When I was 20, I made a solo trip to Grand Rapids, Mich., to see a photo exhibit. A friend had informed me about the work of Ryan Spencer Reed, a photographer who spent time in Sudan. I had learned about the civil wars in Sudan and the genocide that was occurring there, and knew that I needed to go.
The images that I found, in their grave depictions of suffering, have haunted me for years. They have haunted me for their story and for their beauty, which seems to oppose the weight that these photos carry. How can something beautiful be wrought out of such injustice? Is it possible? Is it right?
Reed began traveling to Sudan in 2002 and began documenting what the United Nations, the United States and Amnesty International have all declared to be genocide. In violent encounters between the northern and southern ends of Sudan, the government has enacted great violence against rebel citizens, equipping guerrilla gunmen to terrorize villages. Sudanese have died by the thousands, either through violence or the effects of displacement. The use of sexual violence has left silent, unspeakable scars on the Sudanese people.
Although the nation split into two republics this summer, the potential for more violence continues to brew. As I write, it is estimated that over 2.6 million persons are currently displaced in Darfur, the most violent region in Sudan.
I moved to Grand Rapids three years ago and on recent visit to ArtPrize, an open art competition, I encountered Reed’s work again, this time with a number of new photos from Sudan. I was struck by its power, its stark beauty and by the passage of time. In a few years, not much has changed.
In one of my last TC posts, I commented on how learning about issues of injustice can leave us feeling distant, paralyzed, unable to connect or act in a prayerful way. This is one of those issues. I’ve been tracing the struggles of the Sudanese for almost 10 years and have gotten lost in the ebbs and flows of conflict, government intervention, international development and the like.
And if I’m confused by how to receive this data, this living record of human loss, I cannot imagine what it would be like to be in those displacement camps. To be paralyzed by the experience of such violence, longstanding and immediate, in my own life. In the life of my family, my nation. On my own, I cannot imagine.
Reed’s work helps me - and others - imagine. In his visual reportage, he uses the elements of light and shadow, person and scene, to evoke the experience of both viewer and subject. In the photos, we see the stark, terrible scenes that fill the lives of the Sudanese: funerals for babies, empty wells, women weeping, faces lilting upwards, their mouths flung open in mournful Os.
The beauty of the photos reveals the Sudanese as humans, not just statistics or news clips. And the beauty also offers a juxtaposition, a way for us to more fully engage this enormous, bitter wound in the life of God’s world. The beauty reveals dignity, but also ache and longing. As we observe the photos, we are aware that we both can and cannot hear those women wailing. We are reminded of Romans 12, where we are told to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn.
In Reed’s work, we are brought to mourn. To connect, stand with, pray for, wait alongside. We are brought to lament, which is the testimony that Reed’s photographs speak. “The testimony,” he writes, “must be seen.”
In that seeing, may we be brought to mourn more fully. And in that mourning, feel the Spirit’s leading towards the mercy and righteousness of God’s kingdom.
(Photo courtesy of Ryan Spencer Reed. His full body of work can be previewed at www.ryanspencerreed.com. Contact him directly for speaking engagements at schools and community institutions, for purchasing prints and for exhibiting his work.)