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Compassion for a Final Embrace

About a year ago, I wrote a compassion narrative titled “Compassion for a Final Embrace” on a photo that still leaves me numb. On the 2nd anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy, I wanted to share a modified version with you simply to bring awareness to those who did not learn about it…its never to late to learn history. Prayers for lost ones..xx

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April 25, 2013. Two victims amid the rubble of a garment factory building collapse in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh.

– Taslima Akhtar

Photographs served as documentation of presence at a particular event or moment. Now, they serve as much more– mass communication with large impact. “A Final Embrace” was captured by Taslima Akhtar, a Bangladeshi photographer and activist who captured various scenes of catastrophe from this event. Nonetheless, this one was described as “haunting” by many including myself. What she captured is not a moment but rather the aftermath of a moment—an accident, a misery, a failure to protect or save each other—death, now a part of history. Rana Plaza, a building in which both victims worked collapsed on the 24th of April 2013 in Bangladesh. This photo’s details, the physical presence (or absence), of individuals and the emotions depicted evoke our emotions—causing numbness, sympathy, or compassion.

Prior to the factory collapse, workers discovered cracks on pillars near the lower levels of the building. The factory owner, Sohel Rana ignored the warnings and the workers were threatened to go to work for their wages. The next morning, the building collapsed during rush hour. More than 2,500 people were injured and about 1,130 people were found dead after the search for the dead bodies ended two weeks later. Casualties and deaths were more than ten times the number of The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 in New York City. Thus, the Rana Plaza incident is now considered  the deadliest factory accident in history.

Details of photographs are only visible when analyzed closely. A piece of clothing is tangled in the left side, but that is not the main focus of this photograph. When observed closely, we can analyze that not too long ago, life existed. Two water bottles serve as proof. The main image is the two bodies under the cement—one body seems to be of a female from what can be seen of the pink flower-embroidered dress, only her right arm, with an in-tact a golden bangle on it. Perhaps it was the only bangle she owned, perhaps there was also a bangle on her left arm…we will never know. Her face cannot be seen because of the crushed rubble, barbed wire, and pillar on top of her. The man, whose face and upper body is visible, is wearing a half-sleeved blue collared shirt and holding on to her. What triggers me most is the single tear or blood stain falling from the man’s left eye, which still can be seen although his face is covered by a layer of dust.

When I initially saw this photograph, I was horrified. I did not take a look at it again—not because I was numb from the experience of being around impoverished people or from seeing photos of disaster and poverty, but because I was hurt. I made some decisions after seeing this photograph, and did not search for it again until I had to think of a scene which made me feel compassionate. It was stuck in my head and heart…Reading about it on newspapers,  looking at many photographs such as this one, and the buzz about it on social media led to a series of decisions and actions. As more people became aware of the atrocities and the issues in the supply chain that exists  in Bangladesh and in other developing countries, I had hope that policies would change so that this event would never be repeated.

Andre Comte-Sponville in A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues writes in his chapter “Compassion”: “It is up to the state and not private persons to aid the poor, and…consequently, in order to fight poverty, political acts are better than acts of charity” (Comte-Sponville 115). However, often poverty issues go unnoticed by the government, which is corrupt and committed to benefiting those in power. This describes the political system called “democracy” in Bangladesh.  Little do they care about how the other half (or even more than half the people in the country) live. We may not have the power to raise taxes, but we can contribute to a movement and change in government who will raise taxes. It takes “private persons” or the general public to acknowledge the poor, their situations, to provide them with a voice for change. Only then does some kind of motion for politics and policy change take place.

I hope that photographs such as “A Final Embrace” cause emotions that contribute to our desire to act and improve something. Shahidul Alam, another Bangladeshi photographer who was interviewed by Akhter states it best: “This image, while deeply disturbing, is also hauntingly beautiful. An embrace in death, its tenderness rises above the rubble to touch us where we are most vulnerable. By making it personal, it refuses to let go. This is a photograph that will torment us in our dreams. Quietly it tells us. Never again.” Compassion radiates and increases harmony for all, making the world a better place.

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