Sunday, November 22, 2009


Last night, while driving home, I saw a man in the median holding a cardboard sign which read "Homeless Veteran: Need Money, Please Help". I immediately though about a family that I encountered in Myanmar two months ago.

Since I travel extensively in the developing world I've grown accustomed  to people asking for "donations". I usually give to those people who are obviously disabled in some way, for example mine victims in Cambodia, club footed people in India, and/or those in makeshift wheelchairs; because in most developing countries, services for these people is severely lacking.

Anyway, while in a Burmese market, photographing vegetable vendors, I saw a woman with two disheveled children watching me. I noticed that her tiny, skeletal body was visibly trembling and there was this terrible look of desperation in her eyes. The woman looked at me but said nothing.. It was immediately obvious to me that she was in serious need,. I stopped shooting and just looked back at her. There is something terribly visceral when you see this kind of look in another human being's eyes, and I thought to myself, my god, in this country, with virtually no social services, life must be incredibly difficult for her.

Not knowing what to do, and since she wasn't asking me for anything, I looked at her children and then back at her, smiling as if to, your children are beautiful, then I motioned with my camera as if to say "can I take a photo?" reaction..... I bent down near the two children and using the screen on my digital camera, showed them a photo I had just taken of the vegetable seller just across the aisle. The children both smiled, as children do when they see something interesting and new. Next using my wide lens, I snapped a quick headshot of the two children and showed them... their faces lit up with smiles. With a bit of rapport established and some sign language, I communicated that we should go over to a colorful old truck that was parked just a few yards away. She and the children followed.

I made a photo of the three of them and then a few more photos of the kids standing in front of the truck. Then I reached down with both hands and lifted the little girl up and placed her on the seat of the truck. To my surprise and horror, she was light as a feather and as I lifted her I could feel every rib in her tiny little chest.  I thought to myself, this child has got to get some food! After a few minutes of making and sharing pictures of the children, I smiled at the mother, folded my hands in the Asian "wai" meaning " thank you" and "I respect you". She looked back at me and in her eyes, I could once again see her terrible sense of desperation. Reaching into my pocket, I grabbed some Burmese Kyats and as I shook her hand to say goodbye, I transferred the money into her palm.

For the rest of the day, I couldn't stop thinking about her and her situation. I wondered what her life must be like and how she survives..and what she must feel, being responsible for her two children. Now I regret that I didn't do more for her. I should have purchased a few kilos of rice or something that would help sustain her and the children for a few days.

Since my encounter with this poor Burmese woman and her two children, whenever I see a homeless person with a sign here in the USA, I'm reminded of her and I wonder how she is doing.

No, I didn't give anything to the guy I saw last night, or others who hold signs and stand in the median here at home. I'm confident that they get enough to eat (and smoke and drink). It's those who are truly desperate that I wish we could do more to help.

1 comment:

Rob Oresteen said...

Karl - the shot of the girl in the truck is so good.

It has to be tough when you see the standard of living in other countries - people who face life and death scenarios.

The fact you took the time to show caring to her children probably will stick with her for the rest of her life.