The Best Photo I Never Took
Every photographer must have a story about the photo they never captured. My story still haunts me. I can close my eyes and still vividly see the images I could not photograph. I was traveling in Asia with an NGO, (non government organization). We were building homes for people left homeless by the Indian Ocean Tsunami. The director had been asked to come to a prison and look at possibly providing some materials for a project in the prison to replace some toilets. He asked me to come along with him to possibly photograph and document the need.
We arrived at a massive fortress of brick and stone that looked foreboding and ominous. There is no feeling quite like walking through massive iron gates and hearing them banging shut closed behind you. No horror movie can send that kind of chill down your back. But before we were allowed to enter past the second set of gates to enter the prison compound, I was asked to leave my camera behind. No amount of arguing and pleading could convince the guards otherwise, even a plea to higher authority made no ground. Asking a photographer to give up his camera and not to take photos is like asking a very pregnant woman after 30 hours of labor to not push.
Reluctantly I left my equipment and entered a prison that was made for 200 inmates but what now held 800 prisoners. 800 men dressed in white pajama, prison garb. Hundreds of them peered down through iron bars and hundreds more were milling around the grounds. I took note of how our height and white skin made us stand out like sunflowers in a poppie field. I pondered the thoughts of how few guards there were compared to the hundreds of prisoners I saw.
The sights I saw made me ache for my camera. How could I not record the things I was seeing? I was seeing something very few Westerners ever see. The more I saw the more I ached and the more I started praying. I prayed, “God never let me forget what I am seeing.” I had the idea that even if I could not photograph what I saw, that maybe I could draw or paint it later.
We walked through the grounds toward the project they wanted to show us. An acrid stench attacked us that was so horrible it defies any analogy I could give. We rounded the corner of a building and come into clear view of what was causing the horrible smell. There was a long row of about 30, little, concrete block, outhouse buildings, each the size of a man. Each little cement shack had a short half wall door for scant privacy. Half of the buildings were fairly new, the other half were in horrible condition. Raw sewage ran freely from them into a drainage ditch that wound to an open sewer.
We were told the city had sued the prison for releasing raw sewage into the storm drain system. There was no money to fix the problem. We were told that they had the manpower to do the project, prisoner labor, of course. Could we possibly provide the bricks, then the problem could be fixed. We promised to take the project back and try to get approval.
We continued our tour of the facility and saw so many things that I wished I could have photographed. There was a large open kitchen where inmates prepared a kind of fish soup in the most enormous vats I have ever seen. I saw a bathing area that was a large round elevated pool of water where a hundred prisoners stripped bare to the waist stood around splashing themselves with water. We were shown a workshop where one man with one ancient sewing machine sat and made little school uniforms. The little garments were sold to raise some, much needed but scant, income for the prison. But one man and one machine seemed so little.
And then in the middle of all of this we met a diminutive inmate with a great grand smile. He introduced him self as a preacher. He was so encouraged to see us and told us in his broken English how God was using him in the prison to bring hope. I have never ceased to wonder at all the places I have been, places where I thought God must have forgotten people and left them. But God shows me He has men that He has chosen and sent into the uttermost parts of the earth to show His love. This small man appeared like a giant for the work he was doing.
Finally, we were taken to the prison commander’s office to speak more about what we could do for the problem. We were offered hot tea. I declined the offer of a beverage. I think I was so overwhelmed by what I saw that I thought saving one cup of tea could somehow provide more money for the prison. The director of our NGO looked at me and intoned that he thought I should drink the tea. I understood quickly that my action was an in-hospitable act and I need to drink a cup of tea when offered to be gracious to our host. So I accepted a second offer and tried to amend my slight to our host.
It was good to get my camera gear back and be let through those massive gates once again. I took a few shots of the outside of the prison, but they don’t really reveal any of what I saw inside. Those images are seared in my mind instead.
I’m happy to say that our organization did provide the needed materials for the project. And that is what was important. Yet I always ask is there more I can do? Could I possibly send some new sewing machines to the prison to provide some needed prisoner rehabilitation? Why do I still see these images so vividly? What can I do with them? Maybe telling the story is part of the answer.