Famine, on stage

In 1994, South African Kevin Carter took a photograph on an assignment in Sudan. In this photograph we see a small child lying on the ground, visibly undernourished and weak, while a vulture stands behind the child, as if stalking it.

The photo became an icon. It won a Pulitzer price.

We think about famine and hunger and we think about this photo.

What we see in this photo, how we feel about it, and what we can do about the grave situation it depicts, is the starting point of ‘NÄLÄNHÄTÄ’ (Finnish for famine), a play by Marie Kajava and Henri Tuulasjärvi now running in Teatteri Takomo in Helsinki.

As I sat down on my chair in the theatre yesterday and waited for the play to begin, I felt an additional excitement; I had given words to one of the characters.

Marie Kajava had a fascinating approach to putting this play together. She sat down with me and several others, for example a South Sudanese person, a photographer, an ex-anorectic, an ornitologist, a child, an elderly woman.

She used the same methodology for all of us. She put Kevin Carter’s photo in front of us and asked:

What do you see?

Out of these conversations a touching and insightful play has emerged.

For me, the overarching tone and feeling during the play was frustration and helplessness over too much discussion on the issue of famine.

Why do we keep talking about these details? This is bullshit! Where is the action? People are dying!

The same way people criticized Kevin Carter about his iconic photograph: Did you help the little girl? Why didn’t you help the little girl? Or a defence: the photographer is there only to collect images to tell us what is happening. (Kevin Carter committed suicide at the age of 33).

It is difficult. Things are complex.

Hunger, not necessarily always famine (one could also argue that the play of words – is it hunger? is it undernourishment? is it malnourishment? is it famine?) is a way to silence the problem), still exists in today’s world.

Food is the great uniter and divider of people on the earth.

We all need roughly the same nutrients to survive, yet some of us (790 million) do not have enough to eat, and many of us (over 1 billion) are sick because of too much (unhealthy) food.

Our available set of reactions to this inequality is quite narrow.

We are familiar with the feelings of pity or cynicism.

How to transform those feelings into real solidarity, a sense of togetherness? And is feeling those feelings enough? How will empathy save a child dying of hunger, is feeling mindful and empathetic enough, why aren’t we lobbying more for action?

And doesn’t this photo simply reinforce our view of everything outside the West as poor and miserable?

And yet, can we dare to live in a world where a photo like this doesn’t make us feel bad deep down, sincerely wishing that things weren’t as they are shown.

This is the beauty of art.

At its best, like in this play, it strips down a complex issue to human experiences, to raw feelings, projects them on us, forces us to ensure dialogue.

NÄLÄNHÄTÄ – in Teatteri Takomo until May 27. Get your tickets here

Näytelmä ja dramaturgia: Marie Kajava
Ohjaus: Henri Tuulasjärvi
Lavastus ja pukusuunnittelu: Jenni Nylander
Valosuunnittelu: Riikka Karjalainen
Esiintyjät: Joanna Haartti, Laura Halonen, Ella Lahdenmäki, Joonas Snellman

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