When Nyanene went to sleep
A baby dies of pneumonia in a hospital in South Sudan that ran out of power
It was too much for Nyanene. A five-month-old girl from Maiwut, South Sudan, was admitted to the local hospital a few days earlier with a diagnosis of pneumonia. She was a fighter, spending long hours struggling to breath, while looking at her mother (very young, by the way) who had brought her to life. Now, it seemed that this same life was going away from her mouth.
With an oxygen mask that was too big for her, Nyanene was not rumpled. In fact, she had no strength. She had a whole medical team for herself, who put her injections, made cardiac massages, changed the serum and even treated her with tenderness when needed. But at three in the afternoon, in that dreaded hospital of the Red Cross, the generator broke down and everything was left in the dark. The device that helped Nyanene to breathe also stopped working. The baby, exhausted with so much effort, decided to go to sleep under her mother’s desperate cry. She did not wake up anymore. It did not matter the generator was fixed a bit later. The girl no longer needed it.
In May 2016, I witnessed the toughest death. A child who surrendered after a rampant fight. A girl who was not guilty of being born in an almost abandoned village of South Sudan. Nyanene got sick at the wrong place of an unfair geography. Any baby in her same situation in a hospital in Barcelona, Paris, New York or Tokyo would have probably survived. In South Sudan, no.
Probably, Nyanene, if she had overcome the failure of the generator, would have died anyway for any other reason a few days later. She was too weak and had too many needs that her environment no longer could satisfy. Her serious malnutrition that suffered been exposed her to any kind of illness. In fact, the deaths of those malnourished do not come by direct starvation, but rather by other consequences, such as dehydration, infections, respiratory insufficiencies … A badly-fueled body has very few defenses to face the dangers that surround her.
I accompanied Nyanene in her last 24 hours of life. At first I did not expect to witness at such a catastrophic end, but as time passed, the fatality was taking a clearer shape. And this did not made sadness lighter. The mother was the first to collapse. She showed that an unfair death in Africa, although it happens very often, is no more passable than another in Europe.
After the weeping, silence came. I accompanied the Nyanene’s mother and grandmother to their village. They carried the baby in arms, wrapped in a short blanket. I could see her feet and, for a moment, I thought she was just sleeping. I dreamed she would move her feet be and I would like to tickle her. But no. Her feet did not move. Silence was still present while the two women, mother and grandmother, walk that tiny corpse under the rain, dragging their mourning and cursing the misfortune of living in that lost corner of the world.
A worker on strike in Cervera (Catalonia), locked down into the factory, kissed her partner through the gate
Life is full of photographs passing by. Only a tiny part can end up in the camera. The rest, they barely remain on the retina. In the end, one realizes there are more lost photos than captured. But I guess here lies the magic of photography, as if it was a hunt. In 2002, I hunted a kiss.
There are many kisses in the history of art. From the famous Rodin’s kiss, to those by Eduard Munch, Toulousse Lautrec, Gustav Klimt and, even, one from Picasso. And obviously in photojournalism there are also good samples, such as the popular (and controversial) kiss at Times Square, of a sailor who celebrated the end of World War II raiding a nurse. Or the fraternal kiss in 1979 between the socialist leaders Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev during the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic.
In 2002, I was so naive that I though I had captured a unique kiss. A fleeting instant that lasted one-tenth of a second between a grid that represented the fight against the economic system and labour precariousness. In short, it was a message of love against injustice. There was a worker from Lear, a company that employed more than a thousand workers in Cervera (Catalonia) and announced its undeniable closure. The company decided to transfer all the activity to Eastern Europe, where salaries are lower.
The worker in question, like the rest of her colleagues, had been closed into the factory premises to pressure the board and avoid a mass dismissal. Or, at least, to get a fair compensation.
While the hours passed in that factory, a young mechanic appeared on the other side of the fence. He was the partner of that girl and came to greet her. In a few seconds, they looked at each other, they exchange few words and they ended up kissing lips. And I was with the camera ready at the right time and in the right place. As a photojournalist, I fully enjoyed capturing that moment. I hunted a great kiss.
But time after this personal satisfaction, I noticed that many years ago someone else had made a nearly identical picture. Two Jewish women kissed before being deported from a Nazi ghetto in Poland to the extermination camps. They also kissed through a grid, very similar to that one in Cervera. It happened in 1940 and the shot was taken by Mendel Grossman, another Jew, also among the deportees, who died five years later, exhausted and ill in another Nazi camp.
When realizing this similarity, I came to the conclusion that nowadays almost everything is done in photography. There is only room for variations. But almost nothing for discoveries. Everything is more than invented.
They drank a lot, slept in the streets of Lleida and accidentally loved with an unbelievable intensity
Francisco and Marco Antonio were protagonists of the street. Dragging a stingy past, they were always drinking alcohol to have the excuse of never getting out of their hole. I met them in December 2005, at dawn, taking some brandies in the bar at the bus station in Lleida, and I spent more than fifteen hours with them, the most intense that I had lived by then as the photojournalist.
My intention was to write a personalized profile of homeless in the city during a very specific dates, and I came up with a an amazing story that was published in SEGRE local newspaper on Christmas day. Someone criticized me to trivialize a dramatic realityand to involuntarily force my characters to overact in front of the camera. Even today, I am not sure if he was right.
Francisco Martínez was 26 years old. He was born in Jerez de la Frontera. When he was ten years he moved to Lleida, with his seven brothers (from mother side) and five more (from father’s). He committed his first crime at eighteen and later he was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for an attempted murder. Fights, thefts, illnesses and addictions were his daily life. Doctors diagnosed him as depressive and schizophrenic.
Marco Antonio, 41, was son of Andalusian landowners and on the day I met him he said he was about to claim an inheritance of a farm with 3,000 olive trees. Alcoholic, a compulsive smoker, seropositive and sick of hepatitis and cirrhosis, he was also in prison for few years for a crime that he did not want to confess.
They were two random testimonies that brought me throughout their Lleida for a day at the streets, parks, bars, stations and banking offices to cover from the fog and cold of the city. They said they loved each other, they showed me their rings and they did not stop kissing. It looked like a fantastic love that smelled like an accident. They were two lonely souls, left by the family and the society, so they sought mutual shelter. Their relationship had no future but that which dictated by an unstable present.
The day I accompanied them was chaotic, wild, confused, crazy. Francisco and Marco Antonio got drunk four or five times. They visited the cemetery to mourn the recent death of a relative, they unsuccessfully wanted to speak with the director of a bank where they had an inaccessible account and planned a trip to Andalusia that never started. Everything was built on a fleeting instability that ended, as every day, in the first bank office where they could get in. That instability is the one that marked their lives forever and the one that had to mark the portrait I wanted to take.
I took the picture when they were both seated, at the evening, at a bus station. Marco Antonio, squeezed by the alcohol, slept resting on the shoulder of a Francisco, who looked at me with lost eyes. With the slow speed of the camera shutter, I wanted to catch that frenzied movement that I thought their lives had. It was a movement that wanted to denote dizziness and madness.
Shortly after, I read their names in a police report. They had been arrested for a crime of public disorder.
Wars, such as the one between Eritrea and Ethiopia, drag those most vulnerable to misery and loneliness
“Women and children, first!” This sentence, so cinematically used, reveals the great contradiction to our reality. It seems to be an unwritten rule for women and children to have preference during a catastrophe so they can be rescued. But in reality, in current and past conflicts, this group is precisely the most punished. Yes, they are the first, but the first to suffer the cruel consequences of military violence. This violence is in fact a very powerful weapon that the opposing sides use illegally to do more damage to the enemy.
Wars usually last more or less, but their later effects even more. They last for decades. Women and children, due to their vulnerable condition, are the first to suffer a severe and unfair punishment. Sexual attacks, labor exploitation, forced displacement, malnutrition … After each military attack, there is a bitter one on civilians.
In 2008 I was in Wukro, a small village in northern Ethiopia, close to the border with Eritrea. It was eight years after a fratricidal that war broke out between the two countries and killed tens of thousands of people. Eritrea had achieved its independence in the 1990s, but the two governments did not agree where to set a border that for many was practically nonexistent. Finally, in December 2000, peace was signed and a demilitarized area was declared. But the conflict left a lot of young orphans, abandoned elders and single mothers, many ill and infected with AIDS because of the sexual incursions of the soldiers. In Wukro I saw many examples of everything.
Children I met brought me on day at the house of Mehalet Mefazu, a five-year-old girl who became infected with HIV during pregnancy. She became orphan at a very small age and at the mercy of friends and relatives. One of her neighbors was Ameta Gebru, an octogenarian who was left alone after the war. All her relatives had disappeared and she had remained blind, deaf and invalid. Ironies of the postwar period, the orphan and seropositive Mehalet became one of the people who took care of the old woman. She used to to visit her every day, while adults were responsible for the toughest jobs, such as helping her dress, eat and even go to the latrines.
The portrait of the little Mehalet and Mrs. Ameta had to be in a single click. I wanted to capture the live representation of the postwar vulnerabilities in a one image, which also had to have low light. In the privacy of their house, in a well-contrasted black and white and with the girl in the foreground to give, in a way, the optimism of a desirable future better. Who knows? Perhaps now, eleven years later, she is still attending the school, preparing herself to access the university and become the doctor who will attend the most vulnerable of the next wars.
A room full of humanity
In Africa, there is no debate about having children sleeping with parents at night
When a boy or girl is born in Barcelona, Berlin, New York or Sydney, most families start a debate about when is the best time to separate the baby from the parents at night. Many agree that, after six months, the child should get used to sleeping in his bed or even having his own room, leaving the parents free to redo their relationship as a couple. Other more radicals do it before six months, and others even more radical execute it with drastic methods, like the one that advises leaving the baby to cry until she obviously falls asleep from fatigue. Other mothers and fathers of these western societies, which according to studies do not reach 15%, dare to sleep with sons and daughters until very a advanced age. They do it while they are still breastfeeding or even while they are comfortable together into the sheets.
But in most of the world, throughout Africa, in Asia and in the rural areas of South America, this debate is practically non-existent. It is assumed that they sleep together. For natural reasons and since prehistoric times, families have always shared the night space. But also, in many other cases, there is not even an alternative. The lack of space and the high birth rate always force them to sleep together. Sometimes, the situation reaches extreme scenes that many would describe as distressing.
In a cold morning in winter of 2017, I visited a family in Yambio, South Sudan. They gave me permission to go at dawn, just when they began to wake up, to show the situation in which they lived. They opened the door of one of the shelters they had at home and showed me the magnitude of their existence. An adult woman was sleeping on a proper bed, while nine children were tight on the floor, covered with old and dirty sheets. It was cold and the contact of their bodies seemed to give them mutual warmth.
The situation in the city of Yambio, due to the civil war, was at that time unsustainable. Clashes in neighboring villages had pushed more than 4,000 people to take refuge in homes of relatives and friends in the city. The displacement by the conflict was causing the abandonment of the towns and the saturation of Yambio. And that room was another example of what was happening.
When they opened the door for me, the first rays of sunlight made open the lazy eyes of the children still sleepy. I will not deny it; they had been waiting for me since the night before and when they saw me holding the camera, they were not surprised. In fact, they showed a very gentle face. They did not seem to have anguish about having to sleep so tight, they did not even seem annoyed, not even a little embarrassed to find themselves in that situation before a strange photographer. Rather, those who woke up offered me the freshness of those eyes that have slept well, close to the human warmth of their own.