicago-based architect who pulled the show together with the help of other designers, says that she was inspired to take action after reading a story last spring, detailing the fallout of hostilities between the Sudanese government and rebels: More than 200,000 have died, mainly of disease and starvation, and 2.5 million made homeless. "I couldn't face the prospect of my child growing up and asking me, years later, what I had done, and having to say: 'Nothing.'"

In fact, the world has done little since February 2003, when the mostly non-Arab Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) spearheaded an insurgency in Darfur, a region as large as Texas or France, depending on your politics. The government and militias responded with force, and the ensuing rape, pillage and murder has created one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. In June 2005 President Bush called it "genocide," but only recently did he appoint Andrew Natsios to be special envoy to Sudan.

Reporting in Darfur is not easy. Journalists are not welcome: Paul Salopek of the Chicago Tribune was just released in September, after being held as a spy for more than a month by the Sudanese government. Jan Pronk, United Nations special envoy to Sudan, has just been kicked out for writing on his blog that army morale was sinking after recent defeats. When Darfur does make the headlines, as it recently did when United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that the region was "on the brink of a catastrophic situation," mainstream media avoid the topic in favor of stories closer to home.

The photographers in this exhibition are determined to bring Darfur into public view. Mark Brecke, who traveled with the rebels, made a presentation to Congress at the invitation of Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback. Brecke turned a three-day train trip from San Francisco to Washington, DC, into a rolling seminar, in which he showed his photos and told his stories to fellow riders. "Most didn't even know where Darfur was, let alone that there was a problem," Brecke says. "But once they heard, they'd ask: 'Why isn't our government doing anything?'" Brecke's film They Turned Our Desert Into Fire, to be released in January, will do the same for those who weren't on the train.

Ron Haviv went to Darfur under the auspices of UNICEF in the summer of 2005 to document the effects of the war on children. Haviv was one of the few photographers to visit all the different states in Darfur and Chad, with government and rebel forces. "Children are the most expendable," he says. "Food and medical supplies are so scarce, they and the elderly are the ones who suffer most." Haviv's photos are harrowingly stunning. In one, three girls, ages 12 and 13, pause in their search for firewood, a search that can take them four days through treacherous areas, where girls are often raped or killed. Silhouetted against the tawny desert and cloudless azure sky, the girls are hauntingly beautiful, but Haviv rejects those who complain that such photos glamorize, and so deflate, tragedy: "It's difficult to get people to look at horror," he says. "It's important to engage the viewer as much as you can. Only once there's emotional involvement can content be absorbed."

Partnerships between artists and nonprofit and for-profit groups have become more common in recent years, as they seek new ways to inform and involve citizens., in cooperation with Oxfam, organized twenty concerts on October 21 to raise awareness and funds for relief efforts, while Doctors Without Borders has assembled an exhibit of a working refugee camp, which it erects, complete with aid workers, in major cities across the country and around the world.

One of the most dedicated of the "Darfur/Darfur" contributors is Brian Steidle, a former US Marine and the son of a two-star admiral. Steidle, who admits he is not by temperament or background an activist, first traveled through Darfur in 2004 as a US representative to the African Union to observe the cease-fire. "At the time," he remembers, "the running joke was, Hey, if you find the cease-fire, let me know!" What he saw so dismayed him that he now devotes all his time to Darfur, lecturing and showing slides to universities and elementary schools, business groups and rock clubs–anyone who will have him. "I want them to be so stunned, they have to contact their representatives," he says. Steidle's photos are on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's website, and will soon be followed by others in the "Darfur/Darfur" exhibit. Not content with one medium, Steidle is publishing his memoir, The Devil Came on Horseback, early next year, and a documentary by the same name is now in the final edit.

John Prendergast, senior adviser for International Crisis Group, applauds such efforts. "They're an important part of the mix," he said of the photojournalists at the New York opening of "Darfur/Darfur." "If people flood their Congressional offices with letters, the politicians take notice. They'll be more prone to act."

And act they must: Prendergast says the Sudan government must be convinced to accept UN troops–a plan it has so far rejected as an attempt to recolonize Sudan–and to start again to work out a truce with all the rebel groups. If there is no response, he explains, "our country and others need to impose targeted sanctions against regime leaders and their business interests," specifically the oil industry. "I believe the Sudan government is susceptible to pressure."

The situation, Prendergast and others emphasize, is spiraling out of control, and time is running out: At least 18,000 people have fled fighting in northern Darfur in the past month alone, streaming into IDP camps in El Fasher. This month, more than 10,000 Darfuris fled fighting in southern Darfur, and government forces have repeatedly clashed on the Sudan-Chad border with rebels who did not sign the May peace plan. Kofi Annan warns that Chad and ultimately all of Africa could be destabilized. Attacks on aid workers have seriously undermined, and sometimes stopped, their work: The World Food Programme warns it cannot reach half the people in Darfur who need help. And the Food and Agriculture Organization, which has decribed Darfur as the world's most pressing humanitarian problem, has said that if the harvest is impeded, there could be even greater starvation.

Prendergast, who worked in the Clinton Administration, notes that officials in the White House said they didn't hear from the American public during the Rwanda crisis. "Letters could have helped change history then–they can stop the killing now," he says. "We can't be silent again."

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy