Monday, June 29, 2015

Old Photographs, Love, and Internet Comments

As you may have noticed, there is no "comments" section on Amphibian.com. After viewing one of my delightful comics there is no place for you to voice your opinion on it. It probably wouldn't cause very much trouble if I allowed comments. After all, I have the comments turned on here and there's never been an issue. My comics don't really get in to a lot of controversial topics and neither does my blog. You can debate me on my code style I suppose.

But I'm sure you may have noticed that most news sites have comments after the articles. National news agencies, local television news sites, newspapers, even NPR. I would like to suggest that these all be disabled, immediately.

I don't know why Internet comments sections seem to give people license to say the ugliest, most insensitive, and unintelligent things. Is it the relative anonymity of the medium? Or do the biggest jerks mankind has to offer just gravitate towards news article comments like flies to decaying carcasses of roadkill? Would these people say these same things in person?

Alright, I may be in a bit of a bad mood and I'm being too hard on the comments sections. I just read an NPR article on the subject of one of Mary Ellen Mark's photographs from 1990. Mark died recently and was a prolific photographer specializing in what might be best described as very sad pictures. She was known for, among other things, her images of homeless children that appeared in Life magazine. After her death, someone tracked down the subject of a particularly haunting image to find out the rest of the story. You may have seen the picture already as it has been making its rounds on social media.

Go read the article now. Here is the link: What Happened To The 9-Year-Old Smoking In Mary Ellen Mark's Photo? You can even read the comments at the bottom. In fact, you should. Stare into the cold.

...waiting...

Are you back now? Good. The story of that girl is quite sad. Despite how she acted around the time of the photograph, she knew that she wanted help. She wanted a way out and hoped somehow the photographer could provide it. I'm glad she survived, but her life seems only marginally better today. Did the photographer fail her? No, Mary Ellen Mark's job was to take pictures.

You know who did fail her? All of us. Especially the callous, arrogant, self-absorbed commenters at the end of the story. But while reading through all of the comments you occasionally encounter a glimmer of hope. There are a few people who seem like they may be legitimately concerned with how our society deals with children like this. Those people only become targets for ridicule on the news page, unfortunately. I won't use the comments section, but I'll respond here. I know they'll probably never read this - but someone else might and it might do some good.

What Can Be Done?


The sad fact is that there are thousands of children today in the same condition as the girl in that old picture. Their stories might end up quite the same way. When their homes get too bad, they might get picked up by county workers and placed in foster care. Much like what happened to the photo subject, they will be bounced around to multiple families before ending up in a group home. There they can pick up lots more self-destructive habits before being released from the system at age 18. At that point they can end up homeless, or possibly in jail, or in abusive relationships. It happens. All the time.

So here's what you do. Become a foster parent. Put aside any glamorous notions of getting happy, well-adjusted kids who are eagerly waiting for loving parents - the commercials on TV don't show you the reality of foster care. Take in older children - over the age of 10. These are the ones most at risk. They're going to have emotional baggage. Expect it. They'll act out. They'll do terrible things. Love them anyway. When they start getting too close to you, they'll act out worse. They'll be afraid of getting hurt and will try to push away anyone who appears to care for them. This is normal. Love them more. Love them unconditionally. I'm not talking about some kind of soft, let-them-do-whatever-they-want, no-consequences kind of love. You need to set clear boundaries and be prepared to discipline when those boundaries are overstepped. But this is just part of love. When the foster care agency and the county workers come to you and say it will be best to put them in a respite for a while or try a placement in a different home or put them in a group home, tell them no. Sending the kids away at this point only reinforces what they believe about themselves - that bad behavior will get them sent away and that they are too bad to be accepted and loved. Show them that this isn't true. Love them more. They will get worse. Love them more. You will question your sanity. Your friends and family will question your sanity. You will question everything else. They will get worse. Love. Them. More.

They will get better. Slowly at first. There might be setbacks, but there will be progress. And maybe in the end, the child grows up with some security, stays off the streets and out of jail and someday forms positive relationships.

Of course, don't be too hard on yourself if it doesn't work out with every child. Do your best and don't give up. You can't help everyone but odds are that you can help someone.

That's what you do.

It's not for the weak. Loving people this way requires strength. It's not something you take on casually. Loving people this way requires a commitment of everything you have. It might sound like a Huey Lewis & The News song from 1985, but love is the most powerful force in the universe.

Think about it. Somewhere out there today is a girl in a situation just like the one that girl in the picture was in 25 years ago. Maybe you could make sure her next 25 years turn out better.

Or maybe you just want to comment on news articles on the Internet.

Amphibian.com comic for 29 June 2015