@liaewen @nataS @Cqb @Soley http://www.grahamlavery.com
November 12, 2011 at 10:28 pm
I have received several emails from users of this site about my photo and its posting on your site. This picture has managed to find its way all over the Internet, in some cases with hundreds of thousands of views, and I realize it is a very provocative shot that touches people deeply.
Normally I do not respond to these types of comment threads as they are often degenerative in nature and can get very nasty, one only needs to reference any news site to see how these things generally play out. After reading all the comments here however, and receiving several polite emails I have decided to write a comment.
First of all, I think it is very important to understand context, and while many request the “story” behind this shot generally to learn the final outcome, it is not that simple and context is critical. I have spent a good bit of time in Vietnam as my wife used to work there a few months each year, and have shot the war in Afghanistan several times, as well as disasters such as the quake zone in Port-au-Prince, Haiti very shortly after that event. When discussing any of these places, or subjects, the context is a most important and often overlooked part of the equation – especially by North Americans.
This shot, as you seem to have ascertained, was taken in Hoi An, Vietnam during the worst flooding in almost half a century. My wife was there for the worst of it – flooding into the second story of buildings – and the loss of homes, personal property, and life, was pretty significant as you can imagine. It should however be remembered that societies like the Vietnamese have been at this for the better part of 5000 years and have seen it all before, a great many times.
In my travels all over the world there is a common theme that makes itself known and very obvious to me: we in North America are an extremely young culture and society, with a great deal left to learn. How does this help understand this photo and its story? Well it goes to follow that perspectives on many issues differ from ours, priorities are placed in different areas, and that there are very salient reasons for this.
One such area is animals, and how they are viewed.
In Vietnam, the phenomenon of “pet” ownership is a very new development, prior to the American War this was a practically unheard of concept in many areas. Dogs, as a prime example, are a food source much like cattle, sheep, or pigs are here. Since the development of the “pet” concept, there has been an explosion in numbers with a great many feral and stray dogs and cats roaming the country in various states of health, which is becoming a large problem in and of itself.
Given the general cultural attitude toward animals like cats, the massive property damage during the floods, and the great deal of human hardship that was experienced at the time this photo was captured, it can be seen how a kitten such as this one would pass well under the radar and slip pretty far down the priority lists of most people who were literally striving to survive.
When my very good friend and I came upon this kitten, it was pretty obvious what its fate would be given the described circumstances, a situation that brings with it several ethical questions that have no really simple answer, mainly: “What to do?”
As essentially tourists in the area who were in Vietnam temporarily (barely two weeks in Charles’s case), the practicalities of helping an animal such as this become a little more cloudy. If you take it in, how do you care for it? Where do you care for it? What do you do when you leave? Does rescuing it jive with the ethics and practices of the local people (it is their country after all)?
These are tough questions to answer, and I would submit they become exponentially more difficult when you are in combat zones or disaster areas and instead of a kitten the faces staring at you are those of children or women, either in extreme poverty, or wounded… It can rip one’s guts out, I assure you, and there are no easy answers. Given the ability I’m sure I’d have adopted half of Afghanistan by now. Charles is a Paramedic who has traveled the world through his career, so between us we tend to see things similarly in this regard.
After a brief discussion, it was decided to let nature take its course and leave the kitten to its own devices, whatever the outcome. Some will agree, some will not, but that was our decision based on our collective experiences of this planet over the years. What became of it ultimately? I can’t answer that with certainty, but I can guess.
In the end we are all faced with choices, some more difficult than others. In photography – particularly in war, or in other difficult circumstances – there are some major ethical implications of even taking a photo: Questions of dignity, intent, and moral imperative. If you do take the shot, do you “put it out there?” I have a hard drives full of photos that will never see the light of day because of this, and countless more that I never took at all given the circumstances.
This photo has been taken off my website and Flickr without my permission and used all over the world now, and I am fine with that as I think it is critical for people to engage with life in whatever form. I see the members of this site have been affected by it in one way or another, and I am happy to see some thoughtful responses to it.
I hope that helps answer your questions.