Weeping with Sudan

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.)

Comments (6)

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This is a difficult issue. I agree that as Christians we are called to mourn with those who mourn, but I also am skeptical that we might experience a kind of catharsis from an emotional experience, almost at the expense of the suffering, and not therefore pursue justice for them. Is that intimate experience through a photo strikes me as potentially unfair to the subject. A good book about these questions is Susan Sontag _Regarding the Pain of Others_.

I remember as a small boy reading the monthly reports of the Sudan Interior Mission society newsletter, SIM. My parents were faithful financial supporters of these brave missionaries. The photos were horrifying in the 1960s, they are horrifying now. Unable to process this kind of darkness of soul, my parents became full time missionaries in Eastern Europe in the 1980s and happily saw the fall of the iron curtain. They were provoked to action. It is encouraging to see the advance of a more humane, evangelical Christianity gain traction in Africa to the point that there is a Christian majority southern Sudan state. Prayers have been answered and the gospel has swept over Africa to the such a degree that the indigineous church in Africa is larger than that in the United States. The only real solution to the crisis of soul that afflicts Africa is not jihad, revolution or more financial assistance, but a fresh wind of pentecost. In my opinion these photos are not exploiting grief, but they represent a continuing testimony that the heart of man is desperately wicked and should provoke us to identify with the victims. We have had children orphaned by civil war in Uganda stay at our home temporarily a few years ago and it makes you realize that the world has become much smaller and more intimate place in 2011.

I agree, 100%. That’s why the photos speak to me so clearly - if anything, I’m brought to the absolute “otherness” depicted in these photos, while still connecting in a human way. It’s compelling in a way that corrects me and has helped others actually “act.” If anything, Ryan’s work has brought about a lot of dialogue and action surrounding the crisis in Sudan - he is a documentary photographer, after all - so he would be the first to say “Don’t emotionally overload on these photos. Petition and work for justice in Sudan.”

I feel like the pictures help to bring some sort of justice to the pain suffered by these people in that their pain is being shared and will not be forgotten or entirely lost in the sands of time. Like Rick said progress does happen. It might seem oppressively slow. It might seem hopeless at times. 

My daughter has been talking about Darfur for a while now so I showed her the pictures and asked her if she thought they were fair to the people photographed. She said they were probably glad to be remembered by someone and she suggested it was like they were virtual martyrs.

If we pretend the pain and suffering doesn’t exist, we deny the value of the lives that suffered. If pain and suffering are brought to our attention then it is our duty to act to alleviate it in any way we can. At the very least, thanks to Reed, we have many beautiful if tragic faces to pray for.

The world is upside down and justice has fallen in the streets.  The is a designed plan of depopulation and it has been unfolding before our eyes.  Take notice where all the klanned parent hood clinics are located.

Hello bethanyk how are you it’s been a while but i’m glad to see you hope that all is well with you and your’s ...Kind of tier as i will be venting on this subject tommorrow love sister sharon.

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