When Time's July 2010 cover featured a portrait of a disfigured 18-year-old Afghan woman whose nose and ears had been cut off by her Taliban husband, the magazine was awarded the World Press Photo organization's 2010 Photo of the Year.
When Heather Walker posted pictures of her newborn anencephalic son, Grayson, on Facebook, the web site took the photos down and temporarily disabled her account.
Grayson James Walker was born in February. Just weeks into the pregnancy, the Walkers had learned that their unborn son had anencephaly, a disorder that occurs when the neural tube fails to close, resulting in the underdevelopment of portions of the brain, skull, and scalp. Anencephalic babies who survive birth usually don't live for more than a few hours.
The Walkers never considered having an abortion. Instead, they spent the months between their son's diagnosis and his birth preparing themselves and their two older children for the baby's impending death. Heather Walker started a blog to chronicle her family's journey before and after Grayson's birth and short life. Not knowing how much time, if any, they would have with their son, the Walkers did as many families do in such situations: they arranged for bereavement photography, a service that offers families with stillborn or dying children the opportunity to capture what few memories time will afford, a tradition that goes as far back as the invention of photography in the Victorian age. At that time, taking post-mortem photographs—usually of infants and children (a genre called "sleeping baby" pictures), but often of adults, too—was a common practice. If it's a custom viewed now—certainly not then—as morbid, it is seen so only with the luxury of living in less daily proximity to suffering and death than those of most ages and cultures.
Grayson's photos were taken not in death, but in anticipation of a death that would come quickly. The pictures taken in those few moments of his life capture him in time, surrounded and held by various family members, dressed in darling outfits, kissed by a big brother, tucked gently between an infant Bible and a cloth lamb. In some photos, Grayson wears a knit cap; in others he does not. Because of his disorder, his skull is partially open, and while one eye squints in sleepy newborn style, the other looms large, gazing heavenward. If the eyes are the window to the soul, the photos depict this serene soul caught midway between two worlds, not long for this one. Within hours, Grayson departed for the next.
Last week, three months after Grayson's birth and death, his mother, Heather, posted some of these photos on Facebook. On her blog she explains, "I was tired of trying to hide my son, the way he was, just to make others feel comfortable. I felt like people would be scared or offended because his head didn't look like other babies'. A sudden impulse, in my grieving process, told me to be proud and not worried about the thoughts of others."
But Facebook removed the pictures. Heather posted them again. Again, Facebook deleted them. So Heather posted them again. And again. Then Facebook temporarily disabled her account from posting more pictures. Yet, the photos didn't fit into any of Facebook's categories that violate the site's "community standards." But, as Facebook later explained, the photos were removed after being reported by other site users.
while disheartening, it is not surprising that some would object to photos of a child whose physical features lift the veil from the mortality we all share. For most of history, those with deformities or disabilities have been repulsed and ridiculed, treated alternately as objects of fascination and derision. It's a natural reaction, of course, but like many of the ways of nature, needs correction by the ways of grace.
In his essay "Of a Monstrous Child," the 16th-century French writer Michel de Montaigne tells the story of a family who collected money by exhibiting their young child, whose body was conjoined by a partially formed twin. Following a detached, scientific sort of description of the child, Montaigne shifts from journalist to essayist, the genre he is said to have fathered, writing:
Those that we call monsters are not so to God, who sees in the immensity of His work the infinite forms that He has comprehended therein; and it is to be believed that this figure which astonishes us has relation to some other figure of the same kind unknown to man. From His all wisdom nothing but good, common, and regular proceeds, but we do not discern the disposition and relation … Whatever falls out contrary to custom we say is contrary to nature, but nothing, whatever it be, is contrary to her. Let, therefore, this universal and natural reason expel the error and astonishment that novelty brings along with it.
This week, Facebook replaced "error and astonishment" with grace and goodness. The site admitted its mistake in removing the pictures and apologized. Heather writes on her blog that she received an e-mail from Facebook saying, "Upon investigation, we concluded the photo does not violate our guidelines and was removed in error," and concluding, "We extend our deepest condolences to the family and we sincerely apologize for any inconvenience."
In response, Heather blogged, "That's all I wanted, an apology. I didn't want to sue them, I just wanted them to allow me to do what I feel my right is … to share my baby boy with everyone else."
Two thousand years of art have celebrated the image of another mother holding the wounded body of her son. Rather than being offended at images of suffering, let us embrace those who suffer, and mourn with those who mourn—even on Facebook.
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