Fatima Khatun 25,  kisses the head of her eighteen month old daughter, Roona Begum, suffering from Hydrocephalus,  at their hut in Jirania village on the outskirts of Agartala, the capital of northeastern state of Tripura on April 13, 2013.
AFP Photo

By Marlowe Hood


Sometimes a picture is worth a lot more than a thousand words. 

It happens all the time: an online or print newspaper publishes a photo of a child living in hard-scrabble poverty who is stricken by a life-threatening condition or injury. The image is heart-rending, and people who see it are struck by the same impulse: “How can I help?”

Saving lives and getting people to donate to charities are not part of the job description for news agency photojournalists, but occasionally these things happen all the same. This blog post highlights several recent photos from AFP’s archives that have had this effect.

Most of the time, explains Thomas Coex, AFP’s photo editor for France, news photographers don’t go looking for hard-luck cases. “Acts of generosity prompted by pictures are not something within the control of photojournalists. These are situations one generally comes across by accident,” he explains. “In a way, that’s what happened in Boston – you have photographers at the scene to cover a sporting event who wind up shooting a completely different story, a story with major international repercussions where the images elicited strong reactions from the public.”

Studies show that we are more easily moved by a single person’s distress than by a wider portrait of privation and need. In one experiment, potential contributors in the US to a charity for children in Africa were split into two groups. One was given detailed information about how food shortages in central Africa were threatening millions, and the other learned about the plight of one young girl, Rokia, and how a gift could improve her life.  You guessed it – Rokia’s story generated far more money. 

Photos are powerful vehicles for such stories, and know no geographic boundaries. “It’s a universal language which reaches, and touches, a lot of people. We see it all the time,” Coex says. Add the Internet, turbo-charged by social networks, and the ‘better angels’ effect is amplified even further. 

Here, then, a few examples.

The story of Roona Begum


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Indian labourer Abdul Rahman, 18, holds his 15-month old daughter, Roona Begum. (AFP Photo)

On April 13, AFP distributed pictures of Roona Begum, a 15-month old girl in India’s remote Tripura State whose head had swollen to twice its normal size due to a rare condition – called hydrocephalus – which causes fluid to build up on the brain. Her young parents earned $2.75 dollars a day and could not afford the surgery local doctors said was needed to save her life. 

After the photos were published, a leading hospital in capital New Delhi offered to examine the child and well-wishers abroad set up an online donation fund. As of April 19, it had raised $34,000.

 By the time she arrived at the hospital, her head had ballooned to 94 centimeters (37 inches) in circumference, making it impossible for her to sit up or crawl. “Roona’s case is very complex,” said leading Indian surgeon Sandeep Vaishya. “”We are currently considering options on how to proceed.”


The story of Fu Xuepeng


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Wang Lanqin compressing a plastic resuscitator pump to help her son Fu Xuepeng to breathe. Mother and son are in their home in Taizhou, Zhejiang province. (AFP Photo)

Earlier this year, an AFP photographer went to the home of 23-year old Fu Xuepeng, a former mechanic in the southeastern Chinese province of Zhejiang totally paralyzed from the waist down since a traffic accident in 2008. In an extraordinary act of devotion, Xuepeng’s parents had kept their son alive for five years by using a hand-pumped plastic resuscitator bag and an improvised, jerry-rigged ventilator. A machine was beyond their means.

At first, they took turns compressing Xuepeng's bag around the clock, seven days a week. A neighbor took pity and improvised a ventilator with a motor, a speed controller, a pushing bar and an air bag, for a cost of about 200 yuan (32 USD). But to minimize the electricity bill – 5 or 6 yuan a day if the machine were left running all day – the couple still compressed the bag manually during the day. 

By the time the photos were published, the hands of both parents, mother Wang Lanqin and Fu Minzu, were deformed and crippled with arthritis. Widely circulated in Chinese media, the images prompted a flurry of donations, along with a modern ventilator sent by a company in Beijing.

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Fu Xuepeng's father Fu Minzu showing his coarse hands as he stands next to the bed of his son Fu Xuepeng. (AFP Photo)


The story of Yang Weihao


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Yang Weihao being consoled by his mother on September 4, 2011 as they beg from passersby along a walkway in Hefei, Anhui province. (AFP Photo)

In August 2011, an AFP photographer in Hefei, a crossroads city in central China’s Anhui Province, stumbled across nine-year-old Yang Weihao sitting on a curb with his head, face and legs wrapped in white gauze and bandages. Next to him was his young mother, begging from passersby in a desperate attempt to raise enough money to treat the terrible burns that covered two-thirds of his body.  

Weihao had been caught two months earlier in a straw fire in his native village of Jeishou, and his family had spent more than 200,000 euros – much of it borrowed – already on hospital treatment they could not afford. Now they had run out of money, and the boy still needed corrective surgery for one of his hands, and treatment to keep his lips from fusing together. 

We don’t know how Weihao’s story ends, but there’s a good chance the photos channeled help in his direction. When they were published on the website of NBC, for example, the response was immediate:

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Yang Weihao with his mother at their temporary home in Hefei, in eastern China's Anhui province. (AFP Photo)


The story of Wang Cheng


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Twenty-three-year old Wang Cheng sits beside her mother at their home in Xuzhou, eastern China's Jiangsu province on 12 June 2007. (AFP Photo)

When an AFP stringer in China heard about a young woman in Jiangsu province with ‘elephant legs’, he decided to pay her a visit. Wang Cheng, 24, had suffered since the age of six from a rare condition that caused her lower limbs to triple in size, making it virtually impossible to walk or live normally. When the photographer met the otherwise slight women in June 2008, her legs alone weighed 50 kilos. 

Wang Cheng’s elephantiasis was treatable through surgery, but the procedure was expensive and difficult to perform. When Taiwanese surgeon Hsu Wen-hsien saw photos, he knew that he would be able to help, so he reached out to see if the young woman could travel across the Taiwan Straits for treatment. In 30 years of experience, he said, he’d never seen a case so extreme.

A Buddhist association, Fo Kuang Shan, covered the costs, and Wang Cheng made the trip to Taiwan and underwent surgery. Her smile as she sits up in her hospital bed is enough to know that it was a success.

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Wang Cheng smiles during an interview with AFP at the Wanfang Hospital in Taipei on July 16, 2008. (AFP Photo)


The story of Tarana Akbari


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11-year-old Tarana Akbari cries out near dead and injured after explosions during a religious ceremony in the centre of Kabul on December 6, 2011. This photo won a Pulitzer Prize. (AFP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

For every child-in-need that winds up in a news photo, boosting the chances that she or he will inspire the kindness of strangers, there are millions more who will never be touched by what can only be called a capricious miracle. It is, to be sure, heart-warming to see innocence rescued, or at least given a new lease on life. Being afflicted by a rare genetic disease or a freak accident is profoundly unfair. But being born into extreme poverty could also be said to be no less unjust.

Sometimes winding up in the center of a new agency photo, even one that wins a Pulitzer Prize, is not enough to help rescue a young person in distress. The violent, haunting image of 11 year old Tarana Akbari – splattered in blood but somehow still standing – at the ground-zero of a bomb blast in Kabul that killed seventy, including members of her family, is a portrait of human devastation. After the bombing, which occurred on December 6, 2011, Tarana became the poster-child for the terrible toll on civilians exacted by ruthless terrorists in Afghanistan, indeed anywhere in the world. 

Two years later Tarana and the surviving members of her family “are living in poverty in a run-down neighborhood in the capital,” according to the The Independent. Along with two of her sisters, she is still suffering from her injuries, which prevent her from walking with ease. Her father, who makes six dollars a day pulling a cart, says he can’t afford to pay for essential medicines, much less the operations his daughters still need. “A lot of big people came to be seen with my daughters after the bombing, but they are not interested,” he told the newspaper.

It is worth noting, perhaps, that the article was written not on the anniversary of the bombing that devastated so many innocent lives, but on the anniversary of the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize.

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Eleven year old Tarana Akbari, poses for a photograph after an interview with an AFP reporter at her home in Kabul on April 17, 2012, four months after a bomb blast shattered her life. (AFP Photo/Shah Marai)