Camille Lepage was only 26 when she died this week in the Central African Republic, and yet she’d done more good for suffering people than the most of the rest of us will do in our whole lives.
How’d she do it?
She was a photojournalist. She went to perilous places; she consorted with dangerous people; she fraternized with the sick and dying. And, more importantly, she sought to let the world know not about herself, but about the people she photographed.
What Camille did and tried to do was amazing. The world is in desperate need of more of it.
And no matter what some in the privileged world say, Camille did not waste her life.
Her work helped
The young Frenchwoman voluntarily gave up her life in a land of stability and affluence so that she could enter a marginalized world, first in South Sudan and then in CAR.
Some call this stupidity, others bravery. I’m not sure it’s either of those. What it is for sure is responding to a need. What it is is helpful.
In a portfolio application to The New York Times, she said, “I try to show the human side in every story, show the people I photograph as my brothers and sisters.”
Camille was clearly talented, but what is even clearer is her dedication. Photojournalists don’t go into the field for the money or the convenience. They may go into it for an adventure, but so what? It is a uniquely powerful adventure, one that can help the whole world, as was the case for Camille.
Do you think you would know anything about CAR if not for journalists? The same goes for all kinds of conflict-torn countries, but it’s especially true for places like CAR and South Sudan, because they are forgotten battlefields. Outside of these country’s borders, especially in the West, these are ignored peoples. But they are people. Real flesh-and-bones human beings, with lives and souls and problems that they need help with.
And Camille’s work helps in more ways than simply filling space in newspapers. It raises awareness for the common man and for governments. How much money was sent in aid and benevolence that would not have been sent had people never seen photos and read stories about troubled regions? Camille’s work stirred people to action.
So we are indebted to people like Camille for letting us know, and also for making us care. Some may say they don’t care, that they never asked anyone to put themselves in danger to find and capture truth. Well, shame on those people.
We must care. We must care so much that we support people who put their own lives at risk for the sake of other lives, both those they cover and those they tell.
Of course it needs to be asked: What about her family and friends? Didn’t they have something of a right to her? To see her live a long, healthy, happy life?
Maybe they did, but only insofar as one person has a right to another person’s purpose and happiness. Does anyone have the right to tell their friend or child or sibling not to enter the military, not to become a missionary, not to sacrifice some of their privileges and even risk death? Camille sacrificed her rights – and ultimately her life – to help people who lose sons and daughters, friends and parents daily.
Her death is a reminder
It is important to note that Camille was a white Frenchwoman. Her death is tragic, but is it any more tragic than those of 70 other journalists who were killed last year in crossfire/combat situations or were deliberately murdered?
The difference is that nearly all of those other journalists were Arabs and Asians.
Many will have heard of dead journalists like Tim Hetherington (a creator of the essential Iraq War film “Restrepo”) and Chris Hondros, who were killed in a mortar attack in Libya in 2011. You may remember Anthony Shadid, the Oklahoma-born Times reporter who died crossing the border between Syria and Turkey. Or Marie Colvin, who was killed in the Siege of Homs.
It is sad that it takes a westerner’s death for the media to take note. But this, too, will raise awareness. Awareness of the risks and rewards of journalism, but also of the plights those journalists were trying to shed light on.
Camille captured moments of bloody, sickening clarity. You probably know, most papers and TV outlets won’t publish or air images that are “too graphic.” I remember during Iraq, at the height of the conflict, some media outlets started showing more disturbing images. I also remember reading articles about how these increases in gory, deadly visuals disgusted people – apparently we don’t really want reality TV like we thought we did – but how they also made audiences care more about the conflict. They saw more, felt more, and were therefore more greatly invested.
Camille was totally invested. She didn’t fall into the “Blood Diamond” critique of journalists coming to a place, snapping a few photos and jotting a few notes only to leave, returning to the safety of recliners and big-screen TVs. She went and stayed. She went and lived. She went and died.
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There is a pressing outrage about a white girl being killed in forgotten Africa. There should be.
But let’s not forget that girls and boys, much younger and with darker complexion, are killed and enslaved and left hungry every single day.
It’s a rare person who chooses not to forget. Who chooses instead to step into that world. Who is an idealist with a grand sense of humanity. Whose small life, when it is gone, proves a great loss. It’s a person like Camille.