martes, 20 de agosto de 2013

TRACY, A DYING CHILD IS BORN. A PHOTOGRAPHIC ESSAY BY CLAIRE YAFFA



In May 1990, Tracy, a condemned to death child, was born in New York, prematurely suffering from the AIDS Virus, and her mother left the hospital after giving birth, abandoning the baby for ever.

Because of the highly complex medical problems derived from the disease, Tracy remained in a hospital until she was eight months old, when she was transferred to the Incarnation Children´s Center for Children with AIDS.

A TURNING POINT IN A PHOTOGRAPHIC CAREER
From scratch, the photographic coverage of Tracy´s evolution since her arrival to the New York Incarnation Children´s Center for Children with AIDS in November 1990, became a significant challenge for  Claire Yaffa in every conceivable respect and put her through her paces in many different sides.

She had already acquired great experience photographing needed people, specially neglected, abused, forgotten and abandoned children during the fulfillment of her first project as a concerned photographer, taking pictures between 1979 and 1987 inside the New York Foundling Hospital and its Crisis Nursery and the constant struggle of its staff to fight against the psychological and physical damages that can last a lifetime, and whose frustration often results in future crime and violence if society doesn´t bear them in mind.

And she had proved to excel at what would be a constant throughout her professional career: a remarkable ability to get an exceedingly difficult to attain level of intimacy, trust and approach with both the young patients and their fathers, mothers or other relatives.

It all had resulted in her picture book Reaching Out, published in 1987.

She had also made a lot of portraits of a number of worldwide acclaimed photographers and had been extensively working for The New York Times and Assocaited Press as a photojournalist.

                                                       © Claire Yaffa            

But Tracy: A Dying Child is Born would be arguably the most important photographic work in her life and the most intimately related with her inner being and essence, in which she´d prove once more her outstanding gift as a photographer but very specially her mettle, true human dimension and sensitivity during the last months of  life of this so little child, whose gruesome context was presided over by her total defenseless reality from the second 1 of her existence:

- Her mother had gone away.

- His father was completely unknown and had been impossible to spot.

- There weren´t any other known relatives and all the efforts made to find them were in vain.

- And above all, the whole eerie context made the photographer to ask herself two extremely difficult to answer questions:

How to tackle getting pictures of such an exceedingly young baby?.

                                        © Claire Yaffa

How to face the absolute certainty that Tracy would die in a short elapse of time as had been stated by the doctors and nurses?

On the other hand, Tracy was eight months old when Claire Yaffa began photographing her, so it was almost impossible to create any empathy with the patient, because there hadn´t been any mutual contact throughout the previous six months in which the little baby was in other hospital, and additionally, her extreme youth made that even her most basical cognitive skills and perceptive abilities weren´t developed yet.

As if this were not enough, Tracy was greatly disabled, to such an extent that unlike other babies of her age, 

                                         © Claire Yaffa

she couldn´t hold up her head, sit up or roll over.

If we add to it the fact that the little Tracy only weighted seven pounds and two ounces, had almost all her vital organs damaged, lost stamina by leaps and bounds and suffered from steady pains all over her body, we can grasp what undertaking this photographic essay meant.

                                        © Claire Yaffa

A gruesome situation ruled from the very beginning to the end, with a lack of hope and an impending death as two certainties known in advance.

PLUCKING UP COURAGE
Under the circumstances, top priority for Stephen W. Nicholas (Medical Director at Incarnation Children´s Center), rest of doctors and nurses and Claire Yaffa was to help Tracy as much as possible, taking care of her to the utmost and trying to make up for the absence of her mother.

Because of the seriousness of Tracy´s disease, she needed constant medical attention 24 hours a day, both when she was awake and asleep, something to which Claire collaborated as much as she could.

Regarding the photographic coverage, it was very important for Claire to do things as silently as possible and with utmost respect, so she got pictures of Tracy at different hours of the day, from every angle and either inside her little bed or in the arms of nurses, because she couldn´t barely move.

                                         © Claire Yaffa

The constant view of the little Tracy intubed, specially when she was conscious, suffering very much, crying and showing in her countenance the harsh pains she was experiencing, was something horrible to watch and not easy to endure.

Impotence, rage, pity, stress and many other things flowed into the mind of the photographer on being witness of this terrible tragedy for which there wasn´t any cure in 1990 and 1991.

But through great spunk, work till exhaustion and love, Claire managed to get the pictures, little by little, toiling to document this exceedingly touching story.

The photographer couldn´t often sleep throughout the night. She frequently woke up with the image of Tracy intubed and suffering coming to head once and again, which resulted in sleep deprivation, progressive increasing fatigue and anguish and above all the unrestlessness brought about by the certainty that nothing could be done from a medical viewpoint to save Tracy, who would suffer more and more every day and would die soon.

In spite of all the many cares, dedication and love she was receiving, Tracy´s life was being a hell.

The photographer tried to grin and bear it the best she could, crying privately at some moments and keeping a steady fight for not showing her feelings and anxiety.

She needed to be brave and she was brave taking pictures of Tracy during four months, in which the photographer strove after focusing 100% on her work and getting the best possible images to tell the story of Tracy, so she decided to forget about fatigue, lack of sleep, significant increase in hunger, overstress, anxiety, etc.

She had a mission to do, a work to implement, however bloodcurdling the context could be, and Tracy and others who could be in her situation in future deserved the effort.

                                        © Claire Yaffa

Therefore, Claire took constantly her Leica M6 with her and got pictures of Tracy while sleeping, being in the arms of nurses, crying, being fed, and also of specific areas of her fragile and emaciated body during meaningful instants.

The photographer had already two grown-up sons in their twenties, so the helpless and exceedingly young Tracy became top priority.

And in the same way as happened with the nurses, Claire also projected a great deal of her maternal instinct on the little baby to take care of her the best she could.

COMPROMISE AND ATTITUDE AS A CONCERNED PHOTOGRAPHER
From a photographic viewpoint, Claire Yaffa took a great level of compromise in this reportage in which she put her soul giving all of herself, developing such a huge involvement that she was repeatedly on the brink of exhaustion to be able to get pictures of Tracy.

                                         © Claire Yaffa

Being steadily at the end of her tether, the desire to document Tracy´s last months of life and to help the little baby as much as possible became the driving force that enabled the photographer to gather the necessary strength to forge ahead this photographic essay that went far beyond an image project.

In 1991, AIDS disease had been known for nine years, and it was considered by wide sectors of population, both in USA and rest of the world, as a kind of Twentieth Century plague comparable to the Black Death in medieval age, so people suffering from it were usually excluded from society to greater or lesser degree.

And the lack of information worsened things even more.

In this regard, Tracy´s story, because of her extreme youth and familiar abandonement from her very birth, was specially relevant.

She was exceedingly vulnerable, not only in terms of the then lethal illness she was suffering, but in the same way as the rest of people all over the world having it, also from the viewpoint of the scarce information then available and the rejection this disease generated in wide sectors of society, who most times preferred to turn a blind eye, not to speak about it because of fear and go on living a normal daily life.

The photographer realized that the risk of oblivion would be big after the certain demise of Tracy which would happen in a matter of weeks or a few months. It was difficult to foresee, but doctors and nurses agreed that she would live five or six months more at the most.

It was necessary to tell this story, to convey the myriad of experiences and vital lessons stemming from it, and above all to help to generate a collective social awareness about the this disease and how to fight against it and help its patients.

This way, mainly through sweat, strenuous effort and tons of love, Claire managed to create a comprehensive archive of pictures depicting the seven month life span evolution of Tracy, from her arrival to the New York Incarnation Children´s Center for Children with AIDS in January 1991 to her death on June 29th of that year.

OVERCOMING THE EMOTIONAL ODYSSEY AND INNER UPHEAVAL
In spite of the successfully accomplished picture story, the photographer´s mind was often inevitably convulsed, though she managed not to show it.

Desperation and sorrow flowed innerly galore, as Tracy´s health was increasingly deteriorating with the elapse of months.

And both horror and impotence reached their climax during the last two weeks when the little Tracy was almost utterly crippled and terminally ill.

More than one photograph was taken with the photographer shedding tears but she fought tooth and nail and got it.

But there was a sphere in which things resulted specially difficult to assume: the scope of one´s own convictions:

How was it possible that such a little baby could suffer so much?

Which would be the ethical or rational limit to artificially prolongue that context when the terminal stage of Tracy´s life came to an end?

On the other hand, should she stop taking pictures at any moment?

                                      © Claire Yaffa

Inevitably, during Tracy´s last days alive and experiencing greater and greater pains, the euthanasia debate came sometimes to the mind of the photographer, a great advocate of life and nature and their preservation within the core of her innermost tenets.

Top priority had been to prolongue Tracy´s life as much as possible, providing her all feasible comfort and compassion and trying to ease her pains, but now her passing away was approaching at an accelerating pace. The end of her life was very near.

Nothing could be made from a medical viewpoint to save her. All of her vital functions were severely damaged, she had great difficulties to breathe, and had lost a lot of weight.  

But Claire didn´t ever want to stop working in this reportage and decided to go on getting pictures until the burial of the little Tracy. Her choice was to suffer with her and love her. She was immersed in a very important time in the history of children with AIDS and she had to document it, because she wanted people to know and remember these children, albeit they were on earth for such a short time.

THE DEATH
After a lot of suffering, Tracy finally died on June 29th, 1991, which brought about a collective emotional shock among the people who had taken care of her: doctors, nurses and Claire.

All of them had loved her and would have her in mind for the rest of their lives.

Claire Yaffa took two more photographs of Tracy: 

                                                       © Claire Yaffa  

one depicting the little bed in which she had been the last five months of her life, full of different toys, balloons with messages, sheets of paper with messages for her and a number of medical devices and cables.

Loneliness had held sway of the room. Silence and affliction ruled everything. Tracy wouldn´t be there again. 

                                                        © Claire Yaffa                                                

Shortly after, Claire got the last picture of Tracy inside her opened coffin, dressed in white attire and with her head surrounded by flowers.

Only three people attended Tracy´s interment. Claire was one of them. 


PRIDE AND SADNESS THROUGHOUT TWENTY-TWO YEARS
Twenty-two years have elapsed since Tracy´s death on June 19, 1991, and throughout all this time, her remembrance has become a consubstantial part of Claire´s life.

Sadness pervades a significant percentage of those memories, along with a question without answer that the photographer has asked herself time and again: 

Could the little Tracy feel any of the love given to her at any moment?

Other times, a further question arises: Could she have done any more to help her?

But the elapse of time hasn´t dwindled the recollections of every experience shared beside Tracy during her last months of life, but has fostered them.

Tracy goes on being increasingly present after twenty-two years and she will never be forgotten.

But the photographer is also very proud of the work she did, very hard to carry forward and whose significance and far-reaching scope went far beyond photojournalism.



                                                     © Claire Yaffa

Anyway, the breathtaking black and white pictures of Tracy taken by Claire during late 1990 and between January-June 1991 have paid off, contributing to better understand this illness and to create a social cognizance about the need for looking after children with AIDS, coming to know and love them, so images have become a poignant reminder giving voice to so young human beings afflicted by this disease. 

In this regard, during the last 22 years there have been a lot of advances in treatment and nutrition alike which have proved to be instrumental to extend the patients´ life and improve their existence quality, unlike Tracy´s time when chances for recovery were almost zero.

In addition, Claire´s photographs of Tracy are also a stirring tribute documenting the highly praiseworthy devotion of caretakers to help them.

And as long as more and more people get involved in this fight, hope will never be lost.

The photographs from A Dying Child is Born are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography, and some of them have been included in the New York Historical Society exhibition Children with AIDS: Spirit and Memory. Photographs by Claire Yaffa , held between June 7, 2013 and September 1, 2013.

Interview with Claire Yaffa, Photographer of Children with AIDS: Spirit and Memory


© Text and Colour Picture: José Manuel Serrano Esparza