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The Story Behind The Tragic Fate Of This Woman And The Man Who Captured Her

Por: María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards 11 de septiembre de 2017

What would you do if you were walking across an open space and, right in the middle, you spot a wooden box with a woman inside begging for food and water? You’d probably try to help while wondering why is she there and who was the heartless person who put her in that position. Your shock would be such that you wouldn’t know what to do and just continue on your way. When we encounter images that make us question humanity's nature, our first reaction is to imagine what was happening in the mind of the person taking the picture. What was their purpose? Did they do something to help?

Let’s go through this step by step. Who’s the person behind this photo that has traveled the world? The harsh and heartbreaking photo was first published in an edition of the National Geographic in 1922 under the name of Albert Khan, and actually if you look for it on the Internet, the first results you find will present him as the author of the image. But if you dig up a little bit, you’ll find out that the actual man who pointed his camera towards this horrendous scene in Mongolia was Stéphane Passet. But why the confusion? Passet and several other photographers were commissioned by Kahn to travel the world and take pictures of the cultural traditions and customs of every corner of the globe.

Albert Kahn was a millionaire French banker that lived a very comfortable life. One of his passions was photography, so he devoted some time of his life (and fortune) to adapt the innovative autochrome system the Lumiére Brothers had patented for their films into photography. Once he achieved his purpose, he wanted to document as much as possible, so he thought about his other passion in life: philanthropy. After traveling to Japan for business in 1909 he saw for himself the cultural vastness the world has to offer, and after taking many pictures during this journey, he decided to use the technology and invest a considerable amount of money into showing the world all these wonders.

Living in a quite difficult and tense moment in history ––we’re talking about the political and social differences that started to fragment the world and that derived in the First World War––, he believed that the best way to unite the world was by praising and admiring the diversity it had to offer. He gathered a team of professional photographers to document what would become the Archives of the Planet, a 22-year project that gathered about 72,000 images and films of the different and diverse realities happening in the world. But if Khan wanted to highlight the positive aspects of each culture and country, why did they take the photograph of the woman in the box?

The truth is that little is known about the real story behind it. In the National Geographic spread, the author (a random writer for the magazine) created a story that hasn’t really been proved. He claimed that the woman inside the box was purging a capital sentence as a punishment for adultery. So, while the story is just a mere supposition that with time became a reality, the truth is that the image and the practices of capital punishment (which was officially abolished in 2012) in Mongolia, being immurement one of the most common ones, were completely real.

Immurement is thought to have been invented during the golden era of the Roman Empire and applied mostly to women, to be precise, to the vestal virgins who broke their oath of chastity. Since it was forbidden to spill the blood of these women, the most creative way men found to punish them was locking them in enclosed places with rationed food and water to let them die by themselves. This practice spread through many countries during the Roman invasion of other lands and became quite popular throughout the world, mainly as a punishment for women. That's the reason why the reporter from National Geographic assumed that was the case with this particular woman in the picture. But the practice didn’t stop there. During the Middle Ages, a time of extreme superstition, people used to immure children in the foundations of new buildings as a sacrifice so that the building wouldn’t collapse. There are many cases of churches, castles, and even bridges where the bones of little children have been found within the walls of these constructions.

But let’s go back to the image. The original article stated that this was a common practice in the country and one of the laws (to perhaps atone their guilt) stated that the prisoner was able to beg for food and water, but no one could try helping them under penalty of being punished as well. So, if the story were to be the truth, we could suppose that although the photographer couldn’t do anything immediately, by documenting the scene he could raise the world’s awareness of these brutal practices. Clearly, it didn’t happen, and that way of punishment prevailed for so many decades afterward. But what’s interesting here is to think about the cruel ways in which women have always been treated and punished for not following patriarchal norms.

Immurement might be abolished or banned in most regions of the world, but there are still so many brutal and ruthless practices that are still used and that only make us go backward as a society.


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