Memuna, Almost Smiling

Memuna, Almost Smiling

Looking at a Photograph of Suffering

There is a photograph that shadows me, entering my imagination at inappropriate moments. It originally appeared in the August 2000 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, accompanying an article by Sebastian Junger called “The Terror of Sierra Leone,” which reported from the frontline of a notably fierce and barbaric civil war. The article promised to present “new evidence of the cold-blooded calculation that fuels the rebels’ insanity,” a claim whose sensationalism made me bristle but whose accuracy I could not deny. The photo was taken by Teun Voeten, a Dutch photojournalist who had first come to Sierra Leone in 1998 and had previously covered the wars in Sarajevo and Kosovo.

The picture shows a girl named Memuna Mansarah. She is three years old, and was living in a refugee camp in Freetown. Memuna has plump cheeks, short fuzzy hair, and large, clear black eyes that stare not quite at us, but slightly upward (Voeten may have been standing when he took the picture): Something has caught her attention. She is almost smiling, as if, rather than being amused, she is considering being amused. Memuna is wearing a clean, frilly, sleeveless white dress that contrasts sharply with her deep-black skin; her left ear sports a little gold earring. She is clutching what looks like a large piece of soft bread in her tiny left hand with its tiny fingernails. Her right arm, hacked off just above the elbow by her compatriots in the inaptly named Revolutionary United Front, is a short stump that bulges out slightly toward its base. A journalist who has reported from Sierra Leone told me last year that Memuna has been adopted by an American family.

I have looked at this photo many times, thought about it, written about it, but I am still not sure how to do these things nor, certainly, how to do them right. My thoughts and feelings about the photograph have changed in various ways over time, but the more that happens, the more an underlying desolation-my helplessness before Memuna-becomes hard to escape. In a chapter of her book Ordinary Vices-a chapter called “Putting Cruelty First”-the political philosopher Judith Shklar explicates some of the problems this photo presents for me:

Who indeed knows how best to think about victims? Since anyone can become a victim, they are merely a fair sample of all mankind. Victimhood happens to us: it is not a quality. What, moreover, can one do for or to those victims who are killed, not merely injured? With so many occasions and so much time to consider victims, we have not really improved upon Montaigne and Montesquieu. Victimhood may have become an inescapable category of political thought, but it remains an intractable notion. We are often not...